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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 8/29

There is an ancient document called the Letter of Aristeas that dates back to about 250 years before Christ.  I’m not real familiar with this document but I do see it referenced once in awhile and from what I know it reads kind of like one of Paul’s letters; some of it has to do with theological matters, some of it is more practical commentary on day to day issues. 

The primary topic of the letter has to do with the time when the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek at the request of King Ptolemy of Egypt.  Ptolemy had an impressive library of books but he didn’t have a copy of the Old Testament and he wanted one.  But he also couldn’t read Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, so he commissioned the best scholars he could find to translate the Hebrew into Greek.  There were 72 scholars and each one did his own translation and the story says that all 72 translations came out exactly the same which was seen as proof that they were divinely inspired.  Obviously there are questions about how much of this is history and how much is legend but let’s not worry about that for now.

          Prior to doing their work of translation, King Ptolemy hosted a banquet for these scholars, a banquet that lasted for seven days during which the King engaged in philosophical discussion with these learned men.  Some of that discussion is reported in the Letter of Aristeas and some of it has to do with dining and banquet etiquette and so it provides some interesting background for today’s gospel.

          For example, listen to this: “The king was well pleased with what had just been said and addressed the ninth guest; ‘How ought one conduct himself at banquets?’ The reply was, ‘By inviting men of learning, with the ability to remind the king of matters advantageous to the kingdom and to the lives of the subjects.  Better harmony or music than these you would never find, because these men are beloved of God, having trained their minds for the noblest ends.”

          It sounds like the Pharisee that invited Jesus for dinner had read the Letter of Aristeas.  He had invited an interesting group of guests with whom he could engage in enlightening conversation.  According to accepted etiquette, there was nothing rude or inappropriate in what he did, until Jesus came along to upset his well planned party.

          First, Jesus took on the guests, upset at the seats they had taken.  Apparently they knew who belonged where and so they seated themselves accordingly.  Doesn’t seem like a big deal.  But Jesus says No, referring back to the quote from Proverbs which essentially says don’t assume you belong anywhere.  Take the less prestigious seats and wait to be invited forward.  No offense to Jesus or to Proverbs, but it’s really kind of a stupid suggestion.  It could create more problems than it solves.  Instead of good order you could have guests kind of jockeying for position, trying to be noticed so they could be asked to move up.

          But Jesus wasn’t through with his bad advice; next he took on the host.  He told the host he’d invited the wrong people.  His guest list shouldn’t include family, friends or the interesting people suggested by the Letter of Aristeas.  Instead it should be the poor, the lame, the crippled.  Jesus had to know that nobody, then, now or ever was going to do this.

          As practical advice, this lesson really is quite worthless.  As usual though, Jesus intent wasn’t to dispense practical advice but to reveal deeper truth concerning the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God not as the heavenly hereafter, but the Kingdom of God as it is revealed among us, in our world.  The kingdom truth he is getting at today has to do with humility.

          In the Kingdom of God there are no pecking orders, no one “belongs” in a higher place than anyone else because all are dependent on God’s grace.  So there are no guest lists organized according to who is worthy based on wealth, power or influence.  The guest list is organized only according to God’s grace.  That means nobody is worthy, nobody deserves their spot, but in Christ all are invited, all are welcome.  That’s the new reality, the truth that Jesus proclaimed.  It’s the truth and the reality that we enact when we celebrate Holy Communion.  As we gather around the altar, all are equal, there is no seating plan, you don’t know who will be beside you and no one receives more than anyone else.  It’s a sharing in God’s grace, a foretaste of the feast to come. 

          Jesus proclaimed this kingdom ruled only by grace but he did so with full knowledge of the realities of this world, a world where pecking orders do exist.  Those pecking orders can be evil, for example when some were told to sit in the back of the bus or to use different drinking fountains; that was a bad thing.  But there are other orderings of people that have to exist so that things function as they should.  The church is a good example of that.  The reason for ordained clergy is not because I’m better than you, it has to do with being set apart for proper order within the church.

          You can’t have all chiefs and no Indians, nor can you have all Indians and no chief.  Some sense of hierarchy is inevitable and necessary.  That’s why the most important verse in this lesson is what Jesus put in between his words directed to the guests and his words directed to the host; “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

          That’s a call for humility that accepts the fact that according to the constructs that govern our lives, some will be seen to be more highly exalted than others.  But it’s also a call that recognizes that the only exaltation that really matters is done by God and God alone.  We can’t exalt ourselves and even the exaltation the world grants is fleeting.  In this world pecking orders will evolve and usually we know where we fit in.  But regardless of where we fit in, our interactions with one another should reflect humility that ignores the pecking order, that doesn’t make anyone a doormat or an idol, but instead graces everyone with dignity and respect.

          Many years ago, it would have been the late 70’s I was working at the playground in the town where I taught school in New Hampshire.  I was young and hadn’t figured out yet that the biggest perk in being a teacher is that you don’t have to work during the summer.  Anyway, sometimes the recreation department would be given tickets to various things and one time they got some tickets to a New England Teamen soccer game.  The Teamen were one of the earlier incarnations of professional soccer in New England (they were owned by Lipton Tea, hence the name) and they played in Foxboro in the same stadium the Patriots played in.

          So I went down there with a couple of kids from the playground, a brother and sister whose family I’d gotten to know pretty well.  We were sitting there waiting for the game to start and remember, this is soccer, it’s a 60,000 seat stadium with most of them empty.  We were sitting there and I saw this guy walk down by himself and sit a few rows in front of us, no one around him.  I said to the kids, “That’s KC Jones.”  If you don’t know, at that time KC Jones was an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics; in a few years he’d be the head coach and coach them to a couple of championships.  But he had also played for the Celtics from the late 50’s through the sixties and so was one of the players I had watched and idolized growing up.  He was good enough to have been voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame; his number 25 was retired by the Celtics. 

          He appeared to be by himself so after a couple of minutes I said, “Let’s go down and talk to him.”  So we did.  I’d always heard what a nice guy he was and it was true.  He was very pleasant and we were talking about the Celtics past and present, he was great with the kids and didn’t seem to mind having us there.  After awhile I said, “Can I buy you a beer?”  I assumed he drank beer because he was in one of those old Miller Lite ads that featured retired athletes arguing about “great taste vs. less filling.”  He said, “Sure,” but just as I was getting up to go an official looking guy wearing a blazer with the Teamen logo on it came by and started talking to KC. 

          It was apparent that they knew each other and after a little small talk he said to KC, “Why don’t you come on up and sit in the press box?”  I was thinking, “Well, this has been fun, but I guess it’s over,” figuring that this was his chance to get away.  But instead he said to the guy, “I’m with these people.”  The guy looked at us and said, “They can come up too.”  So we all went up to the press box and had a great time enjoying the game and the company not to mention free food and drinks. 

We had nothing to offer KC Jones in repayment for his kindness toward us; but apparently it didn’t matter.  The kind of humility he demonstrated provides a vision of life in the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.  It doesn’t save us or the world, but it is pleasing to God.  Sometimes, many times, that’s the best we can do.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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