The Second Sunday after Trinity: Love in Deed and Truth
The Second Sunday after Trinity: Love in Deed and Truth
1 John 3:13-24 & St. Luke 14:16-24
by William Klock
We read a portion of St. John’s first epistle this morning. He writes to the churches saying, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). “Little children”. Not just “children”, but “little children”. The Greek word for children is tekna. But then there’s teknia, John’s choice of words. They add an “i” to make the usual word diminutive—cutesy, tender, and endearing. I think you’re probably all familiar with that often abused Aramaic word that Jesus used: abba. It means “father”, but it’s warmer, closer, more personal, which is why sometimes people try to get that sense with “papa” or even “daddy”. It’s what a child would call his own father. “Little children” isn’t quite like that, but I think it’s close. John was a very old man by the time he wrote the words of today’s Epistle. He had become a spiritual father to these people, and so he calls them “little children” to convey something of that relationship. But it also fits the context, because he’s got some hard words for them—something they desperately need to hear, but that won’t be easy—so John addresses them as a father lovingly speaking to his little children. Teaching little children about love isn’t easy. It’s easy to tell children about love. But getting them to understand, that’s the hard part. And getting them to love and to love consistently, that’s even harder. I can remember being very young and singing songs about loving Jesus and praying prayers that expressed my love for him. And I would pray for Daddy and Mommy and my sister, Jackie, and then five minutes later Jackie would do something that made me angry—or maybe she didn’t do anything at all—and I would do something mean and unloving to her. And I would get spanked and Dad or Mom would send me out to apologise and to give her a hug and to saying, “I love you.” But then a few days later it would happen all over again. And as adults, sometimes we aren’t all that different. We can still act like “little children”. Only now it’s our brother or our sister at church or our husband or wife or our children or someone at work. Talking about love is easy and cheap; actual loving in deed and in truth can be difficult and costly.
We profess love for God. We come to church and sing songs about our love for him. We recite the summary of the law every Sunday—reminding ourselves of our duty to love God and to love each other. But something happens—maybe even on the way home—and we so quickly become selfish, spiteful, and even vengeful. About twenty-five years ago, back when cable internet service was a new thing and whole neighbourhoods shared a single cable line, one DSL provider aired a serious of hilarious commercials that took place on a fictional street where everyone shared the same cable internet line. The bandwidth shortages turned friends and neighbours into enemies. One man was whacking his weeds and, when the neighbour turned his back, reached over the fence, and ran his weed-whacker through his flowers. Another neighbour returned the favour, shooting a stream of water from his hose through the open sunroof of the car in the next driveway. Another neighbour woke to find “Web Hog” spraypainted across his garage door and his cable line cut. Eventually, as the commercials progressed, the neighbourhood looked more and more like a war zone, all because of this escalating tit-for-tat over limited internet bandwidth.
It was funny. But it also tapped into the reality of human nature. It’s amazing how mean and unloving we human beings can be even over petty things—and it only escalates from there. As I said back in Eastertide when we were looking at St. James’ epistle, our first response when things go wrong is all too often to think that adding a good helping of our own anger to the mix is what will fix things—and then things spiral out of control. But Jesus shows us a better way. At the cross our sin and evil, the power of the devil, all of it rose up to its full height and did its worst, we struck down the very man who was God incarnate come to set this broken world to rights, and instead of striking down his enemies, instead of raining down fire and brimstone on them, he took every last bit of their hate and returned it with love and he broke the cycle. He shed his blood for the very men and women who rejected him as Messiah and who demanded his crucifixion. As we heard Jesus say in our Gospel last week, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Brothers and Sisters, that’s love. That’s the better way—to return hate with love. And it’s hard, because it’s going to cost us, but it’s the way—the only way—into God’s kingdom, because this kind of love is the defining way of God’s kingdom. That’s why God has called his people from the beginning to love him and to love our neighbours—whether that was by hearing and obeying the law of Moses in the days of the old covenant or hearing and obeying the law of the Spirit in the days of the new. We are God’s means of bringing light into the darkness of the world, and so he calls us to be the people who exemplify what it means to live with God in our midst. We are witnesses of his love and his goodness and his faithfulness and it is in our midst that the world should have a foretaste of what it will one day look like when God finally defeats every last enemy and sets it all to rights.
But, like little children, we too often forget what it’s all about. We forget that we’re part of God’s kingdom by grace. We forget the costliness of love. We forget that we are stewards of God’s light, we forget that we’ve been given this good news about Jesus, so that we might proclaim it to the world, bringing others into the light. And instead we become proud of ourselves for having the light and we keep it to ourselves instead of holding it high, we condemn the people out in the dark as if we weren’t once out in that same darkness ourselves. God’s people have always struggled with this.
At the beginning of Chapter 14 of his Gospel, Luke tells us that one Sabbath Jesus was invited to have dinner at the house of a prominent Pharisee and that there was a man there who had dropsy or oedema. The whole thing looks like a setup. Looking at the man and then turning to these authorities on the law, Jesus asks them if it’s legal to heal on the Sabbath. Luke says that they were silent. Jesus then healed the man and sent him on his way and we can gather that the lawyers and Pharisees all looked very offended and scandalised—even though they had to have known that this is exactly what Jesus would do. Jesus then asked them, “Which of you who, if your son or your ox fell into a well on the Sabbath wouldn’t immediately pull him out?” And despite the answer being obvious—of course they’d pull out him out!—they didn’t know what to say. They knew whatever they might say would condemn them.
But what’s that all about? Well, remember that for the Jews of Jesus’ day and especially for the Pharisees, there were three main things that set them apart from everyone else in the world: circumcision, the Sabbath, and their diet. At least one of those things comes into play here. The Pharisees were zealous to keep the Sabbath holy and that meant absolutely no kind of work. The Lord had given them this commandment to keep the sabbath as part of that whole matrix of laws meant to set them apart and to distinguish them from the nations. Everyone else lived in darkness, but Israel—they were the people who lived with the Lord in their midst. But these men has forgotten that at the heart of the law, the driving force behind it, was love. Every part of it in some way was meant to exhibit a love for God or a love for neighbour—or both at the same time. And keeping the sabbath showed a love for God, but it was never meant to show love for God to the exclusion of love for neighbour. The law itself—and this is what Jesus is getting at—had provisions. If your child fell in a well on the sabbath, the Lord granted permission to do the work necessary to get him out—because the law also taught the people about the Lord’s love for them. The Pharisees knew this, but like little children they’d become petty. Jesus had broken the law. How dare he show God’s love to a crippled man on the sabbath when he could have asked the man to come back on Monday! Well, that, and if he was crippled, he must have done something awful to deserve such punishment from God. Who was Jesus to overturn such a verdict? This is what they’d made of the law, but this was not how it was supposed to be. As Jesus warned in the Sermon on the Mount, they’d been given the light, but they’d turned it into darkness. How would the nations ever see the God of Israel at work in such a people? How would the nations ever be so amazed that they’d come to give him glory?
I suspect this was a setup meant to trap Jesus. The man was most likely a beggar who showed up at the door for scraps. Beggars did that all the time when rich people were having banquets. But to see what Jesus would do, the host allowed this man to actually slip into the banquet. And instead of throwing him some scraps and sending him on his way, Jesus welcomed the man into the banquet and healed him. And they acted shocked and appalled. But they knew from the beginning that this is what he would do, because it's what he’d been doing throughout his ministry. It’s what he was known for. But Jesus, wise as always, turned the tables back on them.
The Pharisees didn’t know what to say, but Jesus launches in to two parables. The first addresses all the social posturing that went on at these banquets. Everyone was invited for a reason and ultimately in order for the host to show off the status he had in the world and, hopefully, to elevate himself even higher. The second parable is today’s Gospel reading and it begins at verses 12-14:
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Jesus strikes at the Pharisees’ source of security. The resurrection of the dead was one of the key doctrines of the Pharisees. They knew that when the Messiah came, he would judge the wicked and resurrect the righteous. And, of course, they were the righteous who would be resurrected. And here Jesus tells them: “The resurrection you’re sure of—you’re going to miss it if you don’t change—if you don’t repent. You’re convinced the Lord will reward you for your righteousness, but until you start showing mercy and grace to the poor, to the unclean, and to the outsider, you will never understand true righteousness. If you want to take part in the coming resurrection of the dead, you need to start bearing fruit that reflects grace. You need to get your head around the fact that for all your righteousness and law-keeping, you too are sinners. You won’t be saved from the coming judgement because of your family or your intellect, your law-keeping or your spirituality. Only those who can humbly acknowledge their sinfulness and who are ready to trust in God’s grace—and are humble and gracious enough to share it with sinners even worse than themselves—only they will be resurrected when the Lord comes.
But Jesus’ fellow dinner guests still don’t get it. One clueless soul chimes in, cheerfully declaring: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” He doesn’t understand that Jesus is telling him that if he doesn’t repent of his self-righteousness, if he doesn’t humble himself before God, he won’t eat bread in the kingdom of God. And so Jesus tells a second parable that’s even more vivid and that strikes even harder at the Jews’ source of security. Look at verses 15-20:
But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’
Remember, again, how important an event like this was in the First Century. This wasn’t just a matter of putting a roast in the oven and inviting friends to eat and play cards after dinner. If they call at the last minute to say they can’t make it, you might be disappointed, but you can do it again next week. A banquet like the one Jesus describes was a major social event. The guest list was carefully made to everyone’s mutual social advantage. To top it off, a big banquet was an expensive affair—you couldn’t just postpone it because your guests backed out at the last minute. And for that matter, as a guest to a banquet like this, backing out was a huge social snub. For all their excuses, what these guests are really doing is orchestrating a rejection of their host.
What’s interesting is that the man hosting the banquet simply decides to throw all social propriety and the whole hierarchical system of their world out the window. If the people of his own social class will have nothing to do with him, he’ll have nothing to do with them. Look at how he responds:
So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:21-24)
When the rich won’t come, he rounds up the poor. Notice that his servant literally has to bring them or even compel them to come to the banquet. The poor and crippled and blind and lame knew that they didn’t belong. When they heard the invitation from the servant, they would have thought it was a joke. Banquets were all about quid pro quo and tit for tat. They had nothing to offer this rich man who invited them. In Israel it should not have been like that, but Israel had become very worldly. The Pharisees kept the law—at least outwardly—but they’d forgotten it’s heart of love. And so the rich man sends his servants out to round up these outsiders and to bring them to the banquet to enjoy his gracious hospitality. The rich man rejects the whole system of patronage and debts and reciprocal favours—none of those who rejected his invitation will ever sit at his table. Instead, he’s going to share his hospitality with the people who haven’t earned it and can never repay it.
Luke doesn’t tell us how the Pharisees responded or if they even understood, but it’s hard to think that it didn’t sink in on some level. Everyone in the Jewish world, and especially the Pharisees, were waiting for the Lord’s return. The prophets had talked about that great day in terms of a great banquet and this banquet idea then became a common image of the coming Day of the Lord. Israel’s God would return to judge and to cast down the nations (and the unfaithful within Israel) and then would throw a great feast for his beloved people. The closest things they had to describe it was their entry into the promised land, the land of milk and honey, and the prosperous days of King David. It would be like that, only a thousand times more so. And now Jesus explains that he’s come to open the door to that great banquet. This is what Israel has been waiting for all these years. And yet Jesus rebukes them. This isn’t the first time the Lord has extended his invitation. For centuries he had called to his people through the prophets, but they had refused to hear the prophets and had even killed some of them. And now Jesus has come and he’s travelled through Galilee and Judea, inviting everyone to the banquet, but like the people in the parable, they all have excuses.
It’s worth noting the excuses given in the parable. One man says that he’s bought five yoke of oxen sight-unseen and has to check them over. Another has bought a field sight-unseen and needs to go have a look at it. The third just got married and has obligations to his new bride. The first two excuses peg these men as very wealthy. Five yoke of oxen would only be needed to plough a very large tract of land. A wealthy absentee landlord was the sort of person who would buy a field without first seeing it. But all three of these excuses go back to the law given in Deuteronomy. A man who had built a new house, but hadn’t dedicated it yet, a man who had bought a field, but hadn’t enjoyed its produce, and a newly married man were all excused from going off to war. And now these guests twist those laws as excuses to reject their host’s banquet. But this is what Israel had done with the law: twisting it into something it was never meant to be. And it’s that twisting of the law that was particularly exemplified in the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t meet their expectations of the Messiah. His banquet included too many sinners, unclean people, and outsiders. They had gutted the torah of its loving heart. And so they rejected the invitation. And in response Jesus issues a warning here: If you continue to reject my invitation I will turn from you and take my invitation to the unclean and to the sick and to the poor—and even to the gentiles—and having rejected me, you will never taste of my goodness or of the salvation I’ve brought to the world.
But the parable, I think, has another level of meaning. Imagine Luke writing a generation later. Even if greater Israel had rejected Jesus’ invitation, thousands of Jews had accepted it. The first Christians were all Jews, and then an amazing thing happened: the Good News went out to the hated Samaritans—and many of them accepted the invitation. And then it went out to the Gentiles—and thousands of them accepted it too. And suddenly those first Jewish Christians were in a situation very much like the Pharisees had been. They were Jews. They were the chosen. They were the clean people. They were the righteous and holy people. Even an apostle like Peter struggled to go and pray with a gentile convert. It’s a reminder that even we who have received the grace of God, are still prone to forgetting that we come to his Table not because of our own merit, but only because of Jesus and only because of grace. We need to remember that grace when we’re tempted to think that there are people who don’t belong here. Brothers and sisters, none of us belongs here. We’re only here because God is gracious and sent his Son to die and rise from the dead for our sake. Through Jesus, the God of Israel reaches out to everyone with his promise of forgiveness and redemption and the life of the age to come if we will only repent and believe and take up his way of love and light.
But this now takes us back to Jesus’ call in verses 12-14: “When you give a dinner…do not invite your friends…lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Dear friends—St. John would say, “Little children”—as you come to the Lord’s Table this morning, think on the fact that he has invited us here from the highways and hedges. We didn’t belong here, but Jesus has washed us clean and grafted us into his family as adopted sons and daughters. Because of him, because of his loving sacrifice for us, we do belong. But having been invited, he now calls us to be hosts ourselves. Lest we forget. Lest we think that we’ve earned our place here at the Table. Lest we ever think that others don’t belong, Jesus now calls us to go out to the highways and the hedges—to go to the place we may have forgotten where he once found us. He calls us to look for the poor, the unclean, and sinners, not to condemn them, but to invite them to the Lord’s banquet—to invite them to receive the grace of God just as we have. To invite them to come and be forgiven, healed, set free, and washed clean by Jesus. Here he shows us what true love looks like, the love that he has shown us in giving his own life on the cross, and now he sends us out to live and to share and to show that same love in the power of his Spirit.
Let us pray: Father, you delight to show mercy to sinners and you graciously sent your Son to suffer the punishment we deserve. We have received your grace and have been given new life. Remind us to set aside all thoughts of self-righteousness. Give us opportunities now to share your mercy and grace with others, give us eyes to see those opportunities, and a love for sinners that we might never let those opportunities pass us by. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.