What a disappointing sort of Gospel Reading we have today, after all the excitement with Moses this past summer. “Don’t make a fool of yourself in public.” That’s not really a piece of wisdom that we need Jesus to teach us. We expect Jesus to do better than to say what the world can say, “When you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.”
Well, sure, Jesus! But is that all You’ve got? Ah, He does have more, and we should never let Him go until He gives us the whole lot of what He has…the Gospel.
In our Reading, Jesus accepts an invitation to dinner from a Pharisee, from a man who is certainly no friend of His. “They were watching Him carefully.” But Jesus goes on being Jesus. Suddenly a man in need is part of that dinner. Jesus is there for that man. Won’t the others be there for him as well? Isn’t it okay to help him out and make him happy? It is the Sabbath after all. But they were silent.
On the day of the week which God designated for rejoicing in all the goodness of His good gifts, they had made it into a performance. They had ratcheted up the Sabbath requirements to show how much more splendidly they were doing. It also provided a more exacting standard by which they could compare themselves with others…and, of course, find themselves superior!
And there’s no point in being superior if you don’t get recognition for it! But Jesus goes on after healing the man to talk about what He had observed at this dinner, all the clamoring and showing off about superiority. And what He says sounds so practical. It’s risky to push yourself too far forward, someone is bound to push you back. Better to go in low, giving you a good chance of advancing higher up.
But Jesus is up to something here. He leads His hearers to realize that even humility can become an instrument of self-advancement. Humility is a game you cannot win! Truly humble people never talk about humility in themselves. They’re too busy doing it. Those who talk about how hard they are working at being humble are almost certainly the opposite of humble!
So Jesus tells a parable. And His parables deliver the goods to us without hitting us over the head, because hitting people over the head is not Jesus’ way. The parable is about a wedding feast, which is our Lord’s way of talking about His love for His bride, His Church, His people. The feast is a celebration of His love, and there serving the guests at the feast the Messiah is at work.
Now, how it goes at this feast is not according to our calculations of first and last, of high and low. How this feast goes is entirely according to God’s generosity. And those who are surprised by the generosity of our Lord’s gifts are the truly humble. They are not prompted by calculations of their own advancement or reward.
And at this feast there are all sorts of good things given. But if you aim at getting them, like trying to get humility, you will end up with the opposite. Because this whole gift business is God’s business, and Jesus is the Host in running it. And how Jesus runs things is the opposite of how we run things: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
And that’s revolutionary! Not only for the rarified atmosphere of this place and our spiritual affairs, but it’s revolutionary for our Monday through Friday affairs in the world. It means that our daily work should not be looked upon as a drudgery which we undertake for the purpose of making money. Instead, our work is a way of life in which our human nature finds its proper outlet and joy, our work fulfills the glory in which God created us.
Which is why a society where consumption has to be stimulated in order to keep production going, is a society founded on illusion. It is a house built on sand.
So why work? Our work is not a thing we do to live, it is the thing we live to do. It is the full expression of our talents and abilities, the thing in which we find spiritual, mental, and physical satisfaction. Our work is the vehicle by which we offer ourselves to God.
We Lutherans call that a true vocation. A vocation, a calling, isn’t limited to work in the Church. All that does is set a person’s faith against a person’s life, as if life can be divided between religious work and secular work. No! We serve God best by doing the work we do best.
For some that work might be as a pastor or a teacher in the church. For someone else that work is tilling a field, riding a desk, building a house, tending a bar. But if faith has nothing to say about a worker and his or her work, what good is it?
The English writer, Dorothy Sayers, once commented, The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables….
What use is [his religion] if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth…. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not good work. Let the Church remember this: that every worker is called to serve God in his [or her] profession or trade–not outside it.
The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the Word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the Word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the Word…. Christian work is good work well done.
70 years after Miss Sayers wrote that, the Church still hasn’t learned that lesson. Too much work that gets called Christian—Christian music, Christian art, Christian literature, Christian film—too much of it is really not very good at all. But not only does the Church use this stuff, it promotes it because of a so-called Christian message. Well, shoddy, superficial work does have a message, but it’s not one the Church ought to be putting forth.
So what does all of this have to do with our text? It’s the long way around to making just this point: Good work does not make a good person. What we do is not what makes us who we are. It is entirely the other way around. Who we are makes what we do. A good person makes good work.
So what makes a person good? That’s what Jesus gives us here in this text. It’s all over the Gospels. St. Luke’s summary of Jesus is that He is the friend of sinners and eats with them. Jesus feasts with Zaccheus and his crowd. He eats with Matthew and that motley crew of tax collectors. The joy of being at table with Jesus is a feast to which we are all invited. He really means it when He has His door open. You may doubt your own worthiness. You may hesitate because of the way others who are with Jesus look at you. But you cannot doubt Jesus and His invitation. He welcomes sinners and eats with them.
So our work and who we are and what we are worth does not depend on anything but that which is given to us by our Lord. Feasting with Him we are freed to enjoy one another’s company, and free to enjoy our daily work without calculation of what use or advantage we can get out of this or that…or of what others may be calculating about us concerning this or that.
Feasting with Christ and His gifts, we are free to give ourselves to our work, knowing that because we belong to Christ, our work serves God, and that it is God who will make of our work whatever He desires. And right there in that holy, feasting freedom of Christ, there we discover that our desire for our own work is simply that it be good.