Parnell Crump was the name of my barber when I lived in Georgia at the beginning of my career as a parish pastor. I found Mr. Crump shortly after we moved to the little town of St. Marys. And by little town, I mean little town. Sure, there are smaller ones but for my wife and I it was the smallest we had experienced. A couple of signals, a Walmart and that was about it. Now, Mr. Crump was an old guy, well past retirement age, though he was not sure what he would do when he retired. So, he just continued to cut hair. Every time I came in for a haircut, he would ask the same question, “Did you bury anyone yet?” Now, he was not a morbid guy, he just found it fascinating how I had managed to be a pastor for any length of time without having a member die. I managed to keep that up for a while. It seemed great. Almost 3 years without a single funeral. I did not realize then how truly odd it was.
These days, I have become all too acquainted with the rhythm and flow of the funeral. Whether it is a long slow illness or a sudden shock to everyone, I have been there as husbands lost their wives and children mourned their fathers and friends were left speechless. And of all one might say about a funeral, of all the movements and rituals to the moment, there is one thing which is definitely a common thread. There is a longing that comes at a funeral, a longing for something more, something beyond the vale of tears. You can feel this longing in the air when the mourners gather in the church. It is present whether there is a casket in front or a simple picture of the one who died.
In fact, there is this same sort of longing found in other places as well. Mr. Crump may have been focused on the death of the saints and a pastor’s role in the moment, but this same longing can be found elsewhere. It is found during deep and private conversations about marriages which are falling apart. Or about children who have run away and simply will not listen to any sort of parental guidance. It is felt when you speak to young people about the pressures of fitting in at school, just as much as it is in the conversations with the elderly about selling their homes and moving to an assisted living facility. Perhaps this longing is just for some sort of fix, some answer eluding them. Though, often, the longing seems to be for something more permanent, something that will undo all they struggle with, all the pain and suffering and heartache marking their lives.
You know this longing too. That things might be different. That all the brokenness and hurting in your life might finally be healed. You long to not feel at war with yourself, to finally overcome the depression and anxiety which seems to run the show. So, we turn to the Word of God, to the source of hope and life. We read about our Lord doing something radically different from everything else. Amid a world of deficiencies and suffering and failure, He begins to heal, to restore, to bring hope into people’s lives. In a world of laws and demands and hurts, He begins to heal. He brings restoration. He turns back the expectations of everyone and for a moment the longing is satisfied. He does not worry about what is proper in the time. He does not pause to weigh the outcome. No, like a father whose son has fallen down a well, He just springs to action and brings life and hope and probably laughter and excitement and joy to the life of this man. Imagine the tears of joy rolling down his cheeks as he dances and celebrates, healed of his edema.
From this moment of unexpected joy, Jesus begins to teach those who were gathered in the home dining with Him. They had come for the roast lamb and the mint jelly and a few glasses of wine, but now they are going to get something much more. He begins by saying,
When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give you place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when you host comes, he may say to you. ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you” (Luke 14:8-10).
He speaks of a type of living where one does not search out his own glory, honor or prestige. Instead of taking the best seat, you take the lowest allowing the host to invite you up to the higher seat. In the end, this is, of course, much better than being asked to move down to a lower seat in the presence of everyone else. Instead of being shamed, you are honored. But this is difficult. It means you need to trust the host. You need to not worry about your place among the other guests. This goes against everything else we know. It goes against the way of our world. It goes against the longing of our own hearts.
You have been taught, conditioned even, to seek what you are due; whether it is compensation or recognition or promotion or something else. So, as you are wondering what it might mean, what it might look like in your life to take the lowest place, Jesus shifts gears and highlights another radical way of living. Not only does He want the guests to take the lowest spots, He wants the host to invite the lowest guests. He says,
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your bothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a fast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” (Luke 14:12-14).
Do not invite those who can pay you back, those who can return the favor, those who will let you taste their wines and dine at their table. Invite those who cannot pay you, those who have nothing to give you in return. Again, this is a shocking and bizarre request of our Lord. Would He have us simply throw our front doors wide open, leave the keys to the car on the counter and let the riffraff have their way with our belongings? Well, perhaps. But remember these are parables of our Lord and, as such, they teach us something about the Kingdom of God and our reaction to it. In fact, I think they encourage us to a particular and radical type of living in this world which has to do with the longing we all struggle with.
These people, gathered at this feast, both the host and the guests, are all acting out of their own self-interest. They are looking for recognition or honor or some sort of fame among each other. Their lives, not unlike your lives, are all tied up in what one’s worth is in comparison to another. You live a life where you want your slice of glory. It does not have to be much, but something. The young want to make their mark to be recognized, to be successful and financially stable. The old want to leave a legacy to be well remember. But over and again, life has a way of wrecking it all. Disease and limitation and death and sorrow cut into your plans and schemes. As marriages fall apart and children grow distant, all we have left is that longing.
But Jesus calls for something different. In fact, He gives something different. He gives something more than this life offers, something which satisfies the longing. He brings joy and laughter through the healing of an unknown man on the Sabbath. And He calls for you to not worry about getting your own, but about being humble and offering service to one another. He calls for you to invite the poor and the lowly to receive the blessings He has set before you. You are free to forgive and to love and to be kind and welcoming.
Why can you do this? Why can you live this way? He says, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). You live here and now in the promise of the Resurrection. You live a resurrected life, a life radically different from everyone else. For it is not bound to this age, it is rooted in the age to come. It is rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Himself.