The Scandalous God

In Luke 14, Jesus describes a great feast.

15 Hearing this, a man sitting at the table with Jesus exclaimed, “What a blessing it will be to attend a banquet in the Kingdom of God!”

16 Jesus replied with this story: “A man prepared a great feast and sent out many invitations. 17 When the banquet was ready, he sent his servant to tell the guests, ‘Come, the banquet is ready.’ 18 But they all began making excuses. One said, ‘I have just bought a field and must inspect it. Please excuse me.’ 19 Another said, ‘I have just bought five pairs of oxen, and I want to try them out. Please excuse me.’ 20 Another said, ‘I now have a wife, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant returned and told his master what they had said. His master was furious and said, ‘Go quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ 22 After the servant had done this, he reported, ‘There is still room for more.’ 23 So his master said, ‘Go out into the country lanes and behind the hedges and urge anyone you find to come, so that the house will be full. 24 For none of those I first invited will get even the smallest taste of my banquet.’”

About 4 years ago, my understanding of Jesus began to be radically rebuilt; I came to realize that most of what I’d been taught Jesus, salvation and faith was not necessarily wrong, but just incomplete. Ever since then I’ve carried a key assumption with me to the text of the bible:

there is probably something going on in the text beyond the obvious. 

It’s easy to carry our 21st century assumptions into the Bible, and that can surely illuminate some of the stories and message, but it’s also easy to miss the original (and often explosive) agenda of Jesus and writers of both Testaments.

So two quick, related observations. First, the parable takes place in the context of a discussion on humility. In fact, the man’s comment in verse 15 is a reaction to this previous exchange:

When Jesus noticed that all who had come to the dinner were trying to sit in the seats of honor near the head of the table, he gave them this advice: “When you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the seat of honor. What if someone who is more distinguished than you has also been invited? The host will come and say, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then you will be embarrassed, and you will have to take whatever seat is left at the foot of the table!

10 “Instead, take the lowest place at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, he will come and say, ‘Friend, we have a better place for you!’ Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests. 11 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then he turned to his host. “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. 13 Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”

Jesus is talking about humility and how critical it is to a “resurrection life.”

In Jesus’ context—1st century Palestine, a conquered Roman territory—this is a scandalous notion, and Jesus’ pushes the point even further with his banquet story.

This other meaning of Jesus’ story here begins to be revealed when we understand two things:

  1. In the first century, honor and reputation were of absolutely paramount importance. People made decisions based on how it might enhance their public honor and/or reputation.
  2. One of the ways that you could enhance your honor and reputation was by hosting a party and inviting the right” people to it. 

To restate this, if people wanted to know how awesome you were, how “honorable” you were, they would look at comes to your table. If “the best folks” came to your house for a party, it made you look good; really good.

And this mattered to you.

A lot.

So Jesus is talking here about God’s reputation, and how it plays into the Kingdom.

God starts out by inviting “the usual suspects”, but they reject his invitation (essentially, by the way, this a comment about the rejection Jesus is experiencing during his ministry). So God, in this culture, does the unthinkable.

He throws the concern for his reputation aside and invites “the riff raff.”

He forsakes his honor, his reputation, and essentially says, “Bring them on.”

What do you do with a God like that?

What do you do with a God who lays aside His honor and status in order to welcome everyone in?

What do you do with this God who …

… sets aside His status?

… embraces humility?

… even embraces death as a criminal? as a rebel?

The truly radical and explosive nature of this parable is that Jesus is saying, “You need to sit at the lowest seat at a wedding banquet; you need to embrace humility, because that’s what God does.

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Thoughts on THE Prayer Pt 2 :: “In the heavens…”

Our Father, who lives in the heavens,
May Your name be kept holy.
May Your Kingdom come,
May Your will be done,
On earth just like it’s done in Your presence.

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Don’t bring us to the times of trial,
But deliver us from the evil one.
Amen.

Where does God live, and why does it matter?

This phrase introduces two ideas about God that exist in constant tension: God’s transcendence and God’s immanence. 

God’s transcendence is the “clouds-in-the-sky” part of God: the I-created-the-whole-world aspect of God’s character. This incredible power was important to God’s people; it established YHWH’s credentials as the ultimate power in the world. This is the power that is present at, over, and above creation; in fact, you could say that the point of Genesis 1 and 2 is not to show that God can count to seven or invent the platypus. It’s to show that God is separate from and has power over the creation.

Jesus is not using this phrase so that his prayers have the correct “address” to get to God. He uses the phrase as a form of worship, as a way of reminding himself of God’s infinite power. No matter what life on earth looks like, Jesus prays to the God who created the whole operation, and is more than capable of intervening at any point.

Simultaneously, the phrase “in the heavens” indicates another—and almost more profound—mode of God’s existence. Simply put, “the heavens” doesn’t just indicate a specific address beyond the clouds where God lives (with an awesome beard).

The heavens can mean anywhere.

Even right next to you…

even inside you.

To pray to “our Father in the heavens” is not merely to call on God’s infinite creative power, it’s to call on his intimate presence. 

It means that He is not standing (sitting?) far off watching us succeed or fail, watching us walk or stumble or crawl or fall. He is capable of being everywhere: in our vehicles, in our classrooms, in our dining room, in our cube farm.

Because of His infinite (transcendent) power, He has can be absolutely (immanently) anywhere.

A couple of questions:

  • Does your prayer life involve worship? What would it mean to turn your thoughts to God’s infinite power during prayer, to dwell on the fact that He is in control of everything? How powerful (or weak) is the God of your prayers?
  • Does your prayer life address the fact that God is very, very near? That He has not left us to languish, but is dynamically and constantly present with us? What would it mean to understand the infinite as intimately present with you? How close is the God of your prayers?

Father God you are infinitely present in the heavens; in control of all. You were present before creation, and at creation, and will exist forever. You are all powerful, and nothing is beyond your doing. I thank You that You in control of all the situations that stress me out, or that cause me distress, and I ask You to sustain me through them. At the same time, Lord, I know that You are very gently present with me, even as I sit in this kitchen typing. Not only are You ‘Lord Most High,’ You are also ‘God With Us.’ You are here as I walk through my day, and are always inviting me into a deeper, fuller life of submission and obedience. I pray that I might exist more completely in Your presence, in order to see Your creative power at work in my life. Amen.

Why I Wrestle…

There’s a wonderful scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Miranda Priestly, played by the amazing Meryl Streep addresses her new assistant’s (played by Anne Hathaway) indifference — even disdain — for the world of high fashion that the fictional Runway magazine reports on. (watch the scene here; I’ll wait.)

I was thinking about this recently while wrestling through a book on the relationship between Paul and 1st century rabbinic Judaism (fascinating, I know). Streep’s character points out the relationship between the frontiers of “high fashion” and the seemingly mindless, instinctive choices that Hathaway’s character makes in shopping and picking out clothes each day.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” she says. “What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s cerulean. And you’re also unaware of the fact that in 2002 Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns … and then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers; and then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down to some tragic casual corner where you no doubt fished it out of some clearance rack … It’s sort of comical how think you’ve made a choice that somehow exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”

Chilly elitism aside, I think this is important. Theology — thoughts and study about God – is always growing and changing. Archaeology is revealing more about Jesus and Paul and their context. It’s easy to think that theology is irrelevant to our daily lives, but I think that wrestling with “deep things” is like high fashion – as folks think through the really big issues, it will work its way through the seminaries, colleges and churches and eventually into our daily lives. The problem is that I’m afraid many of us are wrestling with the equivalent of acid washed jeans and polyester shirts. The truth is, God is doing new things, always. Are we (as pastors and leaders) willing to wrestle with the “high fashion” theological questions — not so we can be faddish or “cool” but so we can keep in step with what we are coming to know about God, Jesus, and their message and mission for the world?

I believe we will walk out our theology; we will speak it into others’ lives; we will proclaim it from the platform.

I want to know why we pick the Cerulean sweater.