12th Sunday After Pentecost

S. Pentecost 12.22 “Low-Life” Luke 14:1-14

Three different episodes (or pericopes) in one Gospel reading today. For the preaching pro, this presents challenges. Most of us like it when the Gospel reading is just a single pericope because then it’s easy to focus on a simple, single point. Because multiple episodes often have multiple points and a good sermon is a rifle bullet not a shotgun shell—it just makes a single, clear hole in your head—instead of riddling your whole body with buckshot, none of which goes very deep or makes a very big impression. At least, that’s always been my view on preaching and that of my mentors.

So, I groaned (inwardly, a little 😉 when I saw we’ve got a three-bagger today. First; Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath which the Pharisees view as “work” and working on the Sabbath they view as a big no-no!—even though Jesus points out they’d haul their son or ox out of well if they fell into one on the Sabbath, no problemo…

Second, Jesus—sitting down to dinner at the table of the Pharisee who invited him, noticing everyone is scrambling for the places of honor nearest the host—tells a parable about a wedding feast: how you shouldn’t grab a seat at the head table, lest more honorable guests than you arrive and you make the walk of shame to sit with the help and the back benchers. Better, Jesus says, to take the lowest place and let the host come and move you up higher; and then, you have honor in everyone’s eyes.

Third, Jesus tells the man who invited him (in an apparently unrelated aside) that he should stop inviting relatives and rich and important people to his feasts, lest they pay him back with invitations to still more lavish banquets; but nooo, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind (because their social calendars are generally wide-open and they’d really love a nice meal) but best of all; they can never pay you back! There will be no reward for you at all, beyond what God doles out at the resurrection of the just.

Three apparently quite different stories with three different kind of take-aways: Jesus isn’t breaking the Sabbath by healing folks, even though the Pharisees will make this their number one charge against him and reason for killing him. Then, a story about humility and how we achieve it and seating advice for the next wedding you attend. Finally, a bizarre injunction that, in hosting a party, don’t invite people who can pay you back, because God (apparently) has better rewards for those with no interest in personal gain.

So, if you’re going to have a sermon that doesn’t ramble all over the map, and leave people with three—maybe good, but unrelated—ideas so that they will recall nothing of what you say, it seems you need to choose one of the episodes and neglect the others. But they’re all part of God’s Word, and we shouldn’t (like we heard last week!) be cutting any of that out, right? So, what to do? What should I preach on?

Now, I get that most of you probably have no interest in pro preacher problems. Why should they concern you? Besides; I’m a trained professional (who “is well paid for what he does” 😉 and I should figure this out on my own. Do you really want to know how the sausage is made? Probably not.

But then, Thursday afternoon, as I was trying to decide which of the three quite different outlines in my head grabbed me most, it hit me, reviewing it: maybe they’re not three different and unrelated pericopes? Maybe… there is something that connects all three and makes them one story… and that one thing just might be Jesus exalting the low-life. Here’s what I noticed:

Dropsy is an ancient term for fluid accumulation, often in the lower extremities, that causes visible swelling and difficulty in walking. Today, we attribute the cause to a variety of ailments like congestive heart failure, etc. But kidney and liver failure due to chronic alcohol abuse can also cause dropsy. And in the ancient world (without modern medicine) the general (rather unfair) view was that if you had dropsy, it was probably because you were a raging alcoholic, which in the ancient world was not viewed as a disease but as a moral failing.

This puts a little different spin on Jesus’ tiff with the Pharisees. Jesus’ Sabbath miracle wasn’t so much a problem for them for the working part (their kitchen staff were working overtime for the banquet and they were untroubled by that!). Perhaps… it was that, instead of fawning over the high and mighty Pharisee hosting the banquet, Jesus is off in the corner with some low-life lush, healing him rather theatrically. And then he looks at them and says “What? If your son or ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, you’d scramble down and pull ‘em out, right?”

If you love Haruki Murakami like I do, you’ll know that empty wells play a large role in his book and his heroes often have their greatest epiphanies (not unlike Jonah in the belly of the fish) sunk, way deep-down, in dry wells—sort of the low-life actually exalting us to the high life.

And the parable about taking the lowest place (which Jesus tells immediately after) maybe’s not unrelated; perhaps illustrates even more pointedly that choosing the low-life by going and hanging out in the kitchen with the waitstaff and help at a wedding reception can actually exalt you when the host theatrically ignores the wedding party and beautiful people to go pull you out of the kitchen and seat you at the head table next to himself, showing you to be one of his best pals.

Finally, Jesus’ advice to his high-living host that, next time he has a feast, don’t invite the high-lifers, the beautiful people. No! Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—the low-lifes; because in the low-life with the bums, winos, in empty wells in Siberia, we may well be exalted.

Three angles on one thing?: the low-life and its glory? Now, this flies right in the face of my mother’s standard teaching. I think she worried all those low-life friends of mine (*cough* Brad *cough* Sarah) would lay me low (a taste inherited from my father who, though holding a powerful position in the business world, was forever, at five star restaurants, talking up the waiter as much as his Fortune 50 CEO guest, or the pilots on the company jet as much as the suits in back, or his caddy as much as his playing partner, even when he was chairman of Augusta National Golf Club.

I don’t think dad was working an angle. Nah; I think he just liked the low-life better—found it more interesting, more real, more fun. Isaiah suggested last week that one of the highest joys of heaven is viewing the low-life in hell, right?

Jesus too, right? He’s always digging the low-life. All those beat-up, bum friends of his, like the criminal he befriended with his dying breath on the cross? So Jesus! And his love for you and me, right? The lowest, leastest, and lostest?—and not because he gets anything but suffering and scars, hanging with us. I say it’s nothin’ but love for poor lost sheep that drives our Lord to the low-life.

This is why the low-life of Jesus and his cross is, for us, the highest Good, the greatest Joy. In this, “the love from self set free” shines. And the chief reward of heaven (I will wager) is precisely in this: that losing all regard for self-interest, personal gain, we’ll find—in the low-life, heaven’s highest love. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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