On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. (14:1)
Today I’m going to talk about the undistractedness of Christ. I’m going to give two examples from scripture of what I mean, and a third from our life together here at St. John’s.
First example is about the Sabbath. You’ll notice that there are five verses missing from our Gospel passage today. We’re in chapter 14, and we skip from verse 1 to verse 7. What happens in the gap is this: a man who has dropsy stands before Jesus. Jesus looks around at the lawyers and Pharisees”all those folks who are watching him closely”and he asks them, Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not? The lawyers and Pharisees remain silent. Jesus heals the man, and sends him on his way. Jesus reveals to the Pharisees that they’re treating this man as though he were less important than an ox”If one of you has¦an ox that has fallen into a well, would you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day? (v. 5).
Healing on the Sabbath is becoming something of a pattern with Jesus. In the chapter before this, in the passage we read last week, Jesus heals a woman who has bent over by a crippling spirit for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17). In both of these episodes, Jesus confronts the good religious folks of his day with a reminder of who they are”God’s chosen people”and that the Sabbath serves to reinforce their identity, not the other way around. As we read in Mark, The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath (2:27).
So why did God give them the Sabbath? Remember how it happens. Keeping the Sabbath, the last day of the week, our Saturday”keeping the Sabbath is one of God’s commandments at Mt. Sinai, given through Moses to the Israelites (Ex. 19-20). This happens in the wilderness, which means it comes right after the Israelites have been liberated from slavery in Egypt. While they were slaves in Egypt, all they did was manual labor, especially making bricks (Ex. 1:13-14; 5:10-14). They had daily brick quotas they had to meet for the building of Pharaoh’s cities. Every day was just like every other, and the only calendar they had was the day in, day out meeting of brick quotas. And then God frees them and says, No, you’re not just brick-making machines. And to remind you that you are so much more than that, I’m giving you the Sabbath day, a day of rest, a day to rest in my presence and know that you are my people and I am your God.
Jesus remembers all this; he isn’t distracted by the convention of so many of his peers, which is to see the Sabbath as merely the absence of activity. Jesus’ undistractedness reminds us of who we are.
All of this conflict over the Sabbath has been going on as Jesus walks into this dinner party at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. And this dinner party is my second example. Now, because he’s been healing people on the Sabbath, at least some of the people present are looking for Jesus to slip up somehow, to blaspheme, to break the law or commit some kind of notorious sin. The pressure, as they say, is on.
We don’t know whether or not Jesus felt that pressure, or whether he had any internal anxiety about having all those eyes on him. The text doesn’t say; all we know is how Jesus acts. He notices that all the guests are trying to sit high up at the table, near the host, in the places of honor. Jesus acknowledges that proximity to the host indicates a kind of honor at parties like that, and so he tells everyone to seek out the lower places”that way, when the host calls them, it will be to lift them up rather than put them in their place lower down.
But then he does something even odder when he turns to the host himself and says, Why did you even invite these people, anyway? You should’ve invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (partly my rephrasing v. 13). Imagine being one of the guests when Jesus says that to the host. Jesus is effectively uninviting them from the next party. That’s so awkward!
Jesus has posed uncomfortable challenges both to the guests and to the host. To the guests he has said, Remember who you are: you’re a guest in this house. That’s true of us whenever we come to worship”and incidentally, I think it’s no accident that each place at the altar rail is as good as any other. To the host, he says: Remember who you are becoming: the kind of high society fellow who is generous only to those who can return the favor.
One other change Jesus effects in this exchange, and that is the elevating of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In an agrarian society, being crippled, lame, or blind effectively means you can’t farm, which means you’re dependent on the produce of other people’s land in order to eat. Furthermore, according to Leviticus 21 (v.19-21), if you’re crippled, lame or blind, you are barred from serving as a priest of the Temple. So the gap between these gathered Pharisees and the poor, crippled, lame and blind is not only one of power and economic stability, it also has a subtle religious dimension. Were those people to be invited to a banquet at the home of a leader of the Pharisees, it would amount to an elevation in their status.
Jesus isn’t distracted by any of the societal conventions regarding good manners or the unspoken agreement that exists between people of power which says, I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. He isn’t distracted by any of it, and he’s so undistracted, in fact, that he comes off as downright rude.
Now as uncomfortable as all of this is, it shouldn’t surprise us. The Gospel of Luke starts off will all kinds of clues about what kind of person this Jesus of Nazareth is going to be. The old man Simeon in the Temple says of him, This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed (2:34). Who is it that’s falling? The leader of the Pharisees and his banquet guests. Who is that is rising? The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. This is what God’s action is like in Luke’s Gospel, and so it is the action of Christ, God’s only begotten Son.
It seems, then, that Jesus is remind us who we are simply by being who he is. Authenticity begets authenticity.
This brings me to my last example. This holy undistractedness is something I’ve seen at work in our good friend, Caitlin Lollar. Caitlin has been our youth minister here at St. John’s for the past three years. Today is her last Sunday in that position, and as much as she will hate it, I’m going to say something nice about her in front of everybody.
The first time I went to youth group here at St. John’s was September last year. It was really early in the program year, and I hadn’t been here more than three months or so. It had been several years since I’d been in youth ministry, so I’d forgotten what the energy level can be like. Kids were gathering and goofing off and having fun, and the whole thing was just a little chaotic. There were a couple kids sitting off to one side, not saying much of anything. Then there were some others who were running around and hollering. This one guy appeared to be re-enacting all of Jackie Chan’s fight scenes. At one point he did a flying karate kick from one couch to the other, and when he landed he hopped up on his feet and said to nobody in particular, Go on! Wave your white flags, I’m hot!
It was just kinda nuts. Not in a bad way, just in a¦nuts way. So all this is going on, and there’s Caitlin, finishing up her preparations for dinner and program as the stragglers arrived. She had her eyes on everybody, watching what was going on, but she was totally undistracted by the madness. And then, when it was time to get started, she said the word, and the kids in the corner came into the circle, and the howling banshee kids came running back from wherever they’d been and stood in the circle, and the flying ninja guy came and stood in the circle, too. We prayed, we ate dinner, and then we had a great conversation as part of the program for the night.
In that environment, a lot of us would’ve been tempted to control the room by simply being louder and bigger and by exerting more energy into the room than the youth were. We would’ve been tempted to do the P.E. coach thing and blow a whistle. That temptation is understandable. We live in a culture in which leaders are expected to be big and loud and forceful and out front all the time, and that if you’re going to do or be anything important, you’ve got to make yourself bigger and more forceful than everyone else.
But that’s not who Caitlin is, so it isn’t how Caitlin does things. Not only was she undistracted by the chaos itself, she wasn’t distracted by the temptation to control it more than necessary. She knows who she is. She knows who the kids are. She knows the Holy Spirit is in the room when the youth group gathers. When a community is governed by that kind of authenticity, everyone is free to be who they are, together. The quiet kids can be quiet. The howling banshees have space to howl like banshees. The spontaneous ninjas can spontaneously¦ninja. But what’s more important, when a community of people is governed by that kind of mutual authenticity, there’s room for the quiet kids to speak, for the banshees to be quiet, and for the ninjas to sit still and ponder awhile. There’s room for The rising and falling of many in Israel.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for authority is exousia. Exousia literally means out of one’s being. Authority flows always and only from our authentic being. It was out of his very being, out of his deepest, truest identity that Jesus’ authority cut through the misguided religious priorities of his peers on the Sabbath. It was out of his very being that Jesus walked with authority into that dinner party and both revealed and confronted the subconscious power-grabbing of a group of well-meaning religious folks at a dinner party. And it is out of her very being, out of all her creativity and compassion and introvertedness, that Caitlin has loved and taught and cared for our young people these past three years and made space for each of them to rise and fall and rise in the utterly unique ways God has made them. Caitlin, from all of us, thank you for that.
One last thing. At Church we hear a lot about being a child of God. This is true and a good thing to be. But we are also always adolescents of the world. What I mean is this: when you’re 12 or 14 or 16, you’re in the midst of an intensely formative period of your life. You’re starting to realize that you don’t think everything your parents think. You’re asking questions about who God is and about who you are. You’re discovering things you like and are good at. And perhaps most important, you’re keenly aware of your peers and how you fit in or don’t fit in with different groups. Peer group is everything. If you’re not careful, you start going along with whatever the group is doing without ever stopping to ask whether it’s a good thing to do, or whether it’s even something you want to do.
Adolescence is perhaps the first time we feel those pressures that keenly. But we never entirely outgrow them, whether we realize it or not. We are always God’s children, and yet we’re also always in the midst of our spiritual adolescence. I see what Sabbath means to everyone else, but what does it mean to me? Who am I going to invite to dinner? How will I create space for the quiet kids to talk while also allowing ninjas to ninja?
The good news, friends, is that the undistractedness of Christ resides within you. You are God’s people, God’s beloved, and even now God is redeeming you from whatever slaveries in which you reside, even the slaveries you think you like. Take heart, your soul is unassailable.