August 22, 2016
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Author: Scott Hoezee
Tell any average child that she is forbidden to look at pages 67-82 of the book sitting on the coffee table in the living room and you can all-but make certain that the first chance that child gets, she’s going to whisk that book to her room and turn directly to page 67!
The Revised Common Lectionary can be like that. Not very often, but with some frequency, the Lectionary editors ask you to skip a few verses in certain texts. In this case, we are asked not to read or ponder Luke 14:2-6. Next week we will jump ahead to Luke 14:25, skipping also verses 15-24. But like a child who knows what she’s not supposed to look at, this only makes me all-the-more interested in those very verses and in what I am NOT supposed to see.
Luke 14:1-24 are clearly all cut out of a single piece of narrative cloth and anyway all took place over the course of a single dinner party. Each flows into the next and only together do they present the real punch and meaning of this story. So in what follows my ideas will also all flow together across all 24 verses. Those who wish to stay with the strict letter of the Lectionary law may happily cobble together from what follows only those parts that apply to the 9 verses that are technically this week’s Year C Gospel lection.
Too often we treat the parables of Jesus as though they float free of any original context. We collect the parables and treat them like chapters in a book–a parabolic anthology rather like a collection of nursery rhymes or fairy tales. The parables, we seem to think, don’t need an original setting but can be pondered in isolation without losing any of their punch. And there is something to that: most of what we learn in the Parable of the Prodigal Son can be gleaned by looking at the story in isolation. But most of the time reviewing the occasion that gave rise to Jesus’ parables will deepen their poignancy. Certainly that is true of Luke 14.
Luke 14:1 tells us that Jesus had been invited for a dinner party at the house of a “prominent Pharisee,” which we could literally translate as a kind of “arch Pharisee” from the Greek archon. The adjective refers to a lead Pharisee, someone who was very high up in the Pharisee leadership structure. So it is likely that this man did not live in a modest row house in Jerusalem but probably occupied a ritzy and large home to which, on this particular Sabbath, a lot of people had been invited. In fact, it may well have been the case that a Sabbath noon invitation to this man’s house was the hottest ticket in town.
But why was Jesus invited? He was not a real popular person among the Pharisees, after all. Based on the text I suspect he was not invited out of love. But I cannot tell just what the motive really was, either. There are several possibilities. Perhaps it was borne out of social necessity–the host didn’t really want to invite him but given his current popularity, etiquette demanded that they not snub this new rabbi. Or perhaps there was an element of vanity in the invitation–precisely because Jesus’ star seemed to be rising just then, having him for dinner would be yet another feather in this Pharisee’s social cap.
More darkly, however, it may also have been the case that they were setting Jesus up. Personally, I tilt this direction based on the fact that in verse 1 we are told that Jesus was being “very carefully watched.” As the mobster Michael Corleone says in The Godfather Part II, the most valuable lesson his mafia father ever taught him was “Keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer.” Sometimes the best strategy to bring down your enemy is to get cozy with him, make him relax and let his guard down. Because then he might slip up, divulge a piece of information he shouldn’t reveal, do something before your very eyes that you would otherwise never see but can now use as evidence against the person. (Alas poor Fredo in The Godfather!)
I suspect that this dynamic was partly behind this Pharisee’s having Jesus for dinner. As such, it is neither accidental nor coincidental that Jesus immediately encounters a man with dropsy. Dropsy was what today we would call edema, which likely meant his breathing was labored, his face, legs, feet, and hands were swollen because of a cardio-pulmonary problem that caused fluid to build up throughout his body. Likely he looked pathetic and whereas today a doctor would prescribe Lasix or some other such diuretic to make his renal system go full bore, back then there were probably few effective treatments.
In any event, lo and behold this is the first person Jesus meets up with at the pre-dinner punch bowl. And the Pharisees watched Jesus carefully. Could this Jesus, reputed to be a healer, resist the urge (considering it was the Sabbath) to help this fellow? Initially Jesus seems to be the epitome of a polite guest, asking his host and the others, “Would it be all right by you if I healed this man? Is that a lawful thing to do on the Sabbath?”
Did they all think this was such an obvious question it did not require an answer? Or did the way they all fixed Jesus in their collective glare as much as tell Jesus that of course they considered it unlawful. But their silence dared Jesus to do it anyway. So he does. He then quotes some laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy that allow exceptions to the Sabbath injunctions against not working in the cases of sick children or suffering animals. It was an “in your face” kind of thing for Jesus to say, shaming them for their disapproval of this poor man’s healing and, as the text makes clear, leaving them with nothing to say.
The dinner party is off to a really rocky start! But soon the butler rings his little bell, letting people know it is time to be seated for the meal. And with a wry grin on his face, Jesus takes note of the polite, yet indisputable, jostling that begins as this guest and that guest angles his way toward the seats closest to the host’s chair. Once again it is Jesus who takes the lead. “You know I was just thinking: when someone invites you to a wedding, don’t try to sit at the head table on your own initiative. Next thing you know the host has to ask you to move since that seat had been reserved for someone else and then you will be so dreadfully embarrassed! Just sit in the back of the room. It’s the humble way to go at life and anyway if then the host requests you to sit closer to the front of the room, you will have nothing to feel shame-faced about but will actually be honored.”
Did the people blush? I imagine once Jesus said this none-too-subtle rebuke of all those snooty dinner guests that a lot of them stopped in their tracks and, with downcast eyes, just plopped into the seat closest to them at that very moment.
Jesus is on a roll now. It’s not Emily Post by a long shot, but still he plunges forward. Now he addresses his host directly but what Jesus does is essentially critique the guest list for that very dinner party on that very day! Jesus says, “When you throw a party, don’t invite friends, brothers, and rich people.” He was describing every last person around the table! “Instead,” Jesus goes on, “invite the poor, the blind, and the crippled.” And by this point, if I am seated at that table, I am ready to skulk away. The party is over. All anybody wanted to do was leave, and quickly!
So, not knowing what else to do or say, one of the guests blurts out a pious and pithy greeting card-like aphorism, “Blessed is the man who eats at the feast in the kingdom of God!” Although it was related to what Jesus had just been saying about dinner guests and the like, I suspect this man said what he did to try to smooth things over, shifting the topic a bit. Today it would be like dealing with an awkward situation by blurting out, “Hey, how ’bout those Cubs, huh?” or “Interesting weather we’ve been having lately.” The current dinner party was spiraling into chaos, so this well-meaning guest points forward to what everyone could only hope would be a far happier banquet one day by and by in the kingdom of God.
But it didn’t work. Jesus pipes back up and as much as says, “Speaking of the kingdom of God . . .” and then goes on to tell a parable. He tells a story about a situation like the party they were all attending just then. A rich man issues a grand invitation. But every last person who had been invited ends up refusing to come. They all have different excuses, but the implication in this parable is obvious: these guests had conspired with one another to avoid this banquet like the plague. Some commentators think that the fatal flaw of these would-be guests is greed. They are too preoccupied with their possessions and with their pleasures in life.
But that clearly is not Jesus’ intention. Following on Jesus’ words in verses 12-14 about his own preference for dinner parties made up of the blind, lame, poor, crippled, and other such social outcasts, the implication is that the people in the parable who turned down the invitation did so out of fear that they would have to break bread with a blind man or with some poor person with bad breath. Whether the host in Jesus’ parable represents Jesus himself or his heavenly Father, either way we know up front (based on the course of Jesus’ ministry thus far) that it would not be at all unusual if his guest list proved to be much more varied and diverse than the guest list of that Pharisee in whose house Jesus told this story.
The last line of this parable has the host saying, “Those invited will not get a taste of my banquet.” It seems an odd thing to say. After all, neither did they want a taste of it. Yet just that may be the problem. C.S. Lewis once mused that perhaps in the end the people who end up in hell will get there not because God sent them there but rather by their own choosing. If someone lives his whole life without ever once being willing to say to God, “Your will be done,” perhaps the day will come when by virtue of that choice God will say to that person, “Very well then, YOUR will be done. You’ve wanted no part of me and so that is the way it will stay, too.”
Luke doesn’t tell us how that Sabbath-day dinner party ended. But you have the feeling that when Jesus left, his host did not smile and say, “Come again!” In fact, in the balance of Luke’s gospel you will never again read that Jesus was the guest of a Pharisee or any other religious authority. The next dinner party Jesus attends is at the beginning of Luke 15 but this time he is the guest of tax collectors and “sinners.” The Pharisees watch Jesus go into that party and condemn him loudly for doing it. Small wonder that immediately following this parable—in what will be the lection for next Sunday–Luke shows Jesus talking about the cost of discipleship and how much a person must be willing to give up if he or she truly wants to follow after Jesus.
We know who Jesus’ kind of people were. The question to ask of ourselves and of our congregations in a sermon on Luke 14 is whether Jesus’ kind of people are our kind of people.
In verse 1 of Luke 14, the Greek literally says that Jesus went to the house of the arch-Pharisee (the archon in Greek) “phagein arton,” or literally, “to eat bread.” Granted that “artos” can mean food more broadly defined and so could be a kind of general word for “dinner.” But since breaking bread was in Jesus’ day symbolic of having a certain solidarity with those with whom you share the loaf, the overt inclusion of “bread” in Luke 14:1 may indeed be Luke’s way of kicking off a passage that will ultimately be all about having solidarity with the least, last, and lost people in this world.
In his book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” Philip Yancey asserts something that I am certain must have been true. Yancey noted that in too many of the movies that have been made about Jesus, the actor who portrays the carpenter’s son from Nazareth often comes across very flat. Most of his words are delivered in a kind of monotone and his demeanor is placid to the point of being dull. But based on the gospels, Yancey says that Jesus must have been a whole lot happier-looking and more outwardly joyful than that. People really liked being around Jesus. He was such a popular dinner guest that when his enemies wanted to say something bad about him, they accused him of being a glutton and a wine-bibber.
People were attracted to Jesus because he exuded joy. However, as Luke 14 reveals, Jesus was not above being the kind of dinner guest you hope you never get! Have you ever been at a dinner party where something happens that makes you want to crawl under the table (if not simply flee into the night)? Maybe there was a political discussion around the dinner table that got just a little too heated. Maybe one of the guests inadvertently prattled on and on in highly critical tones about what a wretched person Mary Jones is, only to find out too late that Mary Jones is the host’s sister-in-law. Whatever the cause, sometimes it happens that a good meal is spoiled when some of the guests get angry, blush in deep purple embarrassment, or well up with tears at some hurtful remark.
At the dinner party in Luke 14, Jesus made any number of remarks that may have made at least a few guests want to crawl under the table! Jesus wasn’t being rude, however, just poignant.
Author: Doug Bratt
Diseases that sap memory, like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, deeply frighten some people. After all, memory connects us to those we love and even in a way to ourselves. Without memory, we largely become alone in the world. Without memory, in many ways we no longer feel like we belong anywhere.
Memory, however, also in many ways shapes who we are. U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky argues that much of America’s identity is linked to the past we inherit. Things like the Revolutionary War and Civil Wars, slavery and civil rights struggles shape the United States as a country.
Or think about the way memory shapes more personal things. Memories of the parental care we experienced as children shape the way we parent our own children. Memories of the racial prejudice we’ve experienced shapes the way we deal with people of other races now.
Pinsky even goes so far as to bluntly insist, “Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide what we are.” But what if we can’t remember? Or simply choose to somehow forget? What happens then? Such a decision also shapes what we are.
In the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, God indicts Israel for having forgotten. By choosing to forget, she has chosen her identity as one who has divorced herself from the living God.
Of course, Israel’s original identity was that of God’s “bride.” At one time she enjoyed an intimate relationship with God. In language similar to that of the prophet Hosea, Jeremiah uses marital imagery like “devotion” and “love” to describe Israel’s relationship with God.
Yet as soon as Israel entered the Promised Land, she forgot the Lord because she chose to forget what God had done for her. She forgot that God freed her from slavery in Egypt. Israel also forgot that the Lord led her through the wilderness full of all sorts of ominous dangers.
So almost as soon as they settled in the Promised Land, the Israelites turned to worship Canaan’s fertility gods. They assumed those gods, not the living God, gave them their grain, wine and oil. The Israelites faithlessly assumed that the Lord who had brought them through the wilderness couldn’t or wouldn’t help them in a more fertile land.
Public life becomes wretched when any people forget who they are. Religious leaders no longer provide godly leadership. Judges forget the central importance of justice. Rulers forget that power is a loan from God. Prophets forget that they speak for God.
Such disobedience, Jeremiah mourns in verse 7, has a dirtying affect even on the land where it occurs. We generally think of pollution as involving things like acid rain and unclean water. You and I usually link it to things like the loss of wetlands and oxygen-giving forests to bulldozers, housing developments and shopping centers.
Those certainly are prominent aspects of pollution. But in the Bible sin also pollutes God’s land. So Jeremiah insists things like murder, breaking of the law and covenant, adultery and especially idolatry somehow scar and disfigure God’s good creation. Ironically, then, even the most ardent environmentalists pollute God’s world if they sin against God.
Jeremiah is very specific about how Israel polluted the Promised Land in our text. God’s law was the sum of all of Israel’s traditions about God’s words and works. Two groups in Israel, the priests and the prophets, were responsible for passing those on to the people.
Yet the religious leaders who were Jeremiah’s contemporaries knew nothing about a faithful relationship with the living God. They didn’t know about God’s holy character and will. So the religious leaders preached not God’s Word, but what they heard in the religion of Baal. Israel’s rulers before Josiah, too, broke the just requirements of God’s law.
So why does God, in verse 5, harshly pronounce Judah as “worthless?” Because she has literally pursued worthlessness. Judah has become precisely what she has so vigorously chased. Quite simply, Israel has given her heart to gods other than the living Lord. Judah has traded in the worthy, living God for worthless gods.
Think of how extraordinary that is. You and I may trade in our car for another car. We may even, in a sense, trade in our house for a newer house. But would any of us ever consider trading in the living God for some worthless god?
You and I pray that our unbelieving friends and loved ones will turn from their various gods to the living God. We pray that God will use our missionaries to bring people from the death of unbelief to life in Jesus Christ.
Israel, however, according to our text, has done just the opposite. She has exchanged worship of the living God for worship of worthless idols. This is conversion in startlingly perverse reverse. Israel has traded “down.” Such a reverse conversion is downright foolish.
Our living God offers you and me everything we can ever need and more. The Lord offers us eternal life that begins already now. Jeremiah’s Israel, however, traded all this for gods who could offer her nothing. In a vivid metaphor for such worthless idolatry, Jeremiah adds in verse 13 that Judah has dug her own “broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” She has, in other words, foolishly pinned her hopes on gods that “can’t hold water,” that can’t deliver what they promise.
But what does this have to do with those whom we teach and to whom we preach, as well as us? We, after all, don’t worship idols made of stone or gold. Our “gods” aren’t fat Buddhas or mythical characters. But as Martin Luther once said, our god isn’t necessarily made of gold or bronze. It’s quite simply that thing which is most important to you and me.
In the United States, next Monday is Labor Day on which we celebrate the gift of work. School has just started or will soon start for most of our students. A new church year of activities will soon begin. All of those things are wonderful gifts God has given us to use and enjoy . . . as long as we keep them in perspective.
Our work is part of our daily worship that we offer to God. Education prepares people to play a proper role in both society and God’s kingdom. The church also, by God’s grace, helps you and me maintain a healthy daily walk with God. However, each of those things also has the potential to become our god. Our work, our schooling and even our church life easily replace God as the ultimate object of our deepest loyalty and affection.
And if they do become most important to us, they’re little different than a fat Buddha or Canaan’s Baal. When things like our work, our education, our church life, or our families or our recreation become most important to us, they’re our worthless gods.
Israel made herself worthless by worshipping such worthless gods. With this unsealed indictment against God’s people, God essentially takes her to court in verse 9. There God finds Israel’s actions, in light of all God has done for her, simply shocking.
Isn’t it unprecedented, the Lord says, that people would exchange a God who is their glory for “no gods”? Go to the other nations and find out, God says. They have far less reliable gods – yet even they don’t swap gods like Israel has!
So God turns to the “jury,” to what verse 12 calls “the heavens,” and says they should be shocked and appalled at Israel’s nonsense. Then, however, God the Judge pronounces the Lord’s drastic sentence. Our translation renders verse 12, “Shudder with great horror.” Literally, however, the original language means, “be utterly desolate.” In other words, it’s as if God commands the heavens to dry up so that they don’t send any rain or any other kind of moisture.
The inhuman heavens, unlike Israel, respond by obeying the living God. Jeremiah 14 describes the result of this command. Judah suffers through a brutal drought where she can find no water.
So where can God’s parched people, both ancient and modern, find the true “spring of living water” that nourishes forever? In the gospel of John Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “Whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
It’s worthless to abandon the Living Water that is Jesus Christ in pursuit of other water, whether it is work or anything else, that can’t satisfy. “What good,” after all, “is it” for us, Jesus asks in Mark 8:36, if we gain “the whole world,” yet “forfeit” our soul?
As God did for Israel, God has freed you and me from slavery, in our case from our slavery to sin, Satan and death. The Lord has brought us into a land that’s so full of good gifts that we can’t even count them all. To abandon all that love shown to us in Jesus Christ is finally “worthless,” doing us no good, giving us only death.
People I’ll call George and Martha were married for almost thirty years when Alzheimer’s’ Disease first snuck and then stormed into her life. As that awful disease took over much of her life, when Martha looked at George, she saw not a husband, but a total stranger. She had completely forgotten what he did for her. In fact, Martha came to criticize George to his face and lavishly praise her first husband who’d been killed shortly after they were married.
Of course, George’s plight didn’t perfectly mirror God’s. After all, Martha didn’t choose to forget him. A ghastly disease simply robbed her of her memory. Yet as painful as this was for George, it was only a taste of the pain God experienced because of any rejection of the Lord who has done so much for us.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 112 is one gorgeous piece of poetry about happiness. But there’s one simple problem with it: It just ain’t so. What it says about the happiness of those who fear the Lord doesn’t seem to be true, not for all of us, not all the time, and for some, not at all. At least I think that’s how some people in your church will hear its lovely words.
Psalm 112 certainly is beautiful, a real work of Hebrew poetic art. For one thing, it is a twin to Psalm 111 in many ways. Both are alphabetic acrostics with each Hebrew half line advancing through the alphabet. James Limburg calls them the ABC Psalms. Their respective messages are complementary. Psalm 111 sings the praise of Yahweh for his unfailing righteousness; it is the praise of the upright who fear the Lord. Psalm 112 describes how the fear of that righteous Lord works out in the life of the upright. (Mays)
Structurally, in both Psalms the first and last verses frame the Psalm. In both, the body develops the theme introduced in the first verse, while the closing verses (especially in Psalm 112) add a counterpoint. In both, the main body of 8 verses falls thematically into two halves of 4 verses each, and there are themes that repeat within those halves and even between the two Psalms (compare 111:3-5 with 112:3-5). And the last line of Psalm 111 introduces the subject matter of Psalm 112. There is, in other words, a tightknit symmetry in these two Psalms, which will turn out to be relevant for our final interpretation.
The common theme of the two is righteousness, uprightness, justice. As Brueggemann puts it: “Psalm 112 speaks for the righteous person in a righteous society governed by a righteous God. Everything is all right.” He continues, “In Psalm 111 and 112 God rules the world with moral symmetry. The world works so that persons receive the consequences of their actions (Gal. 6:7); this statement entertains no doubt about it.”
Therein lies the problem with Psalm 112. Things are manifestly not all right in the lives of many of God’s righteous people. In spite of their best efforts to live for God, they do not receive what they deserve. Instead the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. The opening statement, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,” is a reassuring sentiment. However, what follows as a description of that blessing is not only contrary to the experience of many saints, but it is also contrary to the way some other Psalms talk about the lives of the righteous (cf. Psalm 73 as a vivid case in point).
When Psalm 112 says that those who fear the Lord will have happy families, houses full of riches, and an untarnished reputation, many strugglers in our congregations might well say, “Oh, that it were true!” Does fearing the Lord really guarantee us a charmed life, the kind of life promised by the “Health and Wealth Gospel?” Tell that to the Christians killed by ISIS in the Middle East or kidnapped by Boko Horan in Nigeria or hounded by the authorities in China. For such believers Psalm 112 may seem naïve or even false. This sunny picture of the life of God’s people is lovely, but is it true?
A better question is, how is it true? I’m convinced that if it’s in Scripture, it is true. We just need to be sure that we are reading it truly. Two questions will help us identify the truth. First, what does the fear of the Lord amount to? It might be that the reason Psalm 112 doesn’t seem true for some believers is that they don’t truly fear the Lord. We need to be careful with that line of investigation, lest we carelessly attribute people’s trouble to their lack of faith. But a careful study of “the fear of the Lord” may help us understand and appropriate what this lovely Psalm says.
The second question will probe what the Psalmist says about the lives of those who fear the Lord. What does the Psalm promise them? Is it a “health and wealth” gospel promise? For that matter, are these consequences of fearing the Lord really promises? Or are they generally true observations about life (as are common in wisdom literature, of which Psalm 112 seems to be an example)? And quite apart from those larger questions, what exactly do the words of Psalm 112 mean when they talk about the blessings of fearing the Lord?
So what is “the fear of the Lord?” Every preacher knows that it isn’t the terror of the Lord. In English the word “fear” suggests some kind of threat which prompts the reptilian responses of fight or flight. The Hebrew has more of the sense of awe or respect or honor. But Psalm 112 goes to great lengths to show us that the fear of the Lord is not just an attitude or a psychological state.
It is a life lived, a life of obedience that is motivated not by a sense of duty, but by a “great delight in his commands.” Fearing the Lord is not trying to do the right things in an effort to win the Lord’s favor, but trusting the Lord who has redeemed us and delighting to please the one who loves us faithfully. In other words, fearing the Lord is not a grim obligation or a dutiful burden, but a grace-filled, joyful mirroring of the way God lives (as spelled out in Psalm 111—more on that later).
Notice the specific things Psalm 112 says about the one who fears the Lord. She is “gracious and compassionate (vs. 4),” “generous and lends freely (vs.5),” “conducts her affairs with justice (vs. 5),” and “has scattered her gifts abroad to the poor (vs. 9).” As I said earlier, the key word in this description of the God fearer is “righteous.” But the characteristic behaviors listed above show that upright doesn’t mean uptight. The emphasis is not on an exacting adherence to a list of rules. Instead, says Brueggemann, “Virtue is relational. Goodness is not a condition or a property or a state of being, but a set of actions in social relations. Virtue concerns social relations precisely in relation to the distribution of economic justice.” Psalm 112 asserts that “giving life resources away to others in the community is the way of real joy.”
In other words, fearing the Lord in that way is itself the source of a happy life, quite apart from the state of our family, our finances or our physical fitness. That observation leads directly to our second question. What does Psalm 112 promise those who fear the Lord? The central thing is being “blessed,” which might be loosely translated “happy” or more accurately “content.” Those who fear the Lord will be content. One thinks of Paul’s famous, “I have learned to be content no matter what my circumstances (Phil 4:11ff).”
That gets close to the meaning of Psalm 112, but the literal sense of the Hebrew, asre, reveals the heart of this blessedness/happiness/contentment. The Hebrew word means “to advance, to walk straight, or to follow the track.” Those who fear the Lord will follow the Lord’s will, walking straight, advancing toward the kind of life God himself lives. By doing that, they will be content, blessed, happy.
Everything that follows in Psalm 112 must be seen in that context. Verse 2, then, is not a promise of a large happy family, but an observation that those who fear the Lord raise families that are a mighty force for Yahweh and enjoy the blessing of Yahweh. Similarly, verse 3 is not a promise of wealth, but an observation that God often blesses the obedient with wealth (e.g., Abraham, Job, David, and Solomon) and a subtle admonition that such wealth must be used righteously. That understanding of verse 3 is validated by the twin observations that fearing the Lord means being generous and lending freely (verse 5) and scattering abroad gifts to the poor (verse 9). While the God fearing might hope that God will make them rich, they should expect to use their wealth to help others.
This more realistic reading of the “blessings” of the God fearing is borne out by other verses. Verse 4 says, “Even in darkness light dawns for the upright.” There will be dark times in the lives of even the most trusting and obedient. But the light of Yahweh will always break through and triumph. Verse 6 asserts, “Surely he will never be shaken….” Earthquakes of various kinds may shake the earth around him, but the righteous will not be shaken in his heart. Verses 7 and 8 continue in that vein. “He will have no fear of bad news….” Bad news will undoubtedly come, but he will not live in fear of such news, because “his heart is steadfast, trusting the Lord….” He may encounter enemies in his life, but “in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.”
Overall, the “blessing” of “fearing the Lord” is righteousness. Through the dark times, the earthquakes, the bad news and the battles, the God fearing person is able to follow God’s will, walking straight, advancing toward the kind of life that God himself lives as explained in Psalm 111. Thus, a righteous person will be remembered forever; his righteousness endures forever; indeed, his horn will be lifted high in heaven. Living righteously is its own blessing. It is simply the best way to live, because it is the way God lives.
Indeed, the conjunction of Psalm 111 and 112 emphasizes that the truly happy life is a life of partnership with God; “the content person of Psalm 112 partners with the God of Psalm 111 working together to achieve righteousness—right living, correct order, truth and justice—in this world.” (Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford) We solve the riddle of the “health and wealth” verses by focusing on what Psalm 112 says the righteous should do, rather than on what it says will result. What these twin Psalm tell us is that our lives and our futures are shaped by the way we mirror the deeds of our Lord. Or to put it more simply, in the words of an old hymn: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
That hymn points to one final question. How do we preach a uniquely Christian sermon on this poetic slice of Jewish wisdom? The central message of the early Christian church in the face of both Roman and Jewish opposition was, “Jesus is Lord.” The Lord we should fear is Jesus, who didn’t just lay down the law to be obeyed, but also laid down his own life to be received in faith. Living righteously as Psalm 112 directs us to do is not the way to be saved; it is the way saved people follow the Lord Jesus.
Jesus was very clear about that when he gave the church its marching orders for the rest of history. “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you….” Teach people to follow me in a straight line, advancing always toward the Kingdom I have established, “for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
In America’s “Declaration of Independence” there is a stunning assertion. All human beings have an inalienable, God-given right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” No wonder people flock to the U.S. from all over the world. To be free to pursue happiness in any way you choose is a privilege billions can’t imagine. But how many of us actually find the happiness for which all humans long? How many will end up disappointed, like those who are described in the last line of Psalm 112; “the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.” In the light of that conclusion, what a privilege it is to know the path to true happiness. While “the fear of the Lord” may sound onerous to many people, it is the way to pursue happiness and actually find it for time and eternity. Let’s be sure to preach it as a blessing of God’s grace.
I can’t read about fearing the Lord without recalling that famous interchange in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The children have entered Narnia through the wardrobe. Mr. Beaver is telling them about Aslan, the main character who represents Christ throughout the “Chronicles of Narnia.” I know that this quote has been used so often that it may have lost its power for some. But for those who’ve never heard it, it still strikes the right chord as we approach Psalm 112.
“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the Great Lion.” “Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous meeting a lion….” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “who said anything about being safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Author: Scott Hoezee
No one knows exactly who the audience of Hebrews was. We tend to think of the earliest Christians as something of a rag-tag group made up mostly of people of modest means at best and perhaps populated primarily by poorer folks. Yet there are just enough warnings in the New Testament about not getting carried away by greed or the love of money that one has to assume there must have been some reason for all that. Early Christians may not have been among the wealthiest people in the ancient world but there must have been enough money around as to be a potential stumbling block of temptation.
This is now the fourth week in a row that the Year C Lectionary has had us looking at the last three chapters of Hebrews. As this letter (or collection of sermons?) comes in for a landing, we start to get something of a grab bag of final words of advice and admonition. But running through these verses in Hebrews 13 is an easy-to-discern common thread: be generous. Host strangers (they could be angels after all). Don’t get attached to money or things but give them away to those who have less. God will take care of you so don’t clutch your things too tightly as though it were all up to you. Imitate Jesus and imitate those who are good at proclaiming Christ and living as he did. Jesus does not change with the fashions of the times so keep your eyes on his example and do likewise.
Then, in verses the Common Lectionary skips over, we are told not to be distracted by ceremonies or rituals that try to do what Jesus already did perfectly for us; namely, make us holy by the shedding of his blood. There is a curious and somewhat complicated Old Testament analogy invoked here that mixes together imagery of the old camp of ancient Israel with the Tabernacle and then finally also the Holy City. It feels like the writer’s analogies here are straining just a bit to hold together but the idea remains clear enough: we have to keep going to Jesus and looking to Jesus to see what he did for us because that sets the tone for our own living as we also sacrifice ourselves, our wealth, our time for the sake of others.
The writer Dallas Willard noted in his fine book The Divine Conspiracy that we often forget what the goal of discipleship is: we really are supposed to live like Jesus. To become Jesus. To be generous and sacrificial like Jesus. This is not a metaphor. This is not some overblown aspiration. This really is to be the bright center of our lives. And it may involve suffering. It may involve real sacrifice of various kinds. It likely requires us to do things that we are not overly comfortable doing all things being equal but that are necessary if we are ever going to break out of our little safe bubbles so as to include and enfold others, starting with the needy, those in prison, those who are strangers (and who are sometimes flat out strange) to us.
But, of course, there is always a danger lurking here, too, and it can be seen somewhat in this list of what some Bibles call “Concluding Exhortations” in Hebrews 13, too. The danger is turning these attempts to live like Jesus into something that does an end-run on Jesus’ sacrifice by tempting us to think that it is OUR obedience that gets us rewarded with a free trip to heaven by and by. And it does not help us preachers that in most churches there are any number of people who are already pretty legalistic about their moral lives and how that morality figures into the calculus of salvation. In fact, there are people who don’t think a sermon is really a sermon until or unless the preacher gives them a long To Do list for the week ahead. And as William Willimon once said, people will thank the preacher for this. “Thank you, pastor! Thank you for telling me what to DO to make sure God will love me again this week.”
But as a colleague of mine says, that undercuts grace eventually. We should not want to be preaching “shouldy sermons” all the time. When we turn our eyes to Jesus and go to Jesus “outside the city” as Hebrews 13 commends, one of the first things we need to notice is that Jesus did what we never could: His perfect sacrifice alone is what saves us. It’s all grace. It’s not about us. In fact, even imitating Jesus and seeking really to be like him would be impossible without God’s abiding gift of grace through the Holy Spirit. We cannot do this. We can only receive what only God can give and we go from there, seeing the whole of our lives—and yes, also the very shape of our morality—as being all gift, all gravy, all grace all the time.
In preaching this requires something of a deft balancing act. On the one hand we must never—even subtly—undercut grace. On the other hand neither can we deny that grateful living for that grace does require intentionality on our part and so we do need to point people to leading generous lives as Hebrews 13 talks about. But always we frame this up inside grace. The indicative always precedes the imperative; grace always comes before “Go and do likewise.”
And it all goes back to baptism. In the New Testament—especially in Paul’s writings but here in Hebrews too—commands to lead a certain way of life never come across as “Try harder so you might yet become what you currently are not.” Instead and in baptism the idea is always “Be who you are! You are baptized, saved, renewed, changed. Now just go with God’s flow and act like it!”
Like the writer to the Hebrews, we preachers do indeed need to do our share of exhorting. But we stand in our pulpits or behind our music stands on our ecclesiastical stages for one and one reason only: because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We could not do that. We cannot contribute to that even now. But we can respond with joy and fervor as by the Spirit we let Jesus take over our very lives.
Preaching, but really also the whole of the Christian life, can be compared to a tightrope walk. When you are on a tightrope, you can fall one of two directions and in theological terms this means falling to the right and so propping up a grace-killing legalism or falling to the left and promoting a gratitude-killing antinomianism. Keeping our balance means preaching and pondering grace all the time while never forgetting for a moment that this gift of grace is so huge, so enormous that—to quote the old hymn—it “demands my heart, my soul, my all.”
Or to invoke a different image, this one from C.S. Lewis: we constantly mix up roots and fruit. The roots of our Christian living is grace alone. The fruits of our living are the good works and deeds of righteousness that grow on the branches of our lives. The problem is that grace is subterranean and you cannot see it whereas the fruits are pretty easy to spy and so it’s easy to become so focused on them that we forget nothing would grow were it not for the grace below us. The grace that saves us and that enables our lives of discipleship may be harder to see than the deeds we perform but to forget our very roots is quite simply foolish