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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Dinner With the Pharisees - 09/01/2019

There are biblical scholars who make compelling arguments that Jesus himself was a Pharisee.

It might feel a little odd to consider these arguments. Our gospels can be hard on Pharisees, as they can be on lawyers and bankers and the wealthy. So it’s important to remember that generalizing in any instance is not typically helpful. There were some problematic Pharisees around, I think we can assume that. In general, however, the Pharisees were pretty well-respected teachers and clergy. They tended to live pretty modestly and be charitable.

I think we can imagine Jesus in this kind of role. If he was a Pharisee, he was a perfect one. Humans being human, though, have not ever reached that ideal.

The Gospel of Luke is sometimes cite as evidence that Jesus was a Pharisee. His relationship with them was complex and rather intimate in Luke. This is the third time in this gospel account that Jesus is invited to eat at the house of a Pharisee … the key word here being “invited,” repeatedly, even though he is not what you might call a passive, wall flower of a guest.

In the first dinner party story in Luke, Jesus was invited and he took his place at the table. Based on this story we have today, we can perhaps imagine it was the lowest place at the table.

We think the dinners in the homes of the wealthy and influential at this time would have been hosted in a number of adjoining rooms. The host and all the other prestigious people and VIPs would be in the best room eating the best food and drinking the best wine. Others from the community would also be there, many in the adjoining rooms. The farther you were from the host and those clustered around him, the lower you were in status.

That might explain why in this first dinner party story, the woman with a bad reputation and an alabaster jar of expensive ointment was able to get into the room far enough to anoint Jesus’ feet. (Luke 7:36ff) When the hosting Pharisee saw this, he was not happy. Mumbling ensued, followed by one of Jesus’ perspective-shifting parables … “A certain creditor had two debtors …” (7:41ff)

I’m pretty sure what happened in Luke’s second story of dinner with a Pharisee would have been the talk of the town the next day. Straight away the host took issue with Jesus for not washing as he did before they dined. Jesus went off …

“Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? … But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:39-42, para.)

Woe to you Pharisees. Jesus goes on like this challenging their practices and leadership of these Pharisees for another nine, brutally honest verses. After that dinner party the angry Pharisees began to conspire against Jesus.

And then we come to our story today. It’s like a reality show … Dinner with Powerful Pharisees, where Jesus is like Gordon Ramsey coming into a crazy restaurant scene: they think that menu is good, that floor is clean and the management technique works … but, not so much, Chef Ramsey says quite plainly.

 That’s kind of like what Jesus does here with God’s law … some of the Pharisees think they are keeping God’s law, they think they are helping the people be faithful to the Covenant, but Jesus says, quite plainly … no, they’ve gone off the tracks.

You may have noticed we skipped a few verses in our story today, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear what took place in those verses was another Sabbath healing.

Again, let’s imagine that Jesus has taken the most humble place at the table and this time it’s a man with dropsy who is able to reach him. Dropsy is an acute and disfiguring edema or swelling, maybe in the feet or legs. Jesus healed him, of course, and then moved onto really challenging those present, as he did last week in the synagogue. “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.” (14:5)

He’s had them on the ropes, they know he’s right and so they cannot argue with him. So Jesus goes in for more, completely upsetting the way everyone thought they understood hospitality. What Jesus does while he’s here sets up the expected hospitality at the Lord’s Table too.

Do not jockey for the seat closest to the host. It is honorable and wise to be unassuming and modest. As the Proverb says. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Prov. 25:6-7)

And when you are privileged enough to host a dinner, do not jockey for the VIP guest either – the one who is familiar or predictable or will at least boost your street cred.

So when you consider all these Dinner with the Pharisee experiences together, we can see that Jesus was not an easy guest. And we can imagine the Pharisees did not put up with this kind of boldness from just anyone – but they did from Jesus, for a while, anyway. This is the last time Luke writes about a dinner at a Pharisee’s house. We now start the part of this story that more obviously leads to an execution order instead of a dinner invite.

I think the possible Pharisee is an interesting idea … especially as part of a gospel to us, a fairly comfortable and privileged assembly of God’s people, by world standards, anyway.

I mean, the majority of us have our basic needs met … food and shelter, a warm coat and boots for the winter… though, not all of us, we must always remember.

Most of us have also been free to worship where we chose our whole lives. We have benefited, the majority of us, in ways perceived and not, because of our light-colored skin.

Particularly as Americans, from the state border to many international borders, we are permitted to cross fairly easily, if not effortlessly. Most of us have not had to defend ourselves for who we love. Very few of us have ever had to flee what we consider home because it wasn’t safe anymore … though some of us have, we must also remember.

Many of us are wealthy in friendship and community. We have a faith community here that celebrates and hopefully nurtures the ways our passions and gifts can be breathed into life for the sake of God’s beloved creation.

Like Jesus, the possible Pharisee, we too have some privilege … from our smallest circles of influence, like our spouse and our families, to much larger circles, like our criminal justice systems, our classrooms and other places that help form our youth, our health care systems and resources for taking care of our elders, this faith community, our synod, the ELCA and even the whole of the Christ’s Church.

So I think this story gives us a great opportunity to really consider and somehow imitate what Jesus does with his privilege, that voice he has in this influential circle of colleagues.

He doesn’t use it to chastise the woman for breaking the rules and demonstrating her faith so unexpectedly in the first story. He honors her in return by acknowledging her, he releases her from the bonds of her sin and then he tries to widen the Pharisee’s love for God’s people by holding her up as an exemplary model of a gracious host.

In the second story Jesus uses his privilege as a way to address infighting over tedious and ever-changing purity laws that have some of the Pharisees wandering away from their covenantal and priestly promises to worship God above all things – including properly sanitized tableware – and to seek justice for those with little access and voice.

And in today’s story, Jesus used what appears to be the last of his access in this influential circle of Pharisees to punctuate his teaching on care of God’s Creation on the Sabbath and to pull the ministry of hospitality back into line with Father Abraham, who did indeed entertain angels without knowing, when three strangers arrived one day. (See Gen. 18)

It’s a tall order for the privilege and access we have in this example set by our Savior. It’s not easy, Jesus certainly knew that, he knew it about us and he experienced it himself.

We have another scriptural resource to help us in that uneasiness though. Our reading from Hebrews today says “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” (Heb. 13:6)

It’s more truth, for the privileged and the ones who need to borrow their voices alike. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we no longer have to jockey for the VIP position because, like Vivian, in our baptisms, we have already been invited to the head of the table of our eternal life with God … ultimately every one of us completely free of our sin, our wounds, our dis-ease, and our occasional tendency to be as human as a Pharisee. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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