The Lord Knows How to Reward

Sermon 1819 Luke 14.7-14 August 28, 2022

If you are like most people (and me as I looked at texts like this for the majority of my life), these Gospel accounts about seating charts make no sense. Is it like a Martha Stewart book of etiquette? Take the lower seats of honor, lest you be kicked out in front of everyone. We follow that rule. That’s why we sit in our ticketed seats, no matter how sparsely attended the show or sporting event is.

But then it hit me, with the very first verse of our text. “He told them this parable.” It is a parable. A parable is an earthy story with a heavenly meaning. Think of Nebraska, with a rainbow over it. A parable. An earthly story with a heavenly meaning. The earthly story was right in front of Jesus. All the Pharisees were scrambling for the best seats at the dinner he was invited to. What is the heavenly meaning?

God Knows How to Reward

1. God freely gives us heaven.

2. He knows how to give us other good gifts as well.

We can easily imagine the scene. A wedding feast. Lots of tables and chairs. Who sits where? Some grab the tables right next to where the wedding party is going to sit. But then the father of the bride, the host, comes in with grandpa in tow. The only seats left are back by the DJ and they are filling up fast, too. “The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place (9).” But if the host walks in and sees his little girl’s godparents sitting way in back by the bathroom, he will bump them up to the family table, even telling the help to put in two more chairs to fit them in. “Who are they?” everybody asks each other. “Important people,” comes the reply.

Since this is a parable, this earthly story has a heavenly meaning. The wedding feast represents heaven. Many times the Bible uses that picture of heaven. It is the wedding feast of the Lamb. Heaven is like a wedding banquet. The unexpected nature of the last day is like a bridegroom getting to the wedding reception really, really late. The wedding feast is heaven.

The proud guest who got his comeuppance and the humble guest who was honored represent the two types of people.

One type of people are pushy and shovey, thinking anything good in this world, they have to grab it for themselves. They are the type who are always telling you how good they are, what’s the next greatest and grandest endeavor they have up their sleeve. They always one-up you. If you’ve gone to London, they’ve seen the Queen. If you got tickets to the hot concert on the Strip, they got backstage passes. They hardly are any good at their jobs or their lives because they spend almost forty hours a week being their own publicist. They scratch everybody’s back because they know they are going to need coverage somewhere along the line and, if they play it right, the decision chain will be so long nobody’s head will roll for the big blunder they were responsible for.

Oh, and did I tell you, they expect God to work the same way? They huff and puff letting God know how much good they are doing for him. Member of the year, Golden Circle Donor, getting that special deal for shoddy carpeting for the church’s coffee shop in the lobby. Of course they are going to heaven. Look at all the good things they have done! You can count on them, that is, as long as the pastoral staff keeps holding them up for everybody else to praise and (we hope, we hope, we hope) imitate their selfish lives of dedication to the Lord. Because you really don’t want to get on their bad side.

Now here’s the heavenly meaning. They are not going to get into heaven. Their seats for all eternity will be outside, looking in, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it will all be their fault because they didn’t believe God freely gives us heaven.

He does. Jesus is describing a wedding feast, not a potluck. Nobody is expected to bring anything to drink or eat. It would be insulting. The prime rib buffet isn’t good enough for you? Didn’t you see the amazing vegetarian options on the reservation card? God freely gives us heaven. There’s nothing we need to contribute.

But that is humbling for everyone. Ever since we were children, we wanted to “do it myself.” Cut our food, pour the milk. This is why they don’t put carpeting under the family eating areas. What a mess we made when the glass tipped over. Tie my own shoes. Then we spent the rest of the day stepping on loose shoe laces, falling on the floor, falling into the wall, falling down a flight of stairs—at least that’s what they told us we did when we came to. We can’t do it. We haven’t done it. We don’t deserve heaven. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” the Apostle Paul tells us. Seated at the wedding feast? We don’t even deserve an invitation!

But God did invite everyone, didn’t he. “God so loved the world.” “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” One of our Seminary professors warned us, “You only get six shots and then you are gone, so make them count.” He was telling us our new congregations would only put up with about six blunders from us and then it was time to move on, having learned our lesson to be less mouthy, more discrete, more serving, less sit on your hands until somebody else does it. They expected us to change congregations every four to ten years. Anything more or less was extraordinary, because you either wore like an old, comfortable shoe or like a pair of wooden Dutch cloggers.

God isn’t keeping track of the shots. He isn’t keeping track of the sins. He forgives them all. Jesus paid for all sin when he died on the cross. The entire human race can’t out-sin the payment he laid down for us. God freely gives us heaven. Those who seek to earn it by their imagined good deeds or good standing forfeit the places Jesus won for them.

As Lutherans we understand that. We all memorized, “It is by grace you have been saved by faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God so that no one can boast.”

But here’s the part that is hard for us to swallow. He knows how to give other good gifts as well.

“Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous (12-14).’”

Don’t live your life looking for rewards. Don’t try to do well by doing good. None of us would think this is a temptation for us, but it is. How many times have we thought “I did such and such and nobody noticed?” “You think they could thank me.” We like to be magnanimous (and I guess that means big-hearted), but when we do something really selfless to help someone, we get ticked that they don’t constantly come up to us and thank us for what we did back when. Was it really a selfless act or was our sinful human nature trying to get some selfish praise to feed its pride?

The adjective “transactional” has been tossed around a lot lately. I guess it means that you and I are friends if we keep being friendly to each other and give each other what we want, like in a business transaction. But the thing is, I’m only going to cooperate with you if I think I am getting more out of the bargain than I have to put in.

The Christian life is not transactional. We don’t give to get. We don’t live demanding God reward us according to our expectations. But out of his great love for us he does richly reward us in his own way and in his own time. I know that because he promises to do that. Martin Luther said, “God promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore we should love and trust in him and gladly obey what he commands.” Luther never specified what those blessings would be. I can imagine some. If I keep the Sixth Commandment and love and honor my spouse, I expect I will have someone who thinks it is pretty neat to share my life with me, even when troubles come. I don’t expect my marriage will be without troubles, illness or financial difficulties. If I keep the Fourth Commandment and, from my youth, learned that authority is for my good, I will probably not end up getting shot by the police because I am doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t expect that I will only get a warning every time I am caught speeding. If I keep the Eighth Commandment and do not spread rumors (or even truths designed to make the person look bad), I sort of expect I will have a group of people around me who are not going to stab me in the back. The Psalmist says as much regarding the commandments. “In keeping them there is great reward (19.11).”

But you know what? Even if I have been stabbed in the back so often, they can only hit scar tissue, I’m going to keep living the Christian life. I will defend them, even if they don’t defend me. I will watch out for them, even if they don’t watch out for me. And if the devil ever gets such a hold on me that I am sitting back and judging everyone around me, because, “no one is lifting a finger to help,” I’ve got ten fingers. I can help. And I will.

Is that realistic? Is that type of life possible? Sure it is. You know it is. Jesus is the proof. He didn’t wait until one of the Twelve decided to get up and wash everyone’s feet at the last meal they shared together. He didn’t excuse his inactivity by saying nobody else was supporting him. He wrapped the towel around his waist, filled the bowl and made his way around the table, washing everyone’s feet. He didn’t promise God the Father he would do his will if the Twelve stood by his side. Even though all deserted him, he stood before the courts of Jews and Romans as he gave the good confession.

And don’t try to weasel out of it by saying that was Jesus and you can’t expect me to be like Jesus. Have we never sung, “Let us ever walk with Jesus, follow his example pure?” Will we ignore the hymnist’s advice, “Then take whate’er your Father’s pleasure and his discerning love have sent?”

Look at Moses. He was constantly attacked by the Children of Israel. “We have no food, we have no water and we detest this miserable manna.” “Did you bring us out into the desert to die?” No wonder the Scriptures tell us Moses was most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 3.12). And this was the Moses who offered to go to hell himself in order that the Lord turn his anger away from the sins of the Children of Israel. This was the man who constantly offered the Lord’s forgiveness and pardon to a stiff-necked people.

Look at Paul. In “danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea and in danger from false believers (2 Corinthians 11.26).” Yet he confessed, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9.16).”

Look at Mary. When she and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the Temple for the sacrifice of two doves at his Presentation, Simeon tells her, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too (Luke 2.35).” She didn’t put Jesus up for adoption with the excuse that she hadn’t signed on for this. She was used as bait by Jesus’ hateful brothers when they tried to seize him, claiming he was mentally incompetent to take care of himself. She watched her own son, the Son of God, die before her very eyes. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said. She didn’t ask what the salary and benefits package were.

But let’s end, not on examples of those who have gone before us, showing us it can be done. Let’s end on the life-giving, Spirit-filled words of Jesus that give what they command. “Let your left hand not know what your right hand is doing,” Jesus told us. And he told his disciples they were to be like servants who, after coming in from a hard day’s work, get the master’s dinner ready for him, and then eat themselves. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty (Luke 17.10).”

We will do this because we trust in God. We do this because we know he is good and gracious. We live this way because he knows better than we what we need. If he gave up his Son for us, will he not give us everything else as well, including a pat on the back according to his timing and terms?

God Knows How to Reward

1. God freely gives us heaven.

2. He knows how to give us other good gifts as well.

A parable. An earthly story with a heavenly meaning. It’s not rocket science. The meaning is as plain as the nose on our face. The hard part is doing it. But not doing it is so much harder.

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