Exodus 1:1-14, Luke 14:1-6, 15-24
February 21, 2010
This week we’re starting a Lenten theme called “The Historical Jesus.” As I said last week, we’re going to be thinking about what Jesus may really have been like. We’re going to try to see how he may have become “institutionalized” over the years. And we’re going to ask the question, “Would we be comfortable with the Historical Jesus?” Or have we made him into a comfortable person when perhaps he was not. And make no mistake! Those are tough questions!
I thought the best place to start might be with the “institutional” people of Jesus’ time, namely the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were the religions leaders of the Jewish faith. And let me start by reminding us that we often give these guys a bad rap. When we encounter them in the scriptures, we are quick to see them as the enemies of Jesus. They seemed always to be against him. And we think that, since Jesus did have some “run-ins” with some of those leaders, then they were all in “cahoots” against him. And that’s not so.
It’s like the Egyptians. They get a bad rap, too! We read from the beginning of Exodus this morning where “there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” And in his fear of their growing population, he oppressed the Hebrews. And because of that story, we tend to think of Egypt as an evil empire. We forget that if it weren’t for the Pharaoh who did know Joseph, (and who made Joseph his second in command!) the Hebrews might not have survived the great famine! And we tend to forget that Egypt was one of the greatest civilizations that ever existed!
Well, we have those negative thoughts about the Pharisees, don’t we? So I want to start this examination of the Historical Jesus by looking at these men who were the respected and revered leaders of Jewish society! I want us to see their interaction with Jesus. And I want to start with an example where they were not at odds with him.
Here, in our story from Luke 14, they had invited him to dinner. That happened a lot. The religions leaders wanted to embrace Jesus – or at least find out what they could about him. So they invited him to dine with them. And, as is usually the case, there were a group of them. In verse 3 it says, “And Jesus spoke to the Lawyers and the Pharisees…” – plural of both. So there were at least two of each – four, if my math is correct. But I suspect it was a large group of them!
Well, at this point in his ministry, Jesus had presented them with a very important and amazing controversy, if you think about it. He raised the question if healing a person on the Sabbath was to be considered “doing work,” and therefore a violation of the Sabbath Law. And that’s an amazing question! And it’s one of the biggest examples of the “institutionalizing” I’m having us think about today.
Here was Jesus, performing miracles – miracles of healing. Here he is doing things that no one had ever imagined doing! And yet some of these leaders started making that a matter of “did it fit with our laws?” We the readers see that as bizarre, don’t we? Here we have Jesus, the Son of God, touching people, healing them, and gaining a reputation as one who could do those kinds of miracles. And yet some of the religious leaders were questioning the legality of that. And I’m careful here to say “some of the leaders.” Because in reality, Jesus had caused a great debate among them. They were divided over him. Some were on his side. Some were not. That’s another reason I want to break the stereotype that they were all in cahoots against him. (Wow! That’s twice I used that word!)
Make no mistake though, these men were serious. And in this society, when they talked about the Law, to a certain extent they literally meant “the Law!” It’s hard for us to imagine that in our age of “Separation of Church and State.” But there was none of that here! These men were the law! Their determination of whether or not Jesus was breaking the Sabbath Law, was serious!
That’s what we see being played out in the beginning of this story. They’re all dining together, and this man comes who has this disease called “dropsy.” Does anybody know what that is? (Extra brownie points if you do!) It’s an abnormal swelling due to retention of fluids. In modern terms we might call it “edema.” It often goes along with congestive heart failure. It also has a lesser known name “hydropsy” which has the word “hydro” in it, meaning “water” – as in “hydro-electric.” There, now you’re all Biblio-historical medical experts!
So this man had a serious medical condition. And remember, they had no diuretics or anti-inflammatories in those days. And this man came to Jesus, and Jesus cured him! And it was the Sabbath. And Jesus knew what these Pharisees were thinking! He addressed it directly. He spoke to them in their own language. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they were silent. They couldn’t answer him. Either they hadn’t addressed this question completely yet, or they hadn’t come to a consensus. (In other words they were still divided on the subject.) Or they weren’t sure what to say with this man standing before them. So, Jesus healed the man and then he asked them, “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?” And they couldn’t answer that question, either!
Jesus really challenged them that day. His questions and responses challenged them in logic. But more than that, he challenged their egos and their “conventions!” And we know that was a factor for them! Later, when they were dealing with the man Jesus had healed from blindness, they said, “Who are you to teach us?!” They were human like us. They had human indignance! But before we criticize them, let us remember that this is Lent. This is when we’re supposed to look at ourselves. Are we ever more concerned with the person teaching us something, than what they might actually be teaching us? Are we ever so sure of ourselves that we don’t want to listen to anyone’s facts? Are these Pharisees embodiments of ourselves?
It was more than that. These Pharisees were also concerned with the question of authority. What would happen if this lesser Rabbi, with his challenging ideas, was to become predominant? At one time, early in the book of Acts, the Pharisees – maybe some of the same Pharisees that were here in the room this day – perceived that Peter and John “were mere fishermen.” They were uneducated. They were unsophisticated. Never mind that the way they conducted themselves that day was both “educated” and “sophisticated.” That didn’t matter. This was a question of authority. It was a question of who is in charge?” What happens to our system” they thought “if ‘anything goes’?”
Then something very interesting starts to happen in our story. Jesus actually confronts the question of their “institutional” religion. He had noticed the way they had taken positions of importance at this dinner. And he began to talk about his view of the kingdom – wherein “the last shall be first and the first last.” And that had to “rock their world!” And it that wasn’t enough, he then told this parable of the wedding banquet. And I want you to see that this is a powerful story. (And remember he was making these stories up!!!)
Notice! This parable is not about people with whom the master is displeased. Jesus doesn’t say, “There was once a great banquet and the master forbid those from coming who thought they should be invited.” No! He said, those who were invited started making excuses! In casting the Pharisees in the role of those in this story, he wasn’t saying that God would exclude them. He’s saying that they would exclude themselves!! This is a masterful story!! He’s questioning the attitude that says, “If it’s not my way, then I’d rather not have it at all!” Friends, that’s the most rebellious attitude there is! And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that we all have that attitude! This is Lent. We’re supposed to ask ourselves the hard questions! And this is one of them!!
Are we like these Pharisees? I don’t think we are ever going to see the Historical Jesus fully until we ask ourselves that question. For if they were the institutional religion then, we are always in danger of being the institutionalized religion now! Not that there’s anything wrong with institutions. But if we’re not careful, the institution can keep us from seeing Jesus as he truly is, and following him as we truly should.
What would Jesus have us do? Jesus would have us expand our vision to include the poor. And that’s not easy! And when we think it is, we’ve missed the vision. He would have us love the outcasts and the unloved. And if we think that is easy, we have missed it, too! Jesus would challenge us to think that just maybe we will be the people who, when invited to his kingdom, on his terms, might say “Please excuse me, I have many other things to attend to.” “I have doctrinal issues.” “I have theological issues. “I don’t like that those unworthy people are being included.” “Jesus, I’m sorry, but you’re just not being the Jesus I expect!”
I know we really don’t want to say that. But do we? That’s one of the tough questions we need to ask ourselves during Lent. Do we object to the historical Jesus? Do we do so in the way we accept Jesus only on our terms – whether that’s in doctrine or theology, or whether it’s in the boldness of discipleship, or the call to radical love and grace.
The only way we can get at this is to wait upon the Lord. It’s to practice listening to the spirit. That’s hard! When we pray we feel the need always to be speaking, either aloud or in our minds. But God speaks to us in the silence. And that’s where we need to hear, and to struggle, and to discover and grow.
So, good luck in your growing vision of the historical Jesus. Be bold! Be daring! Set aside your pre-conceived notions. Dare to step away from the “institutionalized” Jesus, and come unto him. Come unto him, “all ye who labor and are heavy laden.”
Eternal God, you are beyond us. Yet in our discomfort, we have sought to make you “manageable” in our thoughts and in our understanding. Help us to be free to embrace the living Lord, on his terms, not ours. Help us this Lenten season to grow closer to you in all we do and say and think. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.