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The End of Identity Politics

So the first thing we have to remember today is that in the ancient literary world, things that are repeated three times are very significant. 

Two times now in the book of Luke, Jesus has deliberately healed on the Sabbath and the Pharisees have objected. The first time was back in Chapter 6, when Jesus healed a man with a shriveled arm. The second time was last week in Chapter 13, when Jesus healed a woman with a bent back. 

Also, two times now Jesus has eaten at a Pharisee’s house. The first time was in Chapter 7, when the Pharisees took offense at how Jesus was not afraid to be touched by a prostitute who had snuck into the party. At that point Jesus warned the Pharisees that they were dangerously lacking in compassion. The second time was in Chapter 11, when the Pharisees took offense at how Jesus didn’t wash his hands properly. That is when Jesus finally cursed them for their lack of compassion, and put them on notice that soon they would be removed from their position as shepherds of the people. 

Today, in Chapter 14, both of these patterns converge and complete themselves: this is the third and last time Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the third and last time he eats with the Pharisees. This is their third and last chance to repent and acknowledge Jesus as their king. From this point on in the book of Luke, Jesus will have no significant interactions with the Pharisees. They are going to speak up a couple more times, but…their time is over; by Chapter 20 they have disappeared completely from the story. 

Interestingly, the crowd also fades away into the background. After today we are going to see that only tax collectors, “sinners”, and beggars are willing to join Jesus. He told us he had come to bring division, and here he is bringing it. 

… 

So, [1] One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 

Remember, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. This “prominent” Pharisee only knows Jesus by reputation; he has undoubtedly heard that Jesus likes to break the Sabbath Laws by healing people, so here he invites Jesus over to see if the rumors are true. 

And [2] There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. [3] Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” [4] But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. [5] Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” [6] And they had nothing to say. 

So: we’ve heard this story before, haven’t we? Jesus demonstrates compassion while the Pharisees prove, once again, that they are total jerks. 

But as is usual in Luke, there is a second, deeper layer: the type of sickness is actually significant. The old-fashioned word for it is “dropsy”, which is a swelling of the body usually caused by congestive heart disease or kidney failure. Basically, the body slowly fills up with water. 

Now, ironically, a person suffering from dropsy is extremely thirsty all the time. So, even as their body fills up with water — slowly killing them — they crave more and more of what is actually killing them. 

Ancient people had noticed this phenomenon, and to them it seemed like a particularly harsh kind of punishment from God. They associated it with sexual sin in particular. 

But there’s more: dropsy was also a metaphorical label for greed. Ancient people had noticed that, just as a man with dropsy feels like he can never get enough water, a greedy man feels like he can never get enough money. 

So here is Luke’s ironic joke: the Pharisees despise this man for his sickness, and they resent Jesus’ compassion on him. They have no idea that actually they have the same kind of sickness. They ought to despise themselves as well! They ought to repent, confess their greed to Jesus, and ask to be healed of it! 

Instead, they continue to prove how unrepentant they are! And there’s an additional irony here: at the beginning, they were watching Jesus carefully, to see if he would screw up. They have no idea that Jesus is also watching them: [7] When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table — 

— that means the seats closest to the host — 

— he told them this parable: [8] “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, 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. 

See, the idea is of a guy who arrives early enough to grab a seat right next to the host. Then everyone else comes and fills up the rest of the places, and they’re all looking at that guy with envy because he’s getting this photo-op with the host. 

Then someone even more important arrives and the host says, “Oooooh, sorry, you’d better find another spot!” But then, when the man gets up to move, all the other good seats are already filled, so he has to go sit way down in the cheap seats at the other end of the room. 

Awkward! 

And nobody wants to experience that kind of humiliation, so Jesus’ advice is simple: [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 honored 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.” 

Now, that sounds like good advice, doesn’t it? It’s far better to place yourself at the bottom and let someone else lift you up! 

Of course, that would take a lot of trust, wouldn’t it? 

Hmmmm, yeah. There’s a reason we like to push ourselves forward, isn’t there: we think that if we don’t do it for ourselves, no one else will do it for us. 

In other words: forcefully climbing the ladder of society can be a form of unbelief. It can reveal a heart that does not actually see God as Father. Remember, that is the Pharisees’ problem: they see God as a harsh Judge who only helps those who help themselves. And so the Pharisees have become experts at helping themselves! 

Jesus is warning them that, “If you insist on living by putting other people in their place, eventually someone stronger than you will come along and put you in your place!” 

It is far better to remain humble and wait for that someone stronger to come along and lift you up! 

… 

Now, so far it sounds like Jesus is just giving everyone some good social advice, right? 

But once again, there is another, deeper layer to his words. This is actually a very stern warning to the Pharisees and to all the Jewish people who think like them…this is actually their last warning. 

And the next part makes it clear that Jesus is not just talking about how to be polite at parties: 

[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 neighbors; 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 — guess who is going to repay you? That’s right: you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. You will be repaid by God.” 

Remember how, back in Chapter 12, Jesus warned everyone to watch out for the Pharisees’ virus? God’s Word had been passed down to them from Moses through all the prophets with clear instructions: they were supposed to use God’s Word to invite the whole world to God’s feast. Instead, they kept it for themselves, and deliberately twisted it so no one could take it away from them. 

In a way, Jesus is saying with his parable, the Jewish people were the first nation to be invited to God’s feast. What they should have done was take the lowest seats at God’s table. They should have filled the seats of honor with all the rejected people of all the nations: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Then, when the Master arrived on Resurrection Day to start the feast, he would have said, “Hey, you Jews don’t need to be sitting way over there next to the kitchen! Come on up here and sit at my right hand!" 

Instead, they arrived early, and took all the good seats. They invited their friends, their brothers and sisters, their relatives, their rich neighbors. Their attitude was, “Hey, I did favour for you by helping you get in, later on you do a favour for me…!” 

But now the Master has arrived, and he is telling them, “Ahem, sorry, but, ah, you’re going to have to give up your seat to some other nations now.” 

… 

So really, Jesus is still talking about the Judgement Day that is coming upon that particular generation. This is his last warning to the Pharisees and the Jewish people who follow them. He is saying, “If you do not repent soon, and voluntarily give up your pride at being ‘God’s Chosen Nation’, you will be forcibly removed, and your place of honor given to other nations!” 

Then, in verse 15, When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” 

And this comment shows that at least one guy there has figured out that Jesus is not just talking about social etiquette: Jesus is talking about Judgement Day, and about how many Jewish people aren’t going to survive it. So this guy speaks up and basically says, “You’re right, Jesus! God’s standards of holiness are really high! Only the best of the best are going to get to eat at God’s table!” 

Of course, reading between the lines, this guy is implying that he is one of the best of the best. 

Unfortunately, Jesus has a different opinion in verse 16: He replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. [17] At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready.' [18] “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, 'I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.' [19] “Another said, 'I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I'm on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.' [20] “Still another said, 'I just got married, so I can't come.' 

Now, there are two things to point out about Jesus’ story so far: 

First, these are rich people excuses. These are “first world problems”. So these are high class people that have been invited. 

Second — and this part is less obvious to us — these high class people are actually working together to humiliate the man who invited them. We know this because in verse 18 here it says, “they all alike began to make excuses”. That word “alike” in the Greek is a phrase that implies “unity of purpose”. 

Remember, in that culture, you only ate dinner with people of your same social class. Now, if you invited people of a slightly lower class to your house, then you were “inviting down”: you were being kinda cool and generous, lifting them up the social ladder a little bit. And you got social credit for that, as long as you didn’t invite really really low class people to dinner. 

But if you invited people of a higher class to your house…then you were “inviting up”, and this could be risky. Because if they accepted your invitation, then some of their status would rub off on you. But if they said, “No!” then you looked like a failed social climber.  

And that is what is happening here, in Jesus’ story. This man’s rich neighbors have gotten together behind his back, and agreed that when the invitations go out, everyone will say, “No!” That way, everyone will know that this man was not high class enough to invite this group of high class neighbors. 

So Jesus is telling a story about a group of people who think they too high class to accept the invitation; but more than that, they are deliberately trying to put down the one who has invited them. 

So, [21] “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.' [22] “ 'Sir,' the servant said, 'what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.' [23] “Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. [24] I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.' ” 

So this is Jesus’ answer to the guy who tried to suggest that he was good enough to be invited into God’s feast. Jesus has basically just said, “You — and your Pharisee friends — were invited. But you despised the invitation, and you have been working together to try to humiliate the one who invited you. So I’m telling you guys now that everyone you despise will end up joining the party, while not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet!” 

End of story. 

… 

See, the Pharisees, and the Jewish people who follow them, have miscalculated. They thought they were the high class ones, and that Jesus was “inviting up” in order to give his movement legitimacy. Just like Satan back in Chapter 4, the Pharisees thought they could negotiate an agreement with Jesus. They thought they could say, “Yes, we will support your election to Messiah, we will accept your invitation and lift you up to our class — but only if you do everything we say. Only if you worship us.” 

But it turns out that Jesus is from a social class way, way above them. He was actually “inviting down” to them, offering to help them climb up the social ladder to become sons of God. He never needed their support! In fact, Jesus is from a social class so far above all of us that for him to invite religious Jews and non-religious non-Jews is the the same thing! From God’s perspective there is no difference between the most holy person on earth and the most unholy person on earth. We could look into a microscope at bacteria swimming around and say, “Wow! Those bacteria over there are so much better than these bacteria over here…but then again, who cares?” 

The mistake the Pharisees made was in assuming that they were better than the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. 

And now their invitation has been withdrawn. They are going to be among those on the outside, looking through the windows, saying, “Hey, Lord! Don’t you remember how we ate together, how you taught in our streets? We were good buddies! You should let us in!” 

But the Lord will say to them — just as they said to him — “Sorry, I have no idea who you are.” 

… 

So much for the Pharisees. Now Jesus turns his attention to the crowds, the people who have been waiting for him to prove himself by doing some kind of miraculous sign: 

[25] Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: [26] “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters---yes, even their own life---such a person cannot be my disciple. [27] And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

In that culture, at that time, your social class was determined by who you were related to. To give up your family relations meant giving up your identity, giving up your hope of social advancement. And to carry a cross, which the Romans used to execute rebels, meant having all your assets confiscated by the government, leaving nothing for your family. 

Jesus is challenging the crowd to put their trust completely in God as their Father. Remember, these are people who have been taught to think like the Pharisees: they have been taught to believe that because they are part of the Jewish nation they have a guaranteed seat at God’s table. 

But now Jesus is saying, “No. Being born into a Jewish family is not enough. In fact, if you are not willing to reject your Jewish family for my sake, if you are not willing to become a criminal for my sake — then you cannot be my disciple.” 

In Chapter 13 Jesus said, “I have come to bring division in Jewish families.” Now he is saying, “If you are not part of that division, if you do not break away from your social ties and trust me with your survival, then you are not with me!” 

Then he goes on: [28] “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? [29] For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, [30] saying, 'This person began to build and wasn't able to finish.' 

[31] “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won't he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? [32] If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. [33] In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples. 

Jesus is telling the crowds to take a good look at their resources: being Jewish, obeying God’s Law, making sacrifices at the temple. Then he is telling them to look at the situation they face, which is Judgement Day — and realize that their resources will never, ever, be enough! 

He is basically repeating his advice from the end of Chapter 12, where he told them to make peace with God before they arrive in the courtroom. He wants the people to realize that no matter how good, how religious they are, they will never have enough to pay God back for their sins. 

They really have only one option: unconditional surrender! Send a delegation and ask for terms of peace. 

He finishes his advice with this: [34] “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? [35] It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. 

In those days, salt was very valuable, so valuable in fact that Roman soldiers were sometimes paid their wages with bags of salt, which was called their salarium — their “salary” — which is Latin for their “salt allowance”. 

Now, can salt lose its saltiness? No. But if it did, that would be really horrible, wouldn’t it? That would be like opening up your safe full of gold bars and finding they had all turned into concrete blocks. That would be a nightmare! 

Well that is what Jesus is telling the crowds: “All these things that you thought were valuable, all these things that you thought made you rich, and guaranteed you a place in God’s kingdom — they are actually worthness. 

“So what are you going to do about it? Are you going to cling to them? Or are you going to throw them away, leaving your hands free for something that actually has value? 

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” 

… 

And now we come to the part every week where we ask the question, “So what?” This book was written two thousand years ago: what does it have to to with us today? 

Well, in one sense, it has nothing to do with us. Jesus is talking to Pharisees and Jews at a particular point of history. He is basically telling them, “Look, you were God’s special people, chosen to do a particular job, which was to prepare the world for God’s Kingdom. Now I’m here to finish the job. You can still be part of God’s master plan! but only if you give up the idea of a purely Jewish kingdom and accept my idea of a global kingdom, made up of every nation on the earth.” 

Here, two thousand years later, we live in that global kingdom. We are here today worshiping the Jewish Messiah because that Jewish Messiah wanted to be the Messiah for everyone, not just Jews. So, that’s great news for us! — but it’s kind of old news. 

So how is this chapter relevant to us, except as a reminder of what Jesus has already accomplished? 

Well, really the message of this whole chapter is a simple one. Here, Jesus is saying, “All these things that you think are so valuable — your race, your religion, your social class — they are all worthless.” 

Your race, your religion, your social class…now, correct me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t our world is consumed with questions of race, religion, and social class? We have become consumed with Identity Politics: white supremacists, Black Lives Matter, the alt-Right, the Anti-Fascists, the LGBTQ lobby, the Chinese party, the Indian party, the Malay party…these are all groups that derive their identity and purpose from questions of race, religion, and social class. Just like the Jewish people two thousand years ago, many people today put tremendous value on belonging to a certain narrowly defined group. And more and more, people are being taught to view anyone who thinks differently as outsiders, as the enemy. 

So Jesus is not just speaking to Pharisees and the crowds back then, he is also speaking to protestors in Charlottesville, in San Fransisco, in Kuala Lumpur. For such people, Jesus’ warning is unchanged: if you put your hope in movements and race-based politics, if your identity is wrapped up in your status or your ideology, if you refuse to show compassion to people outside of your “group” — then on Judgement Day you are going to find out you invested in all the wrong things! 

But this is also a warning to us. We are all tempted by racial pride, ideological pride, social pride. It is easy for us to make the same mistake as the Pharisees, and assume that we are “better” somehow than the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, “better” than white supremacists or Muslim terrorists or migrant workers, when the truth is we are all like the man with dropsy: we are all desperately thirsty for the very things that are killing us. We all long for things that ultimately are going to prove to be worthless. 

So, what are we supposed to do about this temptation? 

As always, Jesus’ solution is a simple one. There are two kingdoms. One is a Kingdom of Pride, race-based identity politics, where the strong take the seats of honor, and the weak serve. The other is a Kingdom of Peace, equality, where the strong give up their seats to serve the weak. Which one sounds good to you? 

Of course, if you choose to join the Kingdom of Peace, you are going to have to give up any idea of being “more special” than anyone else. If more resources have been given to you, that doesn’t mean you are more special; it simply means that more will be expected of you — you will be expected to serve those who have less. If less resources have been given to you, that doesn’t mean nothing will be expected of you; it simply means that faith is expected of you: the faith to trust that your king will take care of your needs. 

Ultimately, this chapter of Luke is all about identity. Where does you identity really come from? Are you busy building up an identity for yourself based on your race or your ideology or your social class? Or is it enough for you to be counted as one of God’s children, as a citizen of God’s kingdom? 

If you are on the fence on this one, if you are looking around and thinking to yourself, “Well, it sure looks like the Kingdom of Pride is winning!” then I would like to point out that Jesus’ prophecies in this chapter have all come true. A few decades after he said these words, the Jewish nation was removed from its seat of honor at the table of nations, and scattered among the peoples of the world. Their rejection of him was the great sorrow of Jesus’ life — remember how, last week, he wept for Jerusalem? — but their fate has served for two thousand years as a warning to everyone else: there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last. The kings of one age can end up as slaves in the next. 

Which is not just a warning but a comfort. Because if kings can become slaves, then slaves can also become kings. As we heard last week, God’s kingdom — God’s Church — in this age is really nothing more than a mustard bush, or a lot of bread: practical, but rather ordinary. More often than not, as Christians, we can expect to be underappreciated or even abused by the world. But Jesus’ words here, and the two-thousand year long object lesson that has followed, show us that it will not always be that way. The true nature of the kingdom will one day be revealed; our identity as God’s children will one day be revealed; and no one will be able to deny it. 

So Jesus’ call upon all of us is to throw away (in our minds) all the things that we think make us so special — whether that is our ethnic heritage, our culture, our education, our career, our family, our morality, our social consciousness, whatever it is that gives us pride — and rely on him alone for our identity. 

Three Stories, One Question

The Kingdom is Like A…Whaaat?