True Religion


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In the Collect for this week we pray for the Lord to "increase in us true religion." What is that? Most people think true religion is doing something for God usually by doing something for the poor and downtrodden. Apparently our bulletin insert agrees. On the top right underneath the date it says, "In a 'me first' world, the lessons remind us to put God first by placing others before ourselves." This is what the bulletin insert believes the Gospel lesson teaches. The Old Testament reading they chose to go with the Gospel is about not exalting yourself. That's how they viewed Jesus' words in the Gospel. They're no more profound than be humble, be generous.

Most people think this is what the Gospel lesson teaches. But think this through. If a person purposely chose a lower seat just to get a higher one, would they really be humble? If you gave a party just so you would be repaid in the resurrection, would you really be generous? If you think so, then you've forgotten Eddie Haskel from the 1950's show "Leave it to Beaver." He was the teenager who was only polite and sweet when grown-ups were around, so they would compliment and reward him. If you choose low seats just so to get a higher or if you give parties just to get a greater repayment at the end of the world, you're an Eddie Haskel.

Do you think Jesus wants Eddie Haskels? Do you? What do you think when one of your kids does something just to get a reward? You explain to them the virtues of picking up their room, sharing with their brother, eating all their vegetables. Then they make a big point to tell you whenever they pick-up, share, or clean their plate just so you can reward them. That's not the type of child we wish to raise; that's not the true religion Jesus would instill in His children either.

Yet, this is where the Pharisees were. They lived their lives believing true religion was doing things for God. Consider the Pharisee's prayer in Luke where he tells God all he does for Him and how worthy he is compared to the wretched tax collector. Consider the fact that the Pharisees thought God made man for the Sabbath day rather than the Sabbath day for man. In other words, God made man so he could work, strain, and suffer to keep the Sabbath. It wasn't a day to rest in what God did but to do things for God.

Enter Jesus. He helped men on the Sabbath. He spoke of His burden being easy and light. He spoke of God longing to give His kingdom away, the very kingdom the Pharisees believed could only come about if mankind worked, strained, suffered and prayed. True religion to the Pharisees was giving and doing. It is the same with the true religionists of our day. If they're liberals true religion will be feeding the hungry and building food banks; if they're conservative true religion will be spreading the Gospel and building churches.

True religionists, whether liberal or conservative, are filled with righteous zeal for giving to God and doing things for God. They thrive on being told what they must do for or give to God. And people in general love this. Why? Because the opinion of the law which says sinners have got to be able to do help save themselves somehow clings to us all. The opinion of the law can only find rest when it gives something to God or does something for Him. True religion to the Pharisee of all ages is giving and doing things for God. True religion to Jesus is receiving things from God and having Him do things for you. Let me show you this in this text.

Jesus tells two parables here. Remember parables speak about heavenly things using earthly pictures. If you take these parables about choosing seats and giving luncheons as instructions for going to weddings and giving parties, you've missed the heavenly point entirely. Thinking these parables tell you how to choose a seat or how to throw a party is as silly as thinking the parable of the lost sheep tells you how to find lost sheep.

The text says Jesus tells the first parable, "When He noted how the guests picked (literally "chose") the places of honor at the table." The point of the parable is that men choose one way and God chooses the direct opposite. Men choose the first and best; God chooses the last and worst. Surely you who've studied the Old Testament can see this. The Promised Seed of the Messiah is rarely passed down to the first son but almost always to the second or lower. Although the nation of Israel thought God chose her because she was first and best, God says in Deuteronomy 4 and 7 that other nations were greater and mightier than Israel and that she was the fewest of all peoples.

It's the same for the New Testament Church. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 1, "God has chosen the foolish things of the world..the weak things of the world...the base things of the world...the things that are not..that no man should boast before God." Men choose # 1's, winners, the best of the best. God chooses lower numbers, losers, the least of the least. And this is humbling. You will not learn humility by choosing lower seats only so you can be raised to a higher one. You learn humility when you realize that there is nothing in you that causes God to choose you for salvation. You are not better, bigger or more righteous before God than the worst, most wicked sinner you can think of.

It was because of the merits and mercies of Jesus that God chose you, not because of anything you can give or do for Him. Furthermore, being humbled to the point of seeing that you were chosen only because of what Jesus did for you not because of what you can do for Jesus, because of what Jesus gave up for you not because of what you can give to Him, leads to your exaltation. When you realize your salvation depends on what Jesus gives and does, then you cling to Jesus and what He gives and does, and therefore you go where Jesus went and the way Jesus went: to the cross in this life, to the grave at life's end, but to the skies for everlasting life. So, being humbled to receive what Jesus does and gives leads to being exalted.

What about the second parable? Isn't that about what I can give to Jesus? Note the words poor, crippled, lame, and blind. No Pharisee would ever invite such to his dinner table because their mere presence would defile it. In the Old Testament Church the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind were specifically excluded from serving as priests. Yet, Jesus says these are the ones they ought to invite to their table. Once more let me say if you think Jesus is giving instructions about throwing an earthly dinner party, you are missing the heavenly point. I can prove this by going just 3 verses from our text where in another parable Jesus declares, "Go out at once... and bring to my banquet the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame."

God invites the poor not those who think they're rich, the crippled not those who think they're healthy, the blind not those who think they see, the lame not those who think they can walk on their own 2 feet. God invites to His table not those who think they're holy enough to be a priest before God, but those who know they're so unholy that they must be excluded from serving God. As for the rich, healthy, walking, and seeing, they won't come to God's banquet. They make excuses. They would rather stay out of the banquet than admit they aren't able to give or do anything for God.

The real service of God then is eating and drinking what He puts before you because after all what could a poor, crippled, blind or lame person do for God? For that matter what could they really do for you? If you can see how it would be physically impossible for a poor, crippled, lame or blind person to do for you or give to you, you see the earthly point of this parable. Now see the heavenly one. The resurrection of the righteous can't be for those who think they have enough humility and generosity to get into heaven. That would be changing the parable to say that the rich, healthy, walking, and seeing are to be given banquets. No, the resurrection of the righteous is for those who confess that while they are incapable of being humble enough or generous enough, there is One who is capable.

Those will see the resurrection of the righteous who confess that God the Son humbled Himself to be born of a Virgin, to suffer under Pontius Pilate, to be crucified and die alone on a cross under the wrath of God in place of all sinners. Those see the resurrection of the righteous who know God gave His only beloved Son over to sin, death, and the devil that He might choose us sinners instead. This is the teaching of true religion.

True religion is eating and dining at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb both here in time and there in eternity. True religion is Jesus preparing a Table for the poor, crippled, blind, and lame where He gives us His Body and Blood. But notice what does the Collect says the Lord will do after He has nourished us with all the goodness of His Body and His Blood? He will "bring forth in us the fruit of good works."

True religion starts with what the true God does for mankind in Jesus. This does lead to our giving and doing, but that is not where we start from nor where we live from. Our giving and doing is the fruit of Jesus the Vine being in our life. Now if a person is afraid of physically falling from a tree, he doesn't hold on to the fruit but to the vine. Fruit easily breaks off; vines do not. Likewise, when a person is afraid of spiritually falling he doesn't hold on to the fruit of his good works but to Jesus the vine. True religion is what Jesus does and gives; the fruit of true religion is what we do and give. What we give and do will always be tainted by our sins. What Jesus does and gives is never tainted. Hold on to that; feast on that. These will take you to exaltation and the resurrection of the righteous as sure as Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Pentecost XV (9-12-04); Luke 14: 1, 7-14