Monday, August 29, 2016

The Heart of the Matter.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Plans are already underway for my Institution and Induction as the nineteenth rector of Saint George’s Church on October 28th the Feast of Saints Simon and Jude. There will be a special mass presided over by the Bishop where I will officially and formally be given charge over this parish. It is really quite an honor. Our wardens are also planning a reception to follow in the Great Hall. It sounds like it will be a joyous and grand affair.

Just this week I began sending out notices to friends, family, and colleagues to join me for this very special occasion. I hope you all will be there as well. According to our Gospel Lesson today, however, it looks like we might be going about this all in the wrong way! While at a party Jesus tells his host, "When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, but instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

What a very odd thing to say! It’s a miracle that Jesus got invited to any parties at all when he was going around saying things like that! Taken literally, it is a completely offensive and ridiculous suggestion. Showing hospitality to the poor and needy is of course a fine thing to do, but I think that we can agree that inviting your mother to a dinner party isn’t a bad thing either. So what do we do with scripture like this? Do we simply marvel at how radical and eccentric Jesus was and move on?  No, Jesus’ provocative rhetoric is an invitation to dig deeper.

A consistent theme of Jesus’ teaching is the need to go beyond mere external conformity to the law towards genuine transformation of the heart. So for instance in the Sermon on the Mount he says,

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”

He also says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

In both cases he is saying, “It is not enough not to break the law. It is what is in your heart that matters.” He laments that the religious leaders of his day are like, “White washed tombs.” Outwardly they are clean and pure, but inside they are, “full of dead man’s bones.”

The Pharisees were unusually scrupulous in their ability to keep the letter of the law. They had every appearance of purity and righteousness. Yet a person’s behavior can be deceptive; it can be a mere appearance. A person can put on a good show. They can say and do all the right things, but who are they really? Jesus is not concerned with our persona—the image we project for the world to see—once again, it is the heart that concerns him.

The heart is the residence of our true self. It represents the core of who we really are. It is the seat of our will, and the source of all our actions. This is the part of us that matters the most. If we were half as concerned with our hearts as we are with our appearance, our reputation, or our material condition, we would be much better off spiritually!

When Jesus tells us not to invite our family or friends to our party, he isn’t giving us one more rule for holy living—if only it were that easy!—instead he is challenging us to examine our internal motivations. Are we inviting our friends, family, and—more pointedly—our rich neighbors because we hope for some personal gain? After all, they might return the favor and invite us to one of their parties. Those who instead invite those who have no chance of paying them back, show the purity of their motives. They may not receive an earthly reward but they will instead be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

The righteous seek God above all things, and so they look for the reward that comes from him rather than from human beings. Moreover they are content with whatever it is that God gives to them, rather than always grasping for position and honor.

This is illustrated in Jesus’ earlier discourse on humility. In Jesus’ culture, the table at a meal would typically be shaped like a U with the host sitting at the base. The seats of honor were those closest to the host. 

Jesus was a people watcher. He was always observing the behavior of those around him. Jesus is the expert on human nature, more so than even the most accomplished psychologist among us. He saw deeper than anyone else. What he saw that day was the way in which the guests were eager to sit at the place of greatest honor.  He saw beyond the appearances to their hearts.

The most honored guests at a feast were usually fashionably late. They knew that everyone was waiting for their arrival and they wanted to make a grand entrance. Jesus sees this as a teaching opportunity. “When you go to a party,” he says, “Don’t take the most honored seat. Someone more important might arrive and you will be embarrassed to find yourself getting pushed to the back. If you take the backseat, however, it is possible that the host might invite you to come up higher and you will be publicly honored. He tells them that those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus’ teaching here is not merely a cunning way to receive honor nor is it a simple formula for how to be humble. If we take it in that way we will have missed the point entirely. Genuine humility is not about sitting in the worse seat, or wearing drab clothes, or being self deprecating in our speech. In fact being obsessively down on ourselves is just the other side of the coin from inflated self-regard. We must look away from ourselves and turn towards God. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”

It is the tyranny of self that is the greatest obstacle to authentic righteousness. As our reading from Sirach says, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.”

In our pride we have withdrawn our heart from seeking God, from being satisfied in him, and instead we are bent in on ourselves like a snake swallowing its own tail. We are devouring ourselves with our own self-seeking.

 The righteousness that Jesus looks for in us is much more about who we are than what we do. If we have a good heart than good works will naturally follow, but if our heart is wicked than even our good deeds are rotten. They do us more harm than good because they only serve to tighten the grip of selfishness and pride on us. We begin to be puffed up with a sense of our own righteousness. All attempts to rescue ourselves from this situation are futile. Instead we must depend wholly on the grace of God in Christ.

Only he can make us new. Only he can change our heart. We must learn from him who is humble and meek. When we begin to truly understand his love and grace for us, only then is our heart gradually weaned from the love of self and captivated by the love of God.

 We are the ones who are the crippled, the blind, and the lame who have nothing to offer but have been called to the feast. To all who acknowledge that they have no right to take the seat of honor he calls, “Come up higher!”