Spiritual Etiquette

Text: Luke 14:1-14
Date: Proper 17 (Pentecost XIV)
+ 9/2/07
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

     Our Lord Jesus Christ was invited to or hosted many meals, dinners and feasts during His earthly ministry. St. Luke records nine of them. Some of them were joyful events as when he dined with his new disciple Levi or Matthew (5:29-39), at the house of Mary and Martha (10:38-42), and at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector (19:1-10). Other meals were had in a more sinister atmosphere as the Pharisees increasingly stalked Jesus to trap Him, show Him to be a fraud and, ultimately, to get rid of Him (7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-14). Then, it was in the context of fellowship meals that Jesus revealed his glory. That’s what St. John says was the effect of his providing the finest of wine at the wedding in Cana. In Luke’s Gospel He revealed His divine power at the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness (9:10-17), then He revealed the glory of his coming sacrifice on the cross as the new covenant in his body and blood in the Upper Room at the Last Passover Supper (22:7-38), and finally He revealed the breaking forth of new, eternal life in the post-resurrection meal at Emmaus (24:13-35). The metaphor of a wedding feast or great banquet is used to describe the kingdom of God and eternal life in heaven. And so fellowship meals, and especially this Friday evening Sabbath Seder is the perfect setting to draw our attention to the gift of salvation in the kingdom of God.

     This text before us is much more than merely a lesson in proper social etiquette and proper seating arrangements. We could say, however, it is about spiritual etiquette. “Etiquette” refers to conventional requirements or proprieties of conduct. What are, therefore, the conventional requirements and proprieties of conduct when it comes to the kingdom of heaven? It is not, as the Pharisees thought, a seemingly endless list of good works done and evil works avoided. It is, rather, an issue of how you are dressed. The etiquette of the kingdom is repentance of sin and faith in the Savior, the dressing of the white robe of Christ’s righteousness that becomes yours in Holy Baptism.

     In the three occasions in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus dined at the home of a Pharisee we see the increasing hardness of heart of the Pharisees. It began with the doubt on the part of Simon the Pharisee, questioning whether Jesus could be a true prophet as the sinful woman came and anointed his feet with were tears and wiped them with her hair (7:36-50). Their enmity increased at another Pharisee’s house when they questioned Jesus’ sense of Jewish etiquette when he “did not first wash before dinner” (Luke 11:37-54). Interestingly, by the time of this third dinner at a Pharisee’s invitation, they all were moved to silence by the Lord’s actions and words.

     As they gathered in this semi-public setting, a man with what the good Doctor Luke calls “dropsy” came and stood before Jesus. “Dropsy” doesn’t refer to a condition of falling down uncontrollably. It is a contraction of the medical word “hydropsy” meaning a condition of retention of fluids resulting in swelling that disfigures grotesquely. Luke the Physician is always so interested in the medical healings of Jesus. But in this case, whereas sometimes Jesus healed a person with a word and sometimes with actions, here the silence was deafening. Jesus asked his hosts, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (He knew their legalistic sense of “etiquette.”) Luke says they remained silent. They didn’t respond. They just gawked at him. When it was clear that no one wished to answer, Jesus went into action—but with similar silence! Three simple words: He took the man and healed him and sent him away. Interesting, is it not, that there was no reaction we’re told of in response to another miraculous healing! It just happened. And, our text says, “they could not reply to these things.” There was no defense for their unbelief.

     “Could not reply”? Why not? Because they did not know the proper etiquette of the kingdom that Jesus was even then and there calling them to repentance and faith! They should have at least wondered and at best repented of their ignorance and sin and responded by putting their faith in such a One as this.

     But they did not. Therefore Jesus reaches out again and addressed the real issue. He addressed their sinful pride, or, as Luke tells it, “He noticed how they chose the places of honor” around the banquet tables. In the little parable Jesus addressed what is called the Great Reversal of the kingdom of God. That is, that the etiquette of repentance is not to hypocritically vaunt your own supposed worthiness or righteousness, but to confess your complete unworthiness, sin and unrighteousness. This is what “taking the lowest place” means.

     Now it might not work, and probably won’t work in the smash and grab world, according to the expected “etiquette” of the business world of self-promotion where ladder climbing usually requires you to step on somebody’s hand on the ladder rung just below you. You can humbly take the lowest place, but that’s probably where you will stay. But Jesus did not come to tell you how to get ahead and be successful in the world. He came to save you from the world of sin, divine condemnation, eternal death and hell. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly. The etiquette of the kingdom of God is the Great Reversal summarized in the words, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted,” namely, by God.

     It is this way because of the total depravity and helplessness of the human condition enslaved to sin. But God so loved the world that He took the initiative to free us from sin and death. And the only way He could do that is by taking sin and death into Himself to destroy it. Jesus Christ is God Himself miraculously taking on our human flesh by His mother, Mary, fulfilling all of God’s Law on our behalf but then taking the sin of the whole world into His flesh on the Cross. For the Great Reversal of our salvation it took nothing less than the Son of God taking the lowest place, as St. Paul says it so clearly of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” [Philippians 2:6-9 (ESV)]. Jesus rose from the dead because He has destroyed death and it could not hold Him captive. Therefore He has the authority to free and release all who trust in Him from the grip of sin and death.

     This is why the historic liturgy and worship of the Church is the way it is. It must accurately reflect the etiquette or way of repentance and faith. A synonym for “etiquette” is the word “decorum.” It is interesting that our Lutheran Confessions use this word when it says that the liturgy must be handled “in an orderly and appropriate manner, without frivolity or offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the building up of the church” [FCSD X:9]. “Evangelical decorum:” the etiquette of the Gospel of Christ.

     In all of this our Lord invites us not only to imitate Him in His suffering and death by repentance and faith in Him, but also to imitate Him in His divine invitation of all, especially “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed…at the resurrection of the just.” He fills us with faith and love as we gather in table fellowship with Him in the Holy Communion. For there His body and blood show us not only the awesome price of our forgiveness but also the depth of the love of God, binding us together in the unity of the faith and the love that are in Christ Jesus our Lord.

          Let that invitation sound forth clearly according to the etiquette of God’s Word of Law and Gospel, rightly divided and confessed before the world in the love of God and for the love of God.