Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Luke 14:1, 7-14

When Jesus called Zacchaeus the crook down from the sycamore tree, he told Jesus, “I’ll give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I will pay back four times as much.” When Jesus rescued the woman of the street from being stoned, he told her, “Go and sin no more.”

Their lives changed because Jesus was kind and generous. Do their experiences teach us?   Most of us have similar informal pictures of Jesus, snapshots of him talking with children or carrying a lamb, or maybe at prayer or feeding the 5000.  We see ourselves in the great crowds, or in the street where he told stories.  We would like to have been with him when he hugged the children.  We love his story of a father welcoming home a worthless son.  We cheer for the Samaritan who helped the man in the ditch.  We also applaud Jesus for reaching out to the underdog, the victim, the helpless.  Then I wonder if we are imitating him by doing likewise.

That is, do we draw a line between ourselves and those other people around Jesus? We might think that if God loves that sort of second-class person, then he certainly must love us also. In one way, that may be true.  If we think that God loves us because we are in some way superior to those desperate figures who so often turned to him for help, we are on the wrong track.  They were not afraid to admit they needed God.  After all, Jesus said of himself, the well have no need of a physician.  And those who think themselves to be healthy, will certainly not welcome a physician, even if they need help.

Just as he was kind to those we call second-class people, we can believe that he liked the people in charge, the important people, the ruling class. The Pharisees were important people, well-educated, highly trained religious lawyers who cultivated harmony in the community.

They were keepers of the social contracts that make communities work. Luke described the time Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee for a meal.

This was classy for a country carpenter who talked about the kingdom of God and told people what they should do to get ready.   Now here he was, having dinner with a prominent Pharisee.   Jesus saw how the other guests milled around, wanting to seem polite but acting really nasty, trying to get the seats at the head table.

Then he made comments about the guests’ manners, and about the invitation list. That took some nerve.  Was he on target?  Jesus addressed that question by telling them –and us — a story that seems to be about manners.

The story is not about table manners and guest lists. We cannot dismiss the story as though it consists mainly of comments about human pride or lack of manners or exclusiveness.  There’s more involved, a great deal more.  Eating together has a certain intimacy about it that every age understands.  It’s one thing to have formal discussions in a highly regulated situation, like ambassadors who reach agreements on trade or travel or the value of the dollar in the European market.

It’s something else to have a cookout in the backyard with five or six close friends who share hopes and dreams with each other. The story illustrates the larger truth about our inability to see our own sins of pride and self-glorification. It shows that we often play games instead of admitting our true place even to God.

On the positive side, the story is about the attitude of obedience and discipleship and acceptance of other people, the attitude that characterizes life in the kingdom of God. The Kingdom compels us to consider the demands of the hour that must be met with resolute action and positive obedience to the will of a gracious God.  How are we in the Kingdom supposed to conduct ourselves? The story illustrates the difference between what we should do and what we wind up doing.

From discoveries in an ancient village in Israel, we have learned that table fellowship –eating with other people –—- was highly restrictive.

A religious person who invited guests to a sit-down dinner would ask only perfect people.  He wanted all his guests to be physically, socially, and religiously perfect.

Any personal imperfection, any blemish, any life-changing disaster, any failure, any problematic life-style, was a reflection, they believed, of a poor relationship with God, or a result of God’s punishment and they should be shunned.

Most of us have strong notions about how God is supposed to act, and how he is supposed to treat people who don’t fit our expectations. Every age, it seems, has spawned cults that want to tell God how he is supposed to act.

Pray this way, or live that way, or believe our way — and God will certainly bless you with good health and riches but not those others who are on the wrong track.

Luke’s stories about Jesus say that God is in charge. God decides who is acceptable to him.  God decides who will be exalted and seated in the places of honor.

God decides who will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.   God does the unexpected, he reverses the irreversible, he does what cannot be done.

It’s tempting to read the story of guests who act like children and then conclude that they were immature in jostling for the best seats. Of course they were.  How would we rate a party for outcasts and second-class people?

How do we deal with a God whose son keeps company with the social discards?  More important, how will we fare with him, we who like to be exclusive and excluding, who keep to our own kind?

Would it not be terrible to show up in our best outfit at one of God’s parties and find the speaker’s table filled with the crowd we always shunned? Jesus’  book on etiquette says when you give a party, invite the poor and the maimed.

Someone described the entrance into heaven of a crowd of people whom General Booth had spent his life serving and helping in that great social movement called the Salvation Army.

The poet saw them coming “rank on rank” into heaven, “lurching bravos from the ditches dank, vermin-eaten saints with moldy breath” — and we can only think how awkward it is that God’s grace knows no bounds.

His love is not limited by our sense of who should be rewarded and who should be punished.

He helps those who deserve no help, those who have nothing to return, nothing to contribute. He helps those who are paralyzed with fear, unable to rise above their circumstances, who have been mistreated and abused, victims of situations they cannot change and cannot escape.

Not many of us would want to be in those classifications. Our secret sins and private terrors and precious little ambitions are barely hidden by whatever gloss we invent to show to the world, and underneath it all, there burns the belief that we might after all deserve better treatment by God.

We do the best we can. Isn’t that enough?  Yet, precisely because God’s love knows no bounds, there is room at his table for you and me.  God does not impose his grace on those who believe they are too exalted to need it.  When God sent his son to die on the cross, there was no provision for an automatic response from those who saw him die or those who follow him in succeeding centuries.

We, who come to the feast of the Lord, should see ourselves as the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind.  When nothing recommends us to God, when we have been wounded by life and left in the ditch, when we have not   seen God’s hand at work in the world as we’d like, and yet he has called us to carry out his will, then we come to him as little children.  Because we are without power, without status, without place or influence, then we cannot and do not demand anything.  God in Jesus Christ seized death on the cross as a way to overcome death by resurrection.  God showed his power over death.  Now it’s our turn to look upon our suffering fellowmen and extend fellowship to them in keeping with the new life that God has given to us.

Jesus was critical of the Pharisees because they neglected justice while saying they respected the law. It is one thing to obey a code of conduct that regulates behavior.  It is something else to look at human need and respond to it as a reflection of the love with which God has loved us.  After all we are undeserving. Maybe we can recognize ourselves among the lowly, the disenchanted, the disillusioned, the disinherited, those less than perfect, the socially cripple, the sinner, the permanently unhappy.  Perhaps we will admit our own uncertainties about being welcome at the table of the lord — not just in the kingdom to come and in the kingdom already come.

When we recognize our kinship with the great hurting mass of humanity, we might bump into Jesus Christ who kept company with those who have been wounded by life.

But then he’s been there all along. God’s blessing upon you all.