A sermon from Luke 14:1,7-14 and Jeremiah 2:4-13 (preached on August 28, 2016).
Sit in the lowliest spot at someone’s wedding banquet (Lk 14:7-11), and when you throw your own banquet, invite those whom societies invariably treat lowly (14:12-14). Jesus teaches these behaviors at a meal in a Pharisee’s house. Now, the fact that he accepts the invitation of a Pharisee may be a lesson itself. It is also a Sabbath, a commanded day of rest from work. And yet, en route to the meal, Jesus performs an act of work, healing a man whose worth to on-lookers ranked lower than that of an ox. Of course, no one would say it that way. But words have a way of polishing a shine onto our injustices. In Jesus’ situation, how can people who will rescue an ox and ignore a human go on to prepare a feast for humans who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind?
Is Jesus just a prophet of table etiquette?—the first century’s very own—though very Jewish and male—Emily Post? If Jesus wishes to teach about meals and manners and move on, I suppose that is fine. But what if Jesus is challenging people’s deepest prejudices and most socially acceptable injustices? What if Jesus is unmasking widespread evils that are accepted and perpetuated by even the most religious members of Israel in his society?
To admit that Jesus is right is to admit defeat, to confess that God’s Teaching has not, after all, accomplished as much in our lives as we would like to have thought. Perhaps we are not so familiar with God. Then again, perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world. Perhaps he is not the God we want him to be. Perhaps we have exchanged him for a god made in our image, a god whom we try to fashion closely enough to the real thing to console our guilty, idolatrous consciences.
Perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world.
Amid people’s pantheons of pious idols, then and now, Jesus lives and teaches—he embodies—the true God. This is, of course, the doctrine of the Incarnation: the word of God has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:1,14). It is interesting, then, that, centuries prior, a word of God came to the prophet Jeremiah accusing Jeremiah’s audience of exchanging the God of Israel for other gods. I can imagine modern Christians reading Jeremiah’s message with some confusion and pity: confusion at why the kings and people of Judah would exchange their God for an idol, and pity that they did not know any better. The true God had delivered Israel from Egypt, had fed and preserved them through years in wilderness, and had brought them into a land of plentiful fruits and good things (Jer 2:6-7). How could that generation find things wrong with God? How could they go after worthless things and defile God’s land (Jer 2:4,7)? How could several hundred years in the land find Jeremiah’s contemporaries in the same rut they were in with Moses? Why do people keep going after other gods?
The word of God to Jeremiah did not come in a vacuum. Though we do not know the specific prompt for the message of Jeremiah 2, the beginning of the book indicates that Jeremiah served as a prophet at a time of great national and international uncertainty for the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, which included most of Israel’s tribes and land settlements, had fallen to, and been radically reconfigured by, the Assyrian Empire. The late-600s BC saw the waning of Assyria’s power and the competing growth of Babylon’s. Judah had managed an anxious independence from Assyria, and worked to maneuver protection against Babylon’s encroachments. To bring it closer to the issue at hand, a foreign power with its foreign gods threatened Judah’s power, Judah’s independence, and, so it would seem, Judah’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and conquest.
Is it really too unrelatable, then, for a fearful, threatened king and people to question the role of their God in a changing international landscape? for these people to seek help in other gods, gods who had been worshiped in Canaan longer than Israel’s God, gods who might want to protect this land from Babylon? Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own. Maybe they try to force the issue, to get out in front of God to show him the way the world needs to be. Maybe they change gods (Jer 2:10-11) because they cannot be content with obedience to God’s commandments, even in mundane daily relations, when foreign powers they fear stand knocking at their door.
Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own.
Moses’ Israel—and sometimes Moses himself—was often discontent with God. Jeremiah’s Israel—the kings and inhabitants of Judah—manifested similar discontent with God. Jesus’ Israel—the Jews scattered abroad, but especially those inhabiting Roman-controlled Galilee and Judea—likewise found themselves discontent with God. Why doesn’t he free us from the Romans and put a son of David on the throne? Why doesn’t he establish his kingdom? And why does this Jesus insist that humility and hospitality to the marginalized have something to do with that kingdom? What kind of God does this Jesus believe in? What kind of God does Jesus think he is revealing to us? These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God. We can be kind, compassionate, and just to each other, and let God work on the bigger things.
These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God.
Do we really believe that God comes to us in people who have nothing, who are crippled, who cannot walk, or who cannot see? Do we really believe that God comes to us when we spread a feast for those who cannot repay us? And are we content with such a God?