The homeliness of the gospels is a significant ingredient in their charm. They are distinctly unpretentious and the incidents they recount so often occur in ordinary and intimate settings that are common to human experience. Episodes in daily life allow Jesus to relate to individuals in close and critical encounter for them. He meets them in various situations, public and private, and aptly addresses their hearts as he reads them with such penetration and precision. Jesus could pinpoint character and condition with infallible insight and pronounce his words of encouragement or judgment. It was his accuracy of assessment that unnerved the arrogant and insincere and excited such hostility towards him. The humble and the broken were never crushed by him. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 42:3). The poor in spirit were uplifted; the proud were laid low and their vanity exposed. He was never duped by the flattery of the pompous and self-assured. The earnestly religious elite were those who were most angry with him. He did not endorse their self-righteous attitude of confidence and complacency. These were folk who possessed an unfounded sense of assurance of their favour with God grounded in their works of virtue and the worthiness of their social status. Jesus was audacious enough to call them “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). When he was with them he could sniff their moral decay and spiritual deadness. They gambled the destiny of their souls on dangerous false assumptions. They were the exponents of platitudinous religiosity that paraded itself as exemplary and it was nourished by the admiration of onlookers. For they loved praise from men more than praise from God (John 12:43 cf 5:41-44). While all men are proud and desirous of boosting self esteem the rich have a particular propensity to elevate themselves, assert superiority, and exercise a sense of entitlement. They equate material affluence with moral, intellectual, and spiritual wellbeing.
Jesus was a guest at a lavish luncheon and was observing the self importance of his fellow diners displayed in their choice of places at table. Each considered themselves more worthy than others. The simple pleasure of partaking of food had become the infantile folly of vying for pre-eminence. The occasion was organized by a Pharisee so the dinnertime circus must have been to some extent a “do it yourself” rating in terms of pietistic merit. Those attempting to get closest to the host considered themselves the most deserving. Jesus was seated in close proximity to a man of very pious sentiment who remained unshaken by Jesus’ clear rebuke of elitism and exclusive self-indulgence (Luke 14; 1-14). In spite of all he had heard from the Master’s lips this man patronizingly addressed Jesus with stunning glibness. Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God (v15). The words are said in self defensiveness and with an air of self congratulation. He was marking himself out as a person qualified for the kingdom. Jesus clearly saw otherwise and mercifully began to peel back the mask of conceit and self deceit.
With the weapon of parabolic discourse he ventured to puncture the egotism of the nearby conversationalist. He knew that the individual concerned was more ready to sit down at a physical feast than be filled with the grace of God. With his pride and worldly preoccupations to the fore he had no inner need of divine generosity or condescension. He was a man of competence and accomplishment, secure in his self worth and sure of his approval with God. Jesus had just mentioned that the divine hospitality was extended to the poor, the helpless, and the outcast. The man could not identify himself with classes that God was most interested in. He harboured excuses as to why he, a paragon of piety, should not be utterly reliant upon undeserved mercy. In a disarmingly simple tale Jesus touches on the priorities of the self sufficient and those attached to the myth of the self made man. It is a warning to us all in our attempt to raise ourselves above others and boast before God.
Adam and Eve began the business of making excuses before God, and when he summons us we naturally incline to make our excuses also. We have preferences that preclude wholehearted devotion to God. We have pursuits that clash with his purpose. There is an ineluctable reluctance in human nature to go God’s way. We dignify that stubbornness with illusions of obligation, duty, good sense, and necessity but it all actually comes down to elevating self above God and the refusal to recognize our dependence. Twice Jesus mentioned the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, throwing out the clues that all mankind of any class and condition fit into those categories spiritually speaking, and that we are not fit to see or make our way into the kingdom. Too many impediments hamper us. We wonder if the man entrapped in the cultural religion of his age and people ever achieved a breakthrough enabling him to see that he was as derelict and destitute by nature as the inferior folk he despised. Religion that cosies up to culture and integrates with it is filled with presumption, prejudice, superficiality, and the mistaken notion that God is gratified by an occasional nod in his direction. Pious talk, clichés, and expressions are common and cheap. We all overuse “beatitudinous” language (declarations of blessing) with regard to self, others we favour, and our country, far too often when our hearts are not fit to articulate such sentiments. We have little appreciation of our ill desert, the need for repentance, and of the colossal magnitude of unmerited grace.
In our attempt to sound right among our peers or fellow professors of faith we fail to see that our hearts are fundamentally unsound. There is no spiritual soundness within us (A General Confession BCP). We cannot share the awareness of Isaiah. Woe to me! I am ruined! (6:5). We speak grace and peace to ourselves before we absorb Romans one. Salvation, then, is a slick word and a shallow experience. The world does not detect anything of substance in our witness, or the remarkable effects of grace, and so we are dismissed and ridiculed for lack of authenticity. Why should it bother with these who are unwilling to go deep into their faith and exhibit its distinctiveness?
Jesus illustrates the danger of a pious upbringing and profession without understanding, humility, and true contrition. Being raised in Christian circles has its perils and they exist in the presumption that familiarity with customs and terms is the equivalent of being right with God personally. We can mimic those around us, even receive their commendation, without realizing that our souls, our deepest selves, are still alienated from God. Jesus prised his way behind the bogus pious language of the man who “blessed” everything too much without the presence of any evident reality that would warrant what in effect had become formulaic and vacuous chit-chat that has deplorable effects in the life of the church. Unintended, undetected hypocrisy is an imminent hazard for those nestled and nurtured in the bosom of the church. If we are meant to be his Jesus will unmask us.