Table Etiquette

Today’s Gospel deals with what goes on at the table. Table fellowship. Jesus was seen at a lot of tables. He broke bread with the highly religious – the Pharisees and the teachers of the Torah, and also with the religious rejects – tax collectors and sinners. In contrast to his cousin John the Baptizer, Jesus always seemed to be at table with someone, so much so, that some people even accused Him of being a glutton and a drunkard. Suffice it to say, Jesus was not one to pass up a dinner party.

In today’s Gospel reading from St. Luke, Jesus is at the home of a prominent Pharisee who invited all his pharisee friends for a Sabbath meal. These were the high powered religious types. Kind of like a table of clergy and professional theologians. “Lawyers” in this reading are not lawyers as we think of them, as in barristers before the court, but experts in the Law of Moses, the Torah. Their job was to study the Torah of Moses and figure out what you were supposed to do to do the works of God.

Don’t think for a moment that this was some casual social gathering. All eyes were fixed on Jesus, watching His every move. Every ear was tuned to Jesus, parsing His every word. In my mind’s eye, I can almost picture Jesus waiting for the opportunity to tweak this stuffy bunch of clergy and theological professors and perhaps thinking, “Man, the tax collectors and sinners are a lot more fun to hang around with than this bunch of losers.” There is nothing worse than a table load of canon lawyers and theology wonks.

Well, it just so happens that some guy with dropsy shows up. Am uninvited crasher at the pharisee’s little dinner party of dignitaries. How convenient, if not mildly unappetizing. You’re just getting the first coarse of dinner going and some guy with a bloated gut wanders in and stands in front of Jesus. Couldn’t he at least have made an appointment or something?

This is what teachers call a teachable moment, and Jesus, ever the Master Teacher, seizes it. “So what do you think? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” There’s a stumper for you. The Sabbath law said no work. The Pharisees specified 32 different kinds of work you couldn’t do on the Sabbath. I think this is a testimony to the inherent sinfulness of man, that God can make a commandment that says “Don’t work” and we want God to be more specific. “What do you mean by work?”

Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Great question. Only God can heal, right? God is the source of all healing. And He’s the source of the Sabbath and the Sabbath commandment. So what’s the answer? “They remained silent,” Luke says. Of course they did! This is what legalism, reliance on the Law to please God and earn His favor will do to you. It will paralyze you. Either way, you’re going to break some kind of law. If you keep the Sabbath, you’ll fail to love your neighbor, if you can help him. If you heal your neighbor, you’ve broken the Sabbath. This precisely where the Law leaves us. Painted in a corner. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

And this is precisely the sort of situation where Luther, seeing Christ as freedom from the Law says, “Sin boldly, and trust Christ even more boldly.”

And then Jesus does it. He gives them God’s answer. He heals the man on the Sabbath, because that’s what God does. And He chides the religious types for their legalisms. Wouldn’t you pull out a son or an ox from a well on the Sabbath? Would they? I’m not so sure they would! They could not respond; they were silent.

It’s like the parable Jesus told of the man who fell among the thieves. The priest and the Levite who saw the man lying in the ditch could not help him. They were bound by the Law. Only the Samaritan was free to be neighbor. Only one who is free from the Law can answer Jesus’ question with a confident “yes, it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath” But you can say that only as you are free. Jesus is free. He comes to bring freedom and life. He is the Sabbath fulfilled, and for that sick man, He is the epitome of the Sabbath. Rest from illness, rest from sin, rest from death. Rest that only God in the Flesh can give.

Now Jesus has the table exactly where He wants them. Now they’re really watching this Sabbath breaker who has the power of God to heal diseases with a word and a touch. He points out how the guests all jockey for positions of honor at the table, to the right and the left of the host. And He says, “When you are invited, don’t take the honored seats lest you be embarrassed. It would be like taking the seats of honor at a wedding reception when you’re not in the wedding party and being told that your table is over in the corner next to the cake. Take your place among the least, so that when the host comes you’ll be honored when he says, “Friend, come up to a better place.”

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Now if you think all that Jesus has in mind is the seating arrangements at the next dinner party you’re invited to, think again. He has in mind first of all His own work. Though He was the Son of God, seated at the right hand of the Father, the place of highest honor, He left that seat to take on human flesh and become a servant. He left the highest place to take up the lowest seat in the house, a cross and a grave. It doesn’t get any lower than that. He humbled Himself to death for our sakes. And from that place of humility, the Father highly exalted Him and seated Him in our humanity at His right hand. And in Him, we are seated there too.

Recognizing that and believing that, we don’t presume the honored place at His table either. We don’t waltz in to the Lord’s Supper as though we’ve earned the right to be there and God should be honored that we bothered to show up. No, we take the lowest place with the least, the lost, the lowly, the dead. We say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” We come as chief of sinners seeking mercy, humbled by the Law that reminds us there is no good in us. And Christ says to us, “Friend, I forgive you. Come up to a higher place. Sit with me at my table.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” Boast in your goodness, and the Law will put you in your place. Credential yourself with all the good you’ve done, and you will be revealed as a gate crasher at the Lord’s wedding party. Take your place with the losers of the religious world, with sinners, and you will be exalted. All you need to bring to the Lord’s table is your confession and a plea for mercy, and you will hear “Friend, come up to a higher place.”

Then Jesus turns to His host, whose nice little Sabbath dinner party now lay in shambles at the feet of Jesus, and He notes all the dignitaries. “When you give a dinner party, don’t invite your rich friends and relatives lest they do the same and repay you. But instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, that man with dropsy who crashed your party, all those types you avoid, invite them, and you will be blessed precisely because they can’t repay you. Your reward comes in the resurrection.”

And again, Jesus isn’t talking so much about whom to invite to your next birthday party as He is talking about the party He is throwing, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. He isn’t inviting people who can repay Him. Not at all. He’s inviting empty-handed, broken beggars, the likes of you and me in our sinfulness. We can’t repay the Lord for what He has done for us. Nothing we can do in this life, no offering, no prayer, no dedication, no amount of purpose-driven living can repay Jesus for His service to us, His sacrifice, His saving us. We come as as the poor, the lame, the blind. That’s what we are under God’s Law. Impoverished of anything remotely called righteousness before God. Crippled to the holiness God demands of us. Blind to Him.

Yes in our brokenness and poverty, we are invited guests, welcomed to a feast of salvation that literally has no end. Why does Jesus do it? Why bother with a table full of losers? Well, if you’re looking for spiritual winners in this world, you won’t find any because there are none. Without God’s mercy in Jesus, without Jesus’ death on the cross, without the forgiveness of sins that comes in His name, there would be no one at the wedding feast of the Lamb save the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Oh, and a bunch of angels.

Jesus’ reward, the joy that was set before Him, is the resurrection of the righteous. The joy of a resurrected humanity declared righteous by what He has done. You, standing before the Father, clothed in the righteousness of the Son, raised from death to life – that’s why Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. So that you would have a place at His table.

So as you take that place today, as one of His baptized believers, don’t think of yourself as a winner, as one deserving to be there. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. Humble yourselves, and He will lift you up.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

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