Sixteenth Day of Lent

Luke 14:7-11
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: 8 ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

12 Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

Once again Jesus’ teaching is shaped by what he notices around him. He’s not using the circumstances around him as sermon illustrations, but as lessons of how the inner drives of human beings can often be destructive of community and relationships, and ultimately of the thing we are most desperate to protect—our self-understanding.

Giving in to the need to be noticed, or surrendering to the inner drive to be recognised as a person of substance, often leads to humiliation.

On the surface though Jesus seems to be a bit disingenuous here. He seems to be saying you should fake your humility because this is way to get ahead (14:10). Like a  Hollywood Oscar winner, crying ‘tears’ in their acceptance speech and pretending this is for everyone else, when we all know they would prefer to be making the speech Father Ted made when he won the Golden Cleric award!

But consider the fact that first of all, the party Jesus is attending is being thrown by a wealthy Pharisee (Luke 14:1). This is unusual in Jesus day because generally speaking Pharisees were not rich, in fact they were barely a step above destitution. So this is unusual.

We should also know that food and hospitality was a hugely important thing. When you invited people for a banquet, you did so in anticipation of a return invitation. It was a way of climbing the social ladder. Get the right invitations, been seen in the right places and be sure that your status will rise accordingly. And so, as the guests are gathering, Jesus is observing the scramble for the best spots.

If you want to live by these rules, if this kind of status is what you crave then, Jesus seems to say, let’s be honest about how it works. And so he cruelly exposes the sham of this lifestyle. (I sometimes wonder why rich and powerful people never learned not to invite Jesus to their parties!).

Jesus exposes a certain value system that works by fakery and then challenges his host to the more authentic lifestyle of a disciple. Throw a party and invite those of no influence, and those who can’t advance your career or reputation (Luke 14:13).  You see, everyone knew that there was no sense in inviting the poor to your party because they would refuse the invitation because they couldn’t return the favour.

Jesus challenges them on their understanding of what it means to be blessed (Luke 14:14). You think that to be blessed means to be invited to the best parties and to be in the company of the best people. But to be truly blessed, reach out to those who can in no way repay you.

The central question of the parable is whether we are prepared to postpone blessing to the resurrection, or whether we want our blessing now.

So here’s a challenge for today, find a way of doing something kind and generous for someone, but do it anonymously. Do it in such a way that the action can never be traced to you. Find the blessing in a random act of kindness for a stranger and the confidence of knowing that God sees.

Eleventh Day of Lent

Luke 7:40-50
40 Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ ‘Tell me, teacher,’ he said.

41 ‘Two people owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?’ 43 Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.’
‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.

44 Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’

48 Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’
50 Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

The story told here just could not happen. Or if it ever did the moneylender who had forgiven the debt wouldn't remain in business too long. Consider the figures for a moment.  A denarius is worth about a day's wage. In the UK in 2018 the average wage was about £105 per day. So one man owed the moneylender £5,250 and the other owed more than £50,000. The reality is that for one of these people the debt forgiven is life transforming, so no wonder this man would be more deeply grateful to the moneylender.

Jesus exaggerates the scenario so much that we can’t help but think that poor Simon is being set up! And he falls right into the trap that Jesus has set for him (Luke 7:43).

To get why he was being set up we need to look at the verse immediately before the portion above. It talks about Simon thinking to himself in reaction to the actions of this woman towards Jesus. She was crying, soaking Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair and then anointing him with perfume oil that she had brought with her in an alabaster jar.

Simon is appalled and thinks to himself that if Jesus really was a prophet he would know the reputation of the woman who was touching him. To Simon, the past behaviour of this woman coloured any future actions on her part. He decided she was tainted and in turn tainted all she touches (Luke 7:39).

So Jesus has something to tell him (Luke 7:40). 

Notice how Jesus talks to Simon. The text says he looks at the woman and speaks to Simon (Luke 7:44). Jesus honours this woman by looking at here but also highlights Simon’s disrespect. His question is therefore significant: “Do you SEE this woman?” (Luke 7:44). The reality is that Simon didn’t really see this woman….he saw a woman, defined by her past behaviour.

Jesus then gently, but directly, points out that Simon has broken all the basic traditions of hospitality. There was no water provided for Jesus to wash his feet, no welcoming kiss, no perfume to anoint his head. It is an extraordinary omission on Simon’s part. Yet this woman, who wasn’t even a guest had done it all, and at great personal cost.

How interesting that Jesus says her great love is evidence of the scale of the forgiveness she had experienced. Her loving actions have grown out of the experience of forgiveness and evidence the extent of that forgiveness. Simon’s lack of hospitality perhaps indicates the opposite. Jesus also seems to imply that a person who acts with little love is a person who has little understanding of the extent of the forgiveness they need (Luke 7:47). Simon must have been cut to the core.

This story challenges me about the extent to which I live out of gratitude and grace and how much I take for granted.

One final thing. Given that Jesus believes this woman is motivated by the knowledge of a great forgiveness, why then does Jesus say to her “Your sins are forgiven”? I wonder why he needed to say that? I wonder was it because she needed to hear it. It strikes me how easy it is to experience forgiveness and to act out of that forgiveness but from a place of guilt…or shame. Jesus tells her, in front of all of these judgmental men, “You are forgiven,” and “Go in peace,” (Luke 7:48, 50).

The great joy of the Gospel is that we have been forgiven a great deal, no matter who we are. And it’s best we don’t think of ourselves more highly than we merit. But the Gospel also tells us that we are then called to live out of the joy of forgiveness, and the grace of forgiveness, and the freedom of forgiveness. There is no shame, even for those who have been forgiven a huge amount.

Loving God

Whose inclination is always towards forgiveness
Incline my own heart in the direction of grace
That I may move in the freedom of your love
To the praise of your glorious grace