The message in the gospel passage seems quite straight forward. Be humble! Nice sentiment, but couldn’t Jesus do better than that? Everybody recognizes that humility is a virtue. Humble people are certainly more attractive than pompous people. I have to say that this particular message can evoke a polite yawn. So, let’s look at this passage more closely because there’s a message here, one that the Pharisees and the dinner guests probably heard quite clearly but is, perhaps, a bit too subtle for us.
There are two messages in this passage. The first is addressed to the guests. This wasn’t a banquet; it was a Sabbath meal, the meal commemorating God’s resting in total and complete harmony with all that had been created.
Jesus noticed that the guests were acting in a way that upset the harmony of the Sabbath. Where a guest sits at the table is very important in the Middle Eastern culture. There’s a social hierarchy that’s followed. However, the guests at this Sabbath Meal were anticipating the host’s seating plan and were seating themselves in places they presumed would reflect their social status.
In a gentle way, Jesus played to their pride. He told them to come to the table and choose the last place. Chances are that the host would invite them to a more prestigious seat. They’ll look humble to everyone else, and feel a boost of pride as they take a higher seat.
His message to the Pharisees was quite different. He told them not to invite relatives, or friends or influential people to their lunches, dinners and
banquets. Here, he moved away from the present setting. The Sabbath meal began at the family table but ordinarily expanded to friends, relatives and visitors. Strangely, Jesus told them NOT to invite the regular guests. Instead, he told them to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Jesus was telling the Pharisees to prepare themselves for a new meal, in a new time, the Messianic Time. He used images that the prophet Isaiah used in his description of the messianic time.
Say to those whose hearts are frightened,
Be strong! Fear not! Here is your God, coming with vindication;
with divine recompense God comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
and the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the dumb shall sing.
Jesus was telling the Pharisees, and everyone gathered there, that the Messianic Time had arrived. He was telling them that this Sabbath table was about to transform into the table in the Kingdom of God. At this table the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would leap up and the mute would speak. Everyone was invited to this table, and everyone was special at this table, saint and sinner alike. Soon, the Host would wash the feet of his guests. Soon, at this table, the host would be the food of eternal life.
Someone asked Jesus a question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Good question, but before we think about Jesus’ answer, let’s think a little more about this man’s question.
This man isn’t referring to the end of the world and the final judgment as Christians think about it. Jewish tradition has long spoken about the “Day of the Lord,” the day of universal judgment. It’s commemorated in the Yom Kippur liturgy in the prayer, Un’tane Tokef. “The great shofar is sounded, and a still, soft voice is heard; the angels tremble, fear and dread seize them, and they exclaim: ‘the Day of Judgment is here!’ All created beings pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so do You cause to pass before You every living soul.”
Jewish tradition held that Jews faithful to the covenant would be the first to pass safely under the staff of judgment. They were God’s chosen people. They would be saved from the destruction that would follow the day of judgment. They would have their names written in the Book of Life. Everyone else would perish.
Jesus’ answer would have been quite troubling for this man. “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…for behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Knocking on God’s door and proclaiming, “Here I am,” isn’t enough. We have to shed what belongs to the world as we know it: hatred, greed, injustice, violence, inequality. Jesus is saying, “Sorry, being Jewish isn’t enough. You have to change. You have to see a new world”
We Christians have to hear Jesus’ message, too. Being a Christian isn’t enough. We have to change, too, but it’s difficult, because we’re so used to life as it is. Finding the narrow gate means discovering the way to a new world. We have to fine-tune our vision, see the world for what it is, judge it, and then turn our sights on discovering a new world, the Kingdom of God.
Our Father who art in heaven
hallowed by Thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.
“Jesus told his disciples: ‘I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.’” What a powerful statement. It sounds a bit scary, but at the same time, there’s something about it that that fills us with excitement. To begin to unpack the full meaning of this statement we must go back to ancient Jewish tradition.
Tradition had it that, one day, God would judge the world and purify it in fire. This event, called the Day of the Lord, would inaugurate the Messianic Time. It would be a time of glory for Israel. Evil would be obliterated, the earth would be purified, and a golden age would begin for the Chosen People.
The statement Jesus made would have ignited tremendous hope in the hearts of the disciples. Could Jesus actually be saying that he’s the Messiah, and that the golden age was about to begin? Perhaps, but Jesus’ next sentence was disturbing. “There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” Jesus followed this with another jarring statement. “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
The disciples must have been reeling at the end of this short, and somewhat explosive, teaching. What was he talking about? Was he the Messiah or not? Was the Day of the Lord coming or not? What’s this about this a baptism of suffering? What about his bringing division to the
earth? His example of division shook them up totally. How would he tear families apart?
The disciples knew his teachings. They wanted to follow him. They wanted to believe his message. They were yearning for the Messianic Age – the golden age of Israel. But what he just said blew their minds! What does suffering and division have to do with his message of love and harmony, and the promise of the golden age? There was one more element of his teaching that they needed to ingest in order to understand the depth of this teaching. They had to understand the place of the cross in salvation history.
Five days before he celebrated his last Passover with his disciples, Jesus would give them the key to the understanding of this mysterious teaching. He would tell them, “Now is the time of judgment on this world, now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:31-32)
When Jesus ascended the cross that was the moment he completely emptied himself of all ego and resistance. He became an open portal, brilliantly ablaze with divine light. His outstretched arms connected heaven to earth, and from the judgment seat of the cross he cast the purifying fire of God’s love across the earth. From that moment the Messianic time began, the kingdom of God had manifested itself.
“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms…for where your treasure is there you heart will be.” This message just about says it all. We would do well to listen to it with and open mind and open heart.
Fear is an issue in the Christian experience. The New Testament was written between the year 50 AD when St. Paul began writing his letters to the churches, and the year 110 AD when the writings of John were completed. In that body of literature, the phrase “do not be afraid” occurs 365 times! Let’s look over this period of time.
Christians endured two waves of persecution during this period. The first wave came from the Jewish authorities. St. Paul, before his conversion, and other ultraorthodox Jews were opposed to the messianic movement within Judaism which came to be called Christianity. The second wave began after the Christians were expelled from membership in the synagogue in 50 AD. Until the 4 th century AD Jews held a unique position in the Roman empire. They were exempt from the obligation to offer incense to the Emperor if they paid a special yearly tax. When the Christians were excommunicated from Judaism, they lost the privilege of not having to offer incense to the Emperor. This initiated periodic persecutions until the emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD legalizing Christianity.
During those 60 years while the New Testament was being written, the Christian community was experiencing various levels of persecution throughout the Roman Empire. Fear was a part of everyday life then. But even today, large segments of Christians live with the fear of persecution. North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, India, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, United Arab Emirates, Cameroon, South Sudan and Ethiopia are at the top of the list.
We’re lucky to be able to believe what we believe, and to feel perfectly safe to gather for meetings and worship. But his message goes beyond a fear of persecution. Jesus’
words are directed to us, too. So, let’s ask, right now, what ignites the spark of fear in us. Is it lack of financial security? Is it illness? Is it a deteriorating relationship? Is it moving to a new city? Is it losing a job? Is it the death of a loved one? Is it the political situation? Is it violence? Is it the threat of war? Is it famine? Is it global warming? It is all of these and more? What’s Jesus offering us instead of fear? I believe it’s peace.
Looking at Jesus’ last days we see him battling his own fear. Witness the suffering he experienced in the garden of Gethsemane. Three times he prayed, “your will be done.” When he finished his prayer, he submitted to his arrest. He was at peace with himself and with his Father.
A few hours before his arrest Jesus told his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” He was saying this from the place of his inner peace. His world was coming down around him. He knew his closest disciples would soon abandon him. He knew that his death was near. He knew he would suffer horribly, but he had deep inner peace – the peace that came from uniting with his Father’s will. At his last supper Jesus gifted this peace to his disciples. It would manifest itself during the Pentecost event.
The Spirit brought the flame of courage, and the mighty wind of strength to the disciples. They would preach Jesus to their enemies. They would joyfully suffer for his name. With his peace in their hearts they would bravely confront every obstacle and threat.
We would do well to ponder Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock.” We’re afraid of so many things. We need to return to the Pentecost experience. We need to pray for courage and strength. It may not eliminate the existential threats that challenge us, but the Spirit’s gift of peace can prepare us to confront them. In spite of the fears that threaten us we can be courageous, we can remain strong. Today, let’s pray for the peace Jesus promised us – peace of mind and heart.