That’s what I preached on last Sunday, and what I will be preaching on again this Sunday.
In case you missed it—my premise is this, if you’re a religious leader—or a religious person in general—you can almost be guaranteed to get in a fight with Jesus.
Jesus fights with Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and leaders of Synagogues. And it would be to our determent if we didn’t realize we religious people today, we Pastors, we Council Presidents, we Confirmation students, and we Congregants, often make the same mistakes as those religious people did then.
Jesus’ conflicts, in 1st century Palestine, revealed bad religion then—and in our reading of those conflicts, it reveals bad religion today. It reveals “Our Bad Religion.”
Jesus is heading to a meal at a Pharisees’ house on the Sabbath—and he performs another Sabbath healing—just like last week.
But unlike last week, the religious officials are silent. He re-states his interpretation of Sabbath, that sick and hurting people ought to be saved from their ailment just like people and animals caught in a well ought to be saved from that well.
Then he goes on to the dinner and points out folly after folly—everyone is trying to get ahead, trying to eat at the head table. After all, they live in an honor shame culture—where the pecking order wasn’t merely about popularity, but about quality of life.
Imagine if you will, a society in which all that awkwardness of where to sit in the Junior High lunchroom the first week of school, would determine who you could marry, how much money you could make, how successful you would be in life! That was part of the reality of Jesus’ day.
And Jesus pulls out the Wisdom of the book of Proverbs that we read today and reminds them to be humble and be raised up by their host instead of raising themselves up.
Then, Jesus goes on and critiques the host as well.
Jesus, in effect, says, “Hey, remember that guy with dropsy I healed? Well, why wasn’t he invited to this party? Was it because he had nothing to offer you in return? Well that’s a ridiculous position for a religious person to take! In fact, it’s morally right to invite those who do not have the means to pay you back—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind!”
Just as his first comment flew in the face of the honor/shame culture of his time, so too did this comment fly in the face of the patron-client system of his time. I’ve mentioned this ancient phenomena before—that everything was about who you knew, about owing everyone favors, navigating a society that flourished on you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-
And Jesus’ response to this is scratch the backs of those who can not scratch you back!
In short, Jesus finds the Pharisee and his guests to be both bad guests and bad hosts, and as such are practicing Bad Religion.
And as I said at the start, it’s worth asking, what about us? How do we buy into honor/shame dynamics and patron/client dynamics? How have we as individual religious folk and as a congregation been bad hosts and bad guests? What does this say about our Bad Religion?
Us, bad guests? Well, maybe. Just think of the seating arrangement issue.
It’s common knowledge that church folk get territorial about their seats—in fact in the colonial church the rich bought pews. Could it be we sit in such a way other guests—for example guests late to service—might be shamed—might have to scurry up front, or slink to the side—to sit in service?
I know this admonition by Jesus was one of the reasons I avoid sitting in the big exulted chair behind the altar for the first year I was here.
Do we sometimes confuse the church with a social club? Do we forget that we’re guests in the body of Christ—son’s and daughter’s of God no doubt—but still the Church is ultimately Christ’s not our own? Do we ever have such an ego that we assume faith is about us instead of about Jesus?
Do we judge the sliver in someone else’s eye instead of the tree trunk in our own? Do we allow a pecking order to develop in the church? Do we distinguish between every Sunday members and Easter and Sunday members?
For that matter—have we been bad hosts?
Do we sometimes do the good works of the church in order to get folks into our doors, instead of because we’ve been freed by Christ to do those good works? Do we fall into the trap of a you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours world?
Does the idea of the church being jam packed with the poor, the lame, the blind, and the crippled scare us at little?
I think it does, after all, all those church growth manuals and fliers they try to sell pastors, show happy young, put together, fashionable, couples—obviously upper-middle class, 2.5 kids—perfect angels.
And you know what! None of them had dropsy!
Yes, the church can be bad hosts and guests. That is part of Our Bad Religion.
Yet, there are two subtle things to consider. Jesus is quoting from Proverbs about how to act when being in the presence of the King, and he’s describing how a wedding banquet should look like.
By pointing out the flaws of the Pharisee’s dinner, he points to the flawless Banquet of the King.
The banquet where every guest is honored, where those in need are filled, the sick healed, and where the host is gracious, giving with no strings attached.
Yes, that is the Kingdom of God of which the Church partakes, the meal from which we are fed.
The banquet where even the Pharisee and you and I, are freed from our bad religion and invited in.
Invited to sing with thankfulness songs of pure delight.
Invited to come and revel in heaven’s love and light.
Invited to take your place at the table of the King.
Invited—the feast is ready to begin.