The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Unrespectable Jesus (sermon of Sep 2, 2007)

with 3 comments

Preaching this sermon was a wondrous experience for me; I learned so much, and people responded so sincerely. I hope it is similarly delightful—and equally troubling— for you!

Proper 17 (22), September 2, 2007
Luke 14:1,7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1,10-16

Luke 14:

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. …He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.
“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face. But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

What chair to sit in? Who cares? Be humble, I guess; OK, we can do that. But something’s awfully bland about that lesson, as we read it. That buzzer goes off in my mind that says, “There’s something here that you’re missing, Monte.” I think I hear that buzzer every time it seems like a lesson of Jesus is more for them than for me.

Having challenged the guests, he looks up to “bishop” who invited him there:

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just[?] invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. [and you will be blessed, NIV] They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”

Invite misfits to dinner? That’s uncomfortable enough to learn something from. But what’s really going on here?

Take a detour with me to Sarah Lanier‘s useful little book about cross-cultural understanding, Foreign to Familiar

Foreign to FamiliarEdward T. Hall, in his book Beyond Cul­ture, referred to formal culture as “high-context” and to informal culture as “low-context.” A high-context or formal culture is one that has been around a long time. Switzerland is more than eight hundred years old, and the Swiss have had time to build tradition upon tradi­tion, collecting many rules that everyone seems to know except the foreigner. …

Everything matters in Switzerland. It matters how high you grow your hedge. It matters when you put your trash out on the street. It matters that you bring a gift when you visit someone’s home. It matters how you dress when you go shopping downtown on a Saturday morning.

In the cities of Switzerland, it is easy to spot a tour­ist. Middle-aged women, if they are wearing tennis shoes in downtown Lausanne, will not be Swiss women.

In a high-context culture, everything matters. There is a definite protocol for everything — how you eat, how you greet (particularly the way young people address older people), wedding traditions, table manners, who you know …. You name it, and the high-context com­munity has a rule to cover it. Everything matters.

Another thing that distinguishes high-context cul­tures is that they have not significantly mixed with other cultures. Villages, consequently, tend to be higher con­text than cities, as cities tend to collect mixes of cultures. …

Think of our small town. What do we do differently on the street than, say, people in Iowa City? [Here, they mentioned the ubiquitous small-town wave, the eye contact, the spoken “Hi” that we say to total strangers.] These things would seem strange and suspicious in less-open Iowa City. And Mexicans who live in Washington – some of whom have been taught that looking into a stranger’s eyes is grossly disrespectful – find us very strange. When we meet them on the street, they respectfully look down – and we think they must be up to something!

The Jewish nation of Israel is another young culture, just over fifty years old. Its people are completely ca­sual. Government officials in Israel can be found wearing open-necked shirts or even shorts to the of­fice. The military is also more casual than most, with officers and subordinates often addressing each other on a first-name basis.

The reason for all of this is that with the merging of Jewish cultures from around the world, no one culture has prevailed as the one with the definitive etiquette for the country. …

The Arab communities in Israel are more high con­text however. They see traditions, protocol, addressing elders or superiors by title, as a matter of honor and respect. If one goes to an Arab home for a meal, there are rules to follow. For instance, dressing up is expected. This is a way of honoring your host. Bringing a gift is another. Conversing in polite and gracious language is another. Knowing when to leave is another. In some cases, there are signals you should be aware of. For in­stance, the serving of the coffee may signal the visit is ending. You would not want to leave until the coffee is served in this case, and it is important to find out ahead of time what the expected protocol is. Can you imagine peace in the Middle East ever happening without the various people first having an understanding of the vast differences in each other’s culture? …

Lanier tells of moving to her grandparents’ small town in the American South. She inquires about establishing a line of credit at the local store, and finds the owner quite hesitant. Finally, after much delay, he asks for a delivery address. She responds asking if he knew Homer Cook.

He said, “Well, sure.” I said, “That was my granddaddy, and I live on the back side of his property.”

“You’re Homer and Annette Cook’s granddaughter!” he said. “Why, there’s no finer folk in the county than your grandparents. Your granddaddy refinished an an­tique dresser that belonged to my grandparents and gave it back to us after they died, and it’s the only thing of theirs I have. He was a fine man. Sarah, it will be a pleasure doing business with you.” I had not changed, but I was now “in context,” and suddenly I was accepted.

See the point of that little story? Customs are not just about what’s “nice;” they affect our ability to get what we need.

Now, back to 1st C. Judea. How long had they lived there? Centuries. So they had highly developed ways of interaction. There was prestige at the table. Face-saving. Who you invited and what happened mattered a great deal. In fact, you won’t prosper without doing it very carefully. Failure may mean your family might not get what it needs. It is not just humility, not just being nice to each other, not just stupid rules: this is how it is decided who gets the privileges of commerce and friendship and leadership.

So when Jesus tells them to take the low seat, he’s telling them to do something rather costly. The people in the low seats may not receive those privileges. And what about when he tells hosts to invite the misfits? He’s telling the host to make dinners that respectable people won’t want to come to, and that may imperil his livelihood and the well-being of his family.

He’s saying, “Bust up the ways of your culture. Respect the disrespected. See the disrespect they receive, and take it upon yourself.”

Now, what does our cultural gut tell us church should be like? [Here we discussed sitting neatly in rows, children who never disrupt, everybody is clean, things are not too confrontational] Respected small-town people are going to go to a church that feels like that.

But look at Jesus’ many examples, just thumbing through Luke’s gospel:

  • 5.12: He touches a man with leprosy, which is against their law.
  • 5.17: He interacts with a paralyzed man. Remember, those with lifelong illnesses in those days were thought to be under the judgment of God, and thus, not respectable.
  • 5.27: A tax collector (a near-traitor who works for the hated Romans extorting money from his fellow Jews) – and Jesus asks him to join up with them.
  • 6.1: His disciples pick and eat heads of grain as they walk on the Sabbath – utterly unrespectable, even illegal.
  • 6.6: He heals a man with a withered hand – again, an unrespectable man and a violation of their law.
  • 6.27 Jesus tells them “love your enemies” – of what good is that?
  • 6.34 “Lend to those who can’t repay” – foolishness! That’ll ruin your reputation.
  • 7.1 He heals a Roman officer’s slave – but they’re trying to get rid of the Romans!
  • 7.11 He touches a dead man – utterly illegal!
  • 7.18 His reputation’s getting so bad that even John the Baptist thinks this doesn’t feel right.
  • 7.36 He’s touched—and in a most sensuous manner—by an immoral woman (and they know he’s not from God now or he wouldn’t allow it!)
  • 8.26 He heals a demon possessed pagan man (double pariah: demon and pagan).
  • 8.40 He touches and heals another dead person, this time a girl (even less respected).
  • 8.43 He is touched by a woman with an unstoppable menstrual illness (the ultimate untouchable!)

Would you call seeking out disrepected people something Jesus just occasionally does? Hardly! It’s foundational to what he’s about!

And these are so much more than Jesus being nice. Jesus—in a culture where who you know and how you behave is everything—is ruining his own reputation by associating with people who are society’s cast-offs. Some are even held outside social interaction by law. And he’s demonstrating an attitude that says, “These are my people, and I want them to be your people, too.” In doing so, he takes on their scarlet letter. And religious folk, deafened to God’s voice by their own respectability, write Jesus off.

Now see what he’s asking when he tells the host to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”? And in his next parable – a story about a feast in which the honored guests don’t show, the master of the feast sends out his slave to bring in the most disrepected people he can find. And clearly, he’s talking about who’s invited into the presence of God at the end of time. He turns everything upside down.

So who, might you think, Jesus would expect his church to invite?

Years ago, Lori and I had the privilege of worshipping one summer with a little church that met in a living room. It was customary in that group to kneel when we prayed. There was a man who usually came drunk. Lurching to his knees, he would mutter, “Hail Mary, mother of God” over and over. A rubbery string of snot would attach itself to the couch cushion, and trail up to his nose.

Another time we were part of a church where one of the members struggled with manic-depressive illness. He’d be respectable enough when depressed, but on the upswings, wide-eyed, he’d abruptly stand to his feet and begin telling in a loud voice about bold new things that he was going to do for God.

And so it’s sometimes been here. And we don’t know what to do.

But are these not the people Jesus is talking about?

Here’s what I want you to see: What’ll happen to us, to you, if we follow Jesus’ example? What will we lose?

  • Respect. We won’t be a respectable church. We’ll take on the reputation of the people we invite here.
  • Money. They will not come with money. They may drive away others who have it.
  • Comfort. Figuring out what to do in tricky moments will be hugely uncomfortable. Sometimes we’ll get it right, often, we won’t.
  • But this is the cross, friends! This is what it costs to follow Jesus Christ. To follow Jesus well is to be misunderstood by respectable religious people—just as he was—and to share the shame and discomfort of those who are disrespected in our towns.

    Isn’t that kind of dark? Only for a moment—Look what Jesus said in today’s text:

    You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. [and you will be blessed, NIV] They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”

    Like how?

    Mt 25:34 34-36″Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:
    I was hungry and you fed me
    I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
    I was homeless and you gave me a room,
    I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
    I was sick and you stopped to visit,
    I was in prison and you came to me.’
    37-40″Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

    In the cross, we gain him. Listen to Jean Vanier, in Becoming Human:

    WJean Vanierhen I talk about “inclusion” of people … I am not talking only about starting up special schools or residences or creating good soup kitchens or new hospitals … I am not saying we should be kind to such people because they are human beings. Nor it is a question of “normalizing” them in order that they can be “like us,” participate in church services, and go to the movies and the local swimming pool. When I speak of the inclusion of those who are marginalized I am affirming that they have a gift to give us all …The excluded, I believe, live certain values that we all need to discover and to live ourselves before we can beome truly human. It is not a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer; it is to become their friends. … they will change things in us. … (pp 83-84)

    Sarah Dylan Breuer, who blogs the lectionary texts each week at SarahLaughed, dreams big, cross-sized dreams:

    JSarah Dylan Breueresus says that we who are privileged should seek to place others in positions of privilege. He says that we should treat the poor, the sick, and the marginalized as our friends and family as well as our honored dinner guests.This is no game. It’s radical behavior that, if done consistently will instill some radical ideas: outcasts will come to see themselves as God’s insiders, and that kind of thinking will inspire movements that give them access to the center of our groups and our society. Things will change — a great deal — when we take the next step beyond charity to treat the lowest as the most honored.

    Extreme poverty could be a memory by the year 2015 — not only eliminating a great deal of senseless suffering and death, but giving this world the voices of millions of people and their dreams who in previous generations would have been denied an education if they survived at all.

    Neighborhoods segregated not only by access to income and education, but also by access to hope and power, could become a distant memory too. Our children’s lives could be enriched by learning and playing alongside friends from all cultures in a society in which every child has a chance. We could spend less time and energy running from problems belonging to “those people” and use it in fellowship in which we see God in the faces of our diverse communities as well as our families.

    Big changes in our world brought about by one big change in our behavior we have seen modeled in Jesus’ life, ministry, and death on a cross. Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn’t say that they were beggars who don’t belong; it had titles such as “Child of God,” “Beloved,” “God’s Image,” only a little lower than the angels, in Shakespeare’s phrase.

    It’s a radical way of life that respectable people thought dishonorable.

    It’s the way of life that the God who created the universe vindicated by raising Jesus from the dead.

    And that tells us that Jesus’ way is the Way of Life, the very heartbeat of the universe God made and loves

    Life becomes a celebration of inclusion: You’re a part. You’re wanted. God is interested in you.

    There is much to learn. Finding those who don’t fit, building friendships, and having humble enough hearts to learn from them—all those things are in the center of the path Jesus walked for us to see.

    Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury


    3 Responses

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    1. The quote from Jean Vanier is pretty incredible.

      I listened to A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini on tape this summer. It was an incredible look into the culture of Afghanistan. It opened my eyes to different cultures.

      Your sermon did something similar with Jesus in this passage.

      I like your application as well, you can’t get any more direct: be friends with those that aren’t easy to be friends with. With those that are friendsless. With those that make us uncomfortable. With those that have a lot to teach us.

      Actually I don’t like it. It is fitting, but the costs sound very, very high. I am getting uncomfortable thinking about it. Is that when change and truth occurs? When we are vulnerable, frustrated and uncomfortable?

      I’d rather stick with the quiet voices than with the obvious laud lessons that can happen so blatantly and brutally in such an uncomfortable situation. The quiet voices are hard to hear and seem to happen less frequently, but happen when I am comfortable and relaxed. But oh, how my life would change for the better if I became friends with “them”. The lessons would slam me upside the head and knock me over! Ouch.

      Wow. Incredible.

      -Derin Beechner-

      Monte Says: “He is not a tame lion,” as C.S. Lewis wrote. “He is kind, but not safe.” Yes, I get those emotions, too. It is the cross, I think.


      September 18, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    2. What an insightful sermon. I think Jesus the Dissident is an inspiring and rich reservoir from which to draw.

      In addition to the quoted passage about the manners and protocols of Arab culture generally, I would add that though not casual, it is an extremely welcoming, giving, hospitable and gracious culture. Like others, it is a culture where you would not be able to leave without having eaten or drunken.

      Monte Says: Yes, isn’t he? And how very strange that we are so unable to see this. I’ve been preaching for more than twenty years, and I feel like I am only now getting words to see and say what is so very obvious.

      And what a loss to us all that we Westerners, because of political folly, have so little access to Arab and Persian culture, and so little humility to learn that from which we could enormously benefit. We need a war on ignorance – our own, no less than any others’ – to open our eyes to the sophisticated beauty that every culture has at its roots. Daniel Clendennin at the excellent JourneyWithJesus wrote that every nation is “equidistant from the heart of God.”

      Thanks, Ann, so good to hear from you!

      Ann El Khoury

      September 14, 2007 at 1:06 am


      Hi Monte. This is a translation of Ahmadinejad’s recent speech. I though you will do a better justice to it, in terms of contextualization.

      I cannot find anything in it that doesn’t ring true.

      Monte says: Thanks, naj – I might make it a post on its own. It seems like the reasonable issues that confront the world from a non-Western viewpoint. Without understanding them, peace is not possible.


      September 8, 2007 at 7:15 pm

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