Last week in the latest sermon in our current series, “Understanding the Bible”, Adam introduced us to the Newer Testament as we considered the gospels – “gospel” meaning “good news”. The gospels tell the story of Jesus whom Christians confess to be the Savior. As theologian William Placher reminds us, Jesus’ name was likely something like “Yehoshua” in the language of his time, meaning “the Lord saves.” At the very beginning of the New Testament in Matt 1:21 we get a sense of the importance of this name, as Placher points out, when we read that an angel tells Joseph to give to his and his spouse Mary’s son the name Jesus, for “he will save his people from their sins.” (Jesus the Savior, Placher, William C. 2001) In other words, Jesus will liberate God’s human family from the separation caused by our breaking our part of God’s eternal covenant with us, a covenant in which God promises to be our God and that we are God’s beloved people.

How does Jesus the Savior save? As Adam lifted up last week, Jesus saves us through his obedience to God through the whole course of his life. His obedience to God meant obedience to the overarching law of God found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Older Testament: Deuteronomy 6:5, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength;” and Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In Mark’s gospel, when questioned by the religious legal experts which of God’s laws was the most important, Jesus recited these two, explaining that these two laws of loving are the greatest of all of God’s commandments. So, Jesus saves us through laws of love, which heal and transform everything. This is God’s agenda from the very beginning, at the moment God created us and all creation. After God’s work was done, like a loving parent gazing upon their newborn child, God declared, “All I have created is good, very good” (Genesis 1:31, adapted).

Jesus’ teachings and sometimes befuddling parables may at times appear to be simply moralism – Jesus doing a lot of “tisk tisk” finger-pointing, or in the case of today’s passage, offering basic dinner party etiquette and good table manners. But we can be sure that the one called Yehoshua, who declared himself to be the fulfillment of all of God’s laws and the prophets, is going so much deeper than that. Jesus is carrying out God’s search and rescue mission for creation, after all. He goes to the very heart of every matter, leading not with guilting or shaming but with love that all might be free. Jesus’ mission is to save us from the bondage of ourselves, the trappings of our transactional society, anything that leads to our breaking our part of the Covenant as we seek security, comfort, control from the world’s offerings. Jesus is ever working to woo us back to God, our true home.

When we approach the gospel of Jesus the Christ and his words, a good question to keep before us is, “How am I being invited into greater giving and receiving of Love?”

In Luke 14 we meet Jesus at the home of a leading Pharisee whose invited him to have a sabbath meal. Luke tells us “They were watching him closely.” Many watched Jesus – his disciples and other followers, the religious rulers and legal experts, the Romans, his family. Some found him intriguing, some, like the citizens of Palestine suffering under Roman rule, saw him to be the hoped-for Messiah who would lead the charge in toppling Rome and set the oppressed free. Others found Jesus to be exasperating, crazy or a threat, as in the Jewish law keepers whose focus was on all the ways Jesus seemed to disregard the ancient rules for living under Judaism. Some who watched him were plotting his death for the ways he threatened the status quo and their privileged status under Rome.
As some watched Jesus closely, Luke tells us Jesus was also watching (14:7) – he was observing the other guests at the dinner party. Luke, here, draws our attention to Jesus, to the way he sees the scene and to how he will respond so that we the audience might come to see as he sees, to have God’s vision. Jesus watches the guests vying for the best seats, scurrying to get to the places of honor. He also notices who his host has invited – likely the privileged and important people in the community. From his observances, Jesus offers two teachings – one about being a guest, one about being a host. Exemplifying Luke’s motif of “reversal,” according to the codes of the day and the world’s messages of grab, get, gain, Jesus’ teachings are topsy turvy as we shall see.

Flannery O’Connor was a US author who lived a relatively short life, dying at the age of 39 from lupus. One of the last stories she wrote, “Revelation,” came to mind for the Rev. Teri McDowell Ott and Fr. Jim Harbaugh, SJ in writing commentaries on our story in Luke 14. As I share a portion of O’Connor’s story as unpacked by Rev. Ott and Fr. Harbaugh, I note O’Connor’s context to shed light on the language she uses: She lived from 1925-1964 and was born, lived and wrote in the American south.
Mrs. Ruby Turpin is a stately, self-righteous Christian woman who has a vision that upends her prejudiced assumptions and her world as she knew it. Leading up to this vision, the very decent Ruby Turpin experiences a disturbing encounter with a college student – a young woman -while both are waiting outside a doctor’s office. Mrs. Turpin has been going on and on about how nice Negroes are – that she thinks some may even be a lot nicer than white trash, for instance. After a…stretch of pomposity, the college student throws the thick psychology textbook she’s been holding right at Ruby’s head and calls her a “warthog from hell’. The student is restrained by bystanders and Ruby goes home with her husband, offended and baffled.

Ruby Turpin resentfully ponders this encounter as she surveys her immaculate pig farm and then she experiences a world-altering vision: She sees a bridge form in the dusk sky reaching from earth to heaven. Climbing the bridge, a “vast horde of souls were rumbling to heaven” — souls Mrs. Turpin had earlier judged as beneath her: poor white people no longer dirty, black laborers dressed in royal robes are on their way to salvation. And behind them, a bunch of shouting, clapping, leaping misfits all “messily entering heaven.” Bringing up the end of the procession Mrs. Turpin recognizes herself, her husband, her people, marching with dignity behind the others, continuing to keep order, common sense, and respectability as they had always done. She also sees the faces of these, her, people – confused and contorted – as, last in line to heaven, they watch their treasured virtues burn up in the setting sun (The Outlook Magazine, McDowell Ott, T., 8/28/22; A 12-Step Approach to the Sunday Readings, Harbaugh SJ, J.).

What Ruby thought she knew about the ways of the Divine Order, the ways of God, was torn apart through the revelation she received. At the dinner party scene in Luke, the understanding of both host and guests of the Divine Order, was about to be turned upside down as Jesus began to speak:

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:8, 11).
“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:12-13)

The behavior of Jesus’ host and his fellow guests was proper and expected in the hierarchical and patronage system of that time and place in Palestine. Jesus knows this, but as the one sent from God to help usher in God’s Realm, Jesus teaches a better, higher way! As the revelation Ruby Turpin received shed light on her life and love-diminishing belief system, Jesus’ teaching calls his listeners to examine their lives, to check their motives, to ask, “Is how I act, think, and speak fostering God’s freedom and love for myself and others, or diminishing it? As a person of God’s covenant, does how I live serve to strengthen my connection with God, others, and my True Self or serve to fracture those relationships?” Jesus the Savior here is busy saving, transforming lives, setting souls free.
Luke’s Jesus is describing what life in God’s Realm looks like – the lowly will be exalted, the proud and mighty will be brought low, the least in God’s realm will be blessed. (See Luke 1:46-55, Mary’s song and Luke 6:20-23, the Beatitudes.) But Jesus is also describing what the gathering of believers of the gospel – the church – is to look like. We recall that the book of Luke is part one of a two-part volume – Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The book of Acts describes how the church formed and how it is called to be in community together based the life and way of Jesus. We learn that the early church was referred to as a “gathering,” for the disciples of Christ gathered in homes as house churches. They did not construct church buildings or cathedrals. They did not have hierarchy with bishops, etc. The members shared with all who had need and kept a common purse so that with all needs met, together they could focus on their calling to give, receive and grow God’s saving love in the world.
A teacher at a Catholic high school shares the story that many of his students would initial their papers with JMJ, short for “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” as a prayer for intercession for a high grade. This teacher also heard of one student who would initial their papers not with JMJ but with IJHTBH – “I’m Just Happy To Be Here.” I find in this student’s initialing an invitation to pause and ask, “Can I say the same thing, about this present moment?”  or am I caught in the anxiety of trying to arrange life to suit me, my desires, cravings, and ambitions? Am I grateful for what is  – the people, love, provision in my life – or am I focuses on gaining, and keeping honor, status, wealth, control? (Jesuit Prayer, Fr. Juan Ruiz, SJ, 8/28/22).

I was given a bookmark the other day with this quote from Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Let’s pause together for a moment to reflect and consider how this has been true for you. What memory comes to mind, one for which you are grateful or that was especially hard, of an encounter where you have forgotten the details, but recall clearly how you felt? In light of the high school student’s initialing with IJHTBH (I’m Just Happy To Be Here), is there an opportunity today to foster this truth for your by being present, noticing the good, expressing gratitude? How can you live in a way that fosters this experience for others? How can we offer God’s hospitality to those we meet today, to convey, “You belong, just as and where you are. You are enough. I’m so happy you are here.

Perhaps this can be our spiritual practice this week – to initial our papers, our activities, our words, our whole stance with IJHTBH as we stay close to Jesus our Savior, who leads us to our God of the Covenant who declares to us momently and forever, “I have called you by name, you are precious in my sight, you are enough, I love you. I’m so glad you’re here” (from Isaiah 43, adapted).