Whom Shall We Invite to Thanksgiving Dinner?
From Gospel Translations
Matthew 28:19 and 20 is called the Great Commission not because it is better than all the other commissions in the Bible, but because it includes all the other commissions. Go and make disciples of all nations includes the whole of our duty once we understand what making a disciple means. It means two things:
1) Bringing people to Christ through faith and baptism;
2) Teaching them to do all that Jesus commanded. The Great Commission is all-inclusive because it demands that we do all that Jesus commanded. Therefore, we are engaged in fulfilling the Great Commission whenever we help others obey Christ, and we will never be finished with the Great Commission until we do everything Christ has told us to do.
It is obvious, then, as a pastor that my agenda is set for me already. My sole task is to call people to Christ and then do all in my power to help them keep all of Jesus' commandments. And missions week, with its emphasis on calling people to faith worldwide, leads with an inescapable biblical logic to the task of "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." And that is where we are this morning.
In two and a half weeks most of us will have a thanksgiving feast. In order to fulfill the Great Commission that we observe everything Jesus commanded, we need to know whom Jesus wants us to invite to that feast. So I want to talk about that while there is still time.
Bending the Law for Their Own Comfort
The text is Luke 14:12–14. It is Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, and Jesus has been invited to dinner by one of the leaders among the Pharisees (14:1), the most zealous of all law-keepers among the Jews. There is no evidence that I know of that Jesus was ever invited back a second time to a Pharisee's house. And it is not hard to see why. It seems like every time he opens his mouth, he undresses somebody's hypocrisy. There never was another man whose mouth was more closely tied to the human heart. Was there ever a word that came out of Jesus' mouth that did not touch the ultimate issues of the soul? No man ever spoke like this man. "For this very thing I was born and for this I came into the world: to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice" (John 18:37). So when Jesus spoke out at a Saturday dinner and when we hear him through the gospels today, a division is created. Those who are "of the truth" listen and obey. "My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me" (John 10:27, 4). Those who are not of the truth do not have ears to hear or eyes to see. Jesus says to them, "Why do you not know what I say? It is because you are not able to hear my word . . . The one who is of God hears the words of God. This is the reason you do not hear, because you are not of God" (John 8:43, 47). So let's take heed how we hear the words of Jesus, lest we be found indifferent or antagonistic to his teaching and so prove ourselves to be outside the fold. I pray that the way we hear today will prove that we are all among the number of whom Jesus said, "Father, I have given them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from thee."
The first thing Jesus does at this Saturday dinner is heal a man of dropsy. Perhaps he was lying outside the Pharisee's house as they entered (like Lazarus used to lay at the rich man's gate). Jesus asked the law-experts and Pharisees if they thought healing on the sabbath was lawful. They did not answer, but their silence clearly meant, No it is not lawful. In Luke 13:14, the synagogue ruler had said, "There are six days in which work ought to be done, come on those days and be healed and not on the sabbath day." And so Jesus says here at the dinner the same thing he said there in the synagogue: "Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?" (14:5). No answer.
Jesus leaves it for them and for us to draw the inference, namely: You law-experts and Pharisees have a keen interest in your own welfare. When the law seems to stand between you and the safety of your valuable ox, you have no difficulty relativizing the law. The preservation of your own comfort is clearly a higher commitment than rigorous sabbath keeping. But when it comes to another person's need, whose illness is no skin off your nose, then the law becomes conveniently rigid to protect you from involvement. O, the wickedness of religious people! whose highest love, whose god, is not the Lord but selfish convenience, and for whom the holy law of God is either rigid or robbery depending on whether it protects or threatens that convenience.
I talked to a woman recently who has made a policy of lying to an institution in this city in order to gain a certain convenience. I said, "That's wrong and it will not square with your claim to be a follower of Christ." She said, "I think the Lord understands." In other words, the law is rubber. But if you ask what she wants from her husband and what she thinks the Scriptures require of him, then the law is not rubber anymore. It is rigid. Inconsistent? Not really. It is a very consistent effort to manipulate God for the sake of one's convenience.
So it is clear, isn't it? No one will go out of here today without understanding this, I hope: you can be at your furthest ebb from God in the very exercise of your religion. Man at his worst is religious man using his religion to protect himself from the inconvenience and disturbance of needy strangers.
Seeking the Praise of Men
That is the first thing Jesus does when he comes to dinner. Not the most ingratiating thing to do to your host, but perhaps the most loving. The second thing Jesus does is to undress the pride of the dinner guests right there in front of everybody. He has been sitting there watching them come in. And what does he look for? How they are dressed? Where they are from? What are their jobs? No. He looks for what they love. Jesus always watches until he knows where our treasure is. Because where your treasure is, is where your heart is, and Jesus wants the heart! So Jesus watches and he sees what their treasure is: they love the praise of men. They love to be esteemed for occupying the seats of honor. And he watches how they move in and out of conversations, weaving their way unnoticed to the best seats. Nobody fools Jesus. He is master, absolute master, of every situation!
What does Jesus think about the guest's whose treasure is the praise of men? In short, he thinks they will go to hell if their values don't change. Listen to what he said in two other places about this form of idolatry. Luke 11:43: "Woe to you Pharisees! for you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places." Luke 20:46, 47: "Beware of the scribes who like to go about in long robes and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." Two things go hand in hand with loving the places of honor at the feast: exploitation of the weak and condemnation. If your treasure is the praise of men and a widow's house stands in your way, you will just destroy it. But in the end, your own house will collapse in the flood of God's judgment. So Jesus here says in Luke 14:11, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted." If you pursue the seats of honor on earth you will have no seat at all in heaven (cf. Matthew 18:3; 5:20).
Living by the Law of Reciprocity
Now you would think Jesus has ruffled enough feathers at one dinner: exposing the legalist's ability to twist the law in order to protect their selfish convenience, and exposing the pride of those who crave the praise of men. You would think the party is over. But he is not done yet.
He said also to the man who had invited him, "Whenever you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers, or your relatives or your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and it be a repayment for you. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For it will be repaid to you in the resurrection of the just." (Luke 14:12–14)
Up till now Jesus has talked to the guests. Now he turns to the host. "Don't touch that snake, lest it bite you and you die." "Don't climb that rope, lest it break and you fall." "Don't invite your friends and brothers and relatives and rich neighbors to dinner, lest you be repaid in kind." What an unearthly argument! "Danger! Repayment ahead!" "Warning! This repayment may be dangerous to your health!" Who on earth would talk like that? Probably somebody whose kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36); somebody who knows that 1,000 years on this earth are like yesterday when it is gone (Psalm 90:4); somebody who knows that our life is but a mist that appears and in a moment vanishes away (James 4:14); who knows that he who saves his life now will lose it later, and he who loses it now in love will save it later (Mark 8:35); and who knows that there will be a resurrection unto eternal life, a resurrection of the just to live with God a million millennia of eons, if indeed he was our God on this earth. Jesus is the man. No man ever spoke like this man. And the people who call him Lord ought not to be like any other people.
Take heed how you hear. There are some whose first and only reaction to Jesus' words will be: "Well, he can't mean that, because then we would have no more church suppers, no more Sunday School socials, no more family reunions, and even the Lord's Supper would have been wrong." Then, having thus defused the text and bent the sword of the Spirit, they move on to the next passage and right on through the New Testament justifying themselves and, just like the Pharisees, manipulating the law of Christ to preserve their unruffled tradition and convenience.
There is no better defense against the truth than a half-truth. And the half-truth is, Jesus does not intend to end all family meals and gatherings of friends. But the truth is: there is in every human heart a terrible and powerful tendency to live by the law of earthly repayment, the law of reciprocity. There is a subtle and relentless inclination in our flesh to do what will make life as comfortable as possible and to avoid what will inconvenience us or agitate our placid routine or add the least bit of tension to our Thanksgiving dinner. The most sanctified people among us must do battle every day so as not to be enslaved by the universal tendency to always act for the greatest earthly payoff.
The people who lightly dismiss this text as a rhetorical overstatement are probably blind to the impossibility of overstating the corruption of the human heart and its deceptive power to make us think all is well when we are enslaved to the law of reciprocity, the law which says: always do what will pay off in convenience, undisturbed pleasures, domestic comfort, and social tranquility. Jesus' words are radical because our sin is radical. He waves a red flag because there is destruction ahead for people governed by the law of reciprocity.
It Really Matters Who You Invite to Dinner
I stress the danger of living for earthly repayment (for ease, convenience, comfort, tranquility) because Jesus stressed it. Listen to these other sayings. Luke 6:24: "Woe to you that are rich, for you have received back your consolation." The rich are condemned because the use of their money showed where their heart was: they used it to secure their lives and pad themselves with comfort and luxury and consolation, instead of using it to meet the needs of the suffering.
Jesus takes this saying from Luke 6:24 and makes a parable out of it in Luke 16:19ff.:
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; and the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, "Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame." But Abraham said, "Son, remember that you in your lifetime received back your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things. But now he is comforted here and you are in anguish."
Why didn't the rich man give Lazarus the crumbs from his table? Because Lazarus was in no position to pay back any good thing. The rich man's life was governed by the law of reciprocity, by the earthly benefits he could receive back in all his dealings. He wore the finest clothes and feasted sumptuously and did not inconvenience himself with the poor, sick man at his very door. And so he went to hell, where everybody will go who uses his money to feast sumptuously with comfortable, respectable guests instead of using it to alleviate suffering.
When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, 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.
You will be blessed because they cannot repay you! You will be blessed because they cannot repay you! What an amazing thing for Jesus to say! We get ourselves braced for some good, solid self-denial. We screw on our willpower to exercise some disinterested benevolence. And Jesus turns around and says: Your self-denial for the poor will bring you great blessing. Your benevolence is not, nor ever could be, disinterested. Indeed, your eternal interest is at stake. "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). "If you lose your life (in love) for my sake, you will save it" (Mark 8:36). So in the end, for those who obey, there is no self-sacrifice. Who wouldn't count everything as rubbish in order to gain Christ?
Why does it make such an eternal difference whom you invite to Thanksgiving dinner? It is not so much that this one afternoon is all-determining. The reason it makes an eternal difference is that it, along with many other occasions, reveals where our treasure is. Is Jesus, with his commands and promises more valuable to us than tradition and convenience and earthly comfort? Is he our treasure or is the world? That question is not decided during an invitation at church. It is decided at Thanksgiving dinner, and hour by hour every day, by whether we are willing to inconvenience ourselves for those who can't repay, or whether we avoid them and so preserve our placid routine. It matters whom you invite to Thanksgiving dinner because it matters where your treasure is.
On the back of your bulletin there is a paragraph which says, "If you would like to enjoy the blessing of having a Lao or Hmong family to join you for Thanksgiving Dinner, please call the church office between 8 and 4:30 or evenings call Rick or Marie Wilson." I pray that we will all see the connection between this opportunity and Luke 14:12–14.