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Getting the Right Guest List

Jim Carlson was a young pastor at a Lutheran church in Minnesota. Some years ago, he became troubled when several of the young people in his congregation felt like rejects. Senior prom at school was supposed to be the big party of the year, but if you didn’t have a date, you didn’t rate. And if your date wasn’t from the A-list, you would get crammed back at on of those corner tables, the ones reserved for nerds and geeks and misfits. All the “right” people got to do all of the wonderful things. But if you didn’t make the A-list, you might as well be mud.

So Jim Carlson had a brainstorm. The night of the Senior Prom, he threw a different part. It wasn’t for the beautiful or the popular people, although they would never be turned away. It was, instead, a party for the rejects, for the dateless, for the misfits. And he called it exactly what it was: “The Reject Prom”!

The first year it was fun, even if only a few people came, and mainly because Jim really pushed them into being there. But they had such a good time, because they came to be themselves, without any social anxiety or peer pressures. They simply wanted to be there, and to be liked, and to have a good time. They didn’t come to be rated or evaluated or applauded or derided. They came because they were all the same, and because Jim Carlson wanted to spend an evening with them.

So the next year he did it again. This time, it was a major hit. In fact, when everybody got back to school the next Monday morning, talk in the halls was how tame and silly the Senior Prom seemed, and what a terrific party the Reject Prom had been.

By the third year, the Reject Prom became a news item in the Minnesota media. Stories told of the wonderful thing that was happening in Jim Calrson’s town. Reporters interviewed students who told how great it was to come to something where you were accepted, rather than shunned or insulted. You didn’t have to dress up. You only had to be yourself.

When the fourth Reject Prom rolled around, TIMEX watch corporation got in on the act. They gave a free watch to everyone at the Reject Prom. It was their way of saying, “Hey! Have a good time! You’re not rejects! You are wonderful people!” Other corporations followed suit, and by the time the Reject Prom was half-a-dozen years old, it was the place to be on Prom Night! High school seniors would actually refuse to accept invitations to be dates at the Senior Prom, choosing instead to go to the Reject Prom, where people really knew how to have fun.

God was probably smiling as all this unfolded. After all, isn’t this what the church is about? How often didn’t Jesus talk in these terms: “…the Kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet…” “the Kingdom of God is like a great feast which a nobleman gave…” “the Kingdom of God is a party…”

Those who make the guest list in in the celebration halls of heaven are often, as Jesus indicated, the lowest and the last and the lost and the least. This is where the party begins.

All of our lectionary passage for today note this. When the ancient Israelites gathered their tithes, according to the instructions of Deuteronomy 26, they were to throw a party for the marginalized within their communities. Paul similarly identifies the rejects as the new folks in Jesus’ new church. And Jesus himself asserted the same strongly in his interactions with the Devil as he was tempted in the wilderness.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
If the Bible begins as the covenant documents confirming the Suzerain Vassal treaty between Yahweh and Israel, Exodus exists as the “What” of the covenant parameters, Genesis as the “Why” of the covenant background, Leviticus as the “How” of the covenant lifestyle, and Numbers as the “Who” of belonging in the covenant, particularly through some difficult efforts at stretching, breaking and renewal. Deuteronomy, which rounds out the “Pentateuch” or “Books of Moses” or “Torah” of the Hebrew Bible, functions within this covenant literature orbit as well, but addresses the issue of “How Long?” How long will the Sinai covenant remain in effect? Was it active only for the generation that stood at the mountain? Or does it have continuing impact on the generations that follow from its first engagement? The answer that Moses gives is that Yahweh intends the Sinai covenant to be the shaping tool in what he supposes to be a never-ending marriage relationship.

There are a number of things to consider when reading Deuteronomy. First, its literary “feel” is personal, passionate and poignant. Deuteronomy is very personal because it is the last will and testament of Moses as he finds the third of his incredible careers (forty years in training to be a government official in Egypt, forty years of Bedouin family life in the Sinai wilderness, forty years as leader of this nation and mediator between it and Yahweh) drawing to a close. It is passionate, since Moses wants to cram into a few short speeches the entire theology and worldview and mission and lifestyle that has pressed itself upon Israel through the exodus and covenant encounter at Sinai. It is poignant because it emerges as a dying man’s testimony delivered with deep meaning to the people he has come to love. Some have called Deuteronomy the “gospel” of Moses because it is filled with the tenderness and goodwill that is truly good news for Israel and the Christian church which finds its roots in the Sinai covenant. According to the New Testament gospels, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy more than any other Hebrew Bible book except for the Psalms. Particularly striking was Jesus’ use of Deuteronomy in refuting the devil in his wilderness temptations, as today’s Gospel reading notes.

The literary unfolding of Deuteronomy is similar to a genre sometimes identified as “Farewell Testament.” Other biblical examples include Jacob’s address to his family in Genesis 48—50, Joshua’s final words to both the elders and the gathered nation of Israel in Joshua 23—24, Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples as recorded in John 13—17, Paul’s brief parting address to the elders of the Ephesian church in Acts 20, and what appears to be the final letter of Paul to his young protégé Timothy (2 Timothy). Each of these testimonials expresses the hopes and sentiments of a man facing imminent death, and compacts into a tight frame a great amount of summary teaching, exhortation, prayer and visioning. What is unique about Deuteronomy is its additional layers of literary development that give evidence of careful crafting of the document into its final form.

There are, for instance, six distinct textual units that begin with the formulaic phrase “this is” or “these are” to reference the words or speeches of Moses, or a summary of the covenant stipulations. These literary units are then arranged in the form of three major addresses by Moses, followed by a concluding appendix of the final events in Moses’ life. Furthermore, when all of this organizational development is viewed as a whole, Deuteronomy appears to be shaped very much like the general outline of a typical Suzerain Vassal covenant document. In other words, the literature of Deuteronomy functions on several levels at the same time: it is Moses’ personal last will and testimony to Israel; it is also a summation of the most important elements of the entire Sinai covenant; and, at the same time, it is an actual covenant renewal document that is now the possession of succeeding generations within Israelite society. As a covenant document, Deuteronomy can be viewed in this way:

Covenant Prologue (1–4) – Preamble plus Historical Prologue

Covenant in Summary (5–11) – Stipulations

Core Covenant Stipulations (12–26) – Stipulations

Covenant Curses and Blessings (27–28) – Curses and Blessings

Covenant Renewal (29–32) – Document Clause

Epilogue (33–34)

In Deuteronomy the Sinai Suzerain-Vassal covenant is summarized and reiterated as a working document for future generations. This is particularly seen in the mandate Moses gives for a covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem (Deuteronomy 27:11–26), to be fulfilled once the Israelites have crossed over the Jordan River into Canaan. The “Curses and Blessings” section of the Suzerain-Vassal covenant are reiterated (Deuteronomy 27:15–26), drawing the book of Deuteronomy into the corpus of covenant literature that will function as Israel’s normative constitution.

There is in Deuteronomy the anticipation of Israel’s settled life in Canaan as now coming very close, in a way that did not emerge in earlier documents of the Pentateuch. The battles of the conquest are mentioned (Deuteronomy 7:1–11), along with the unique character of Israel’s social environment once the nation is established in the land (Deuteronomy 7:12–26; 11:1–32). A single cultic shrine is anticipated (Deuteronomy 12:1–7), along with the establishment of a monarchy (Deuteronomy 17:14–20), social practices like the tithing processes related to community formation found in today’s lectionary reading, and an entire national judicial system supported by “Cities of Refuge” (Deuteronomy 19). Finally, the specific covenant renewal ceremony at Shechem is outlined and described (Deuteronomy 27).

Romans 10:8b-13
Because Paul had not yet made a visit to Rome, this letter was less personal and more rationally organized than was often otherwise true. Paul intended this missive to be a working document; the congregation, already established in the capital city of the empire, would be able to read and discuss it together, in anticipation of Paul’s arrival, which was planned for some months ahead (Romans 1:6–15). Paul summarized his working theme and emphasis up front: a new expression of the “righteousness of God” had been recently revealed, with great power, through the coming of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:17).

Paul moves directly from his brief declaration about the righteousness of God into an extended discourse on the wrath of God as revealed against wickedness (Romans 1:18). Because of this, many have interpreted Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness as an unattainable standard, against which the whole human race is measured and fails miserably. Only then, in the context of this desperate human situation, would the grand salvation of Christ be appreciated and enjoyed.

But more scholars believe that Paul’s assertions about the righteousness of God actually have a positive and missional thrust. In their understanding of what Paul says, it is precisely because of the obvious corruption and sinfulness in our world, which are demeaning and destroying humanity, that God needed again, as God did through Israel, to assert the divine will. In so doing, the focus of God’s righteousness is not to heap judgment upon humankind; instead God’s brilliant display of grace and power in Jesus ought to draw people back to the creational goodness God had originally intended for them. In other words, the Creator has never changed purpose or plan. The divine mission through Israel was to display the righteousness of God so that all nations might return to the goodness of Yahweh. Now again, in Jesus, the righteousness of God is revealed as a beacon of hope in a world ravaged by evil bullies. The power of God is our only sure bodyguard against the killing effects of sin and society and self.

This more positive perspective on the righteousness of God fits well with the flow of Paul’s message. In chapters 1:18–3:20, Paul describes the crippling effect of sin. We are all alienated from God (1:18-25). But we are also alienated from each other (1:26-32), so that we begin to treat one another with contempt and painful arrogance and destroy those around us in the malice which blinds us. We are even, says Paul, alienated from our own selves (2:1-11), not realizing how tarnished our sense and perspectives have become.

We make excuses about our condition (2:12-3:20), claiming that we are actually pretty good people (2:12-16), or accusing society and religion of raising moral standards to levels that are simply unrealistic (2:17-3:4), or even blaming God for all the nastiness around us and within us (3:5-20). Yet the result is merely self-deception, and continued rottenness in a world that seems to have no outs.

Once the stage has been set for Paul’s readers to realize again the pervasive grip of evil in this world, Paul marches Abraham out onto the stage as a model of divine religious reconstruction. God does not wish to be distant from the world, judgmental and vengeful. Rather, Jesus come, the fullness of God’s healing righteousness revealed.

The story of God’s righteousness as grace and goodness begins with Abraham. God has always desired an ever-renewing relationship with the people of this world, creatures made in God’s own image. Paul describes God’s heart of love in 3:21-31, using illustrations from the courtroom (we are “justified”—3:24), the marketplace (we receive “redemption”—3:24), and the Temple (“a sacrifice of atonement”—3:25). Moreover, while this ongoing expression of God’s gracious goodness finds its initial point of contact through the Jews (Abraham and “the law” and Jesus), it is clearly intended for all of humankind (3:27-31).

This is nothing new, according to Paul. In fact, if we return to the story of Abraham, we find some very interesting notes that we may have glossed over. “Blessedness” was “credited” to Abraham before he had a chance to be “justified by works” (4:1-11) In other words, whenever the “righteousness of God” shows up, it is a good thing, a healing hope, an enriching experience that no one is able to buy or manipulate. God alone initiates a relationship of favor and grace with us (4:1-23). In fact, according to Paul, this purpose of God is no less spectacular than the divine quest to re-create the world, undoing the effects that the cancer of sin has blighted upon us (Romans 5). It feels like being reborn (5:1-11). It plays out like the world itself is being remade (5:12-21). This is the great righteousness of God at work!

Now Paul gets very practical. Although we might think that we would jump at the opportunity to find such grace and divine favor, Paul reminds us that our inner conflicts tear at us until we are paralyzed with frustration and failure (Romans 6–7). Sometimes we deny these struggles (6:1-14). Sometimes we ignore these tensions (6:15-7:6). Sometimes we grow bitter in the quagmire of it all (7:7-12). And sometimes we even throw up our hands in despair (7:13-24).

Precisely then, says Paul, the power of the righteousness of God as our bodyguard is most clearly revealed Thankfully, God’s righteousness grabs us and holds us, so that through Jesus and the Holy Spirit we are never separated from divine love (Romans 7:25-8:39). Hope floods through us because we know Jesus and what he has done for us (8:1-11). Hope whispers inside of us as the Holy Spirit reminds us who we truly are and whose we will always be (8:12-27). Hope thunders around us as God’s faithfulness is shouted from the heavens right through the pages of history (8:28-39).

This powerful testimony seems to cause Paul to reflect ruefully, however, on a truly knotty theological problem. If Paul can be so certain about God’s strident grace toward us in this new age of the messiah, why did God’s declarations of favor toward Israel in the previous age of revelation seem to fail? Why did Israel lose its privileged place in the divine plan, while the spreading church of Jesus Christ is suddenly God’s favored child?

These questions become the research matters for Paul’s internal intellectual debating team in Romans 9–11. First up, comes the standard reflection that God is sovereign. This means, for Paul, that God’s special relationship with Israel was God’s choice to make, and is not undone now that God wishes also to use a new tactic in the divine attempt at recovering the whole of humanity back into a meaningful relationship with God.

Nevertheless, according to Paul, there has been something amiss about Israel’s side of this relationship with God. Rather than understanding its favored position as enlisting it into the divine global mission, the nation tended to become myopic and self-centered. Instead of believing that she, too, needed to repent and find God’s care through grace, Israel supposed that she had an inherent right to divine favor.

In the end, Paul believes that partly through Israel’s false presumptions, and partly because of God’s temporary change of strategies in order to better fulfill the original divine redemptive mission, Gentiles have come to the center of God’s attention, while Israel, though not forgotten, is partially sidelined for a time. But even this alteration in the temperature of God’s relationship with Israel is a lover’s game: Israel needs to feel the good jealousy for a partner that she has too long taken for granted, so that she will recover her passions of great love. In the meantime, however, all win. God wins in the divine missional enterprise. The Gentiles win because they have a renewed opportunity to get to know God. And Israel wins because she is never forgotten, and is coming round to a renewed love affair with her beau.

Paul may well have had to wrestle his way through that problem of divine election at least in part because of the mixed Jewish-Gentile makeup of the Roman congregation. This possible tension seems to reassert itself again in Paul’s applications of Christian behavior in the chapters that follow. First, Paul urges a lifestyle of service rooted in sacrifice to Jesus (12:1-2), shaped by spiritual giftedness (12:3-8), and energized by love (12:9-21). Then Paul makes this servant behavior even more specific, by nodding to its public expressions (Romans 13): obey the government as a tool of God’s care in the restraint of evil (13:1-6), and live as good neighbors who glow with the righteousness of God in some pretty dark neighborhoods (13:8-14). Finally, Paul revisits the issues surrounding the matter of the purchase and consumption of meat offered to idols (Romans 14:1–15:13), just has he had probed it in 1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1. Here, though, the overt tensions between legalistic and licentious extremes of Christian behavior seem less consuming than they did when Paul wrote to the Galatians and the Corinthians. Instead, his instructions flow more gently out of his social ethic of love and service.

Luke 4:1-13
Luke ties the events of Jesus’ life directly to historical circumstances in the greater Roman world. He reports that Jesus’ birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus and the governorship of Quirinius (Luke 2:1–2). Later he mentions that the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry took place in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s rule (Luke 3:1). The connection with Caesar Augustus is particularly striking, since Augustus was the great ruler who brought about the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Luke makes evident, particularly through the song of the angels to the shepherds, that even in those times of relative international calm, the greater gift of divine peace was needed by humankind, and could be brought only through Jesus.

Also unique to Luke’s presentation is the strong emphasis on worship and song and prayer. The gospel itself begins and ends in the Temple, where people are gathered for times of public devotion. At the coming of Jesus, a number of songs are sung (by Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon). This emphasis continues in Jesus own life, as is evident in today’s Gospel reading. It is through prayer that Jesus is able to push back the power of evil, and counter its perspectives about values that drive society. Prayer also forms a key element of Jesus’ teachings, with an even greater emphasis brought to it than noted by Mark (see especially Luke 11:1–13).

Perhaps the most striking and clearly Lukan focus in conveying the message about Jesus, is his recognition that God has special care for the poor (noted in Mary’s song, identified in the offering brought by Joseph and Mary at Jesus’ circumcision, asserted through the record of Jesus’ pronouncements of woes on the rich and blessings on the poor, and insinuated in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man), the sick (notably the number of demon-possessed who are healed by Jesus, and also the lepers who are cleansed and the paralyzed who are restored to mobility), the marginalized (shepherds, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and the blind), and women (Mary, Elizabeth, widows, the hemorrhaging woman, Mary and Martha, and the crippled woman).

All these things are tested first, however, in Jesus’ own walk through the wilderness. It is clear that “40” is a critical biblical number, indicating something of the extent to which trials and testings can be endured. Moses was on Mount Sinai with Yahweh for 40 days; Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Now Jesus joins that wilderness struggle with his forebears, for these representative 40 days.

The temptations are three: Sustenance, Short-cut, and Spectacle, each a possible way to achieve the ends of Jesus’ mission, but in a way other than the initial divine plan. If Jesus is to survive long enough to make his mission viable, he needs food, so the first temptation is to address the foundational need on Maslow’s hierarchical chart. The devil is not seeking so much to divert Jesus from his appointed ministry, but to become a necessary agent in the fulfilling of it. If the devil can get a hearing at this point, when Jesus is weakened to near desperation, he will be able to whisper other missteps down the road.

The second temptation is a Short-cut. Jesus knows the end game, that he is to be revealed as King of kings and Lord of lords. But why should he wait so long, when a little assistance now would garner him the laurels without needing to run the bloody race?

Thwarted twice, the Devil moves in with a kill shot. The point of Jesus’ ministry is to reveal the power and intentions of God in heaven. So why not do that in a one-step Spectacular manner, in which the focus is never re-directed from Jesus, and never even has to whisper anything of evil’s conniving, all while achieve the good end of getting people to take God seriously?!

In each case, Jesus knows who is in charge, and who belongs at the party. He quotes the divine commands given through Moses as recorded in Deuteronomy, and sends this pretender Devil packing.

A wonderful story is told about Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City during the Great Depression. Before he became mayor, he served for a time as a police court judge. One cold winter’s day they brought a man to him who was charged with stealing a loaf of bread. La Guardia asked him if he was guilty. The man nodded. He had taken the bread because his family was starving, and he had no money to buy food.

“I’ve got to punish you,” he told the man. “The law makes no exceptions. I fine you ten dollars!” He brought down his gavel.

But where would the man get the money for the fine? Now they would have to throw him in jail as well.

La Guardia wasn’t finished, though. He already had his hand on his wallet. He pulled out ten dollars, handed it to the bailiff and said, “Here’s the money for your fine.”

Then he took back the ten dollars, put it into a hat, handed the hat to the bailiff and said, “I’m going to suspend the sentence, and I’m going to fine everyone here in the courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a man has to steal bread in order to eat.”

When the man left the courtroom that day, he had the light of life in his eyes and $47.50 in his pocket. This is certainly what God intended Israel’s experience in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 to accomplish. It is also what Jesus himself needed to know from his Father through the scriptures as he battled the demons of his own wilderness wanderings.

Alternative Application (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
Old Testament rules and regulations had a built-in system that guaranteed help for the poor. Tithing was a standard practice. One-tenth of everything earned was to be given back to God as a confession of faith. But how can one give money to God? God’s instructions through Moses in Deuteronomy 26 were very clear. When tithes were given to the poor, they were given to God.

We don’t always do well at that, do we? The Internal Revenue Service tells us that Americans give about 1.65 percent of their incomes to charity. That includes all charitable causes, like the arts and universities and hospitals and cultural centers. If the goal is to give one-tenth of one’s income, that means almost 85 percent of the tithe is missing.

It’s not that we are isolated from the needs in our world. We hear the news, we see the pictures, and we’re challenged by the requests that come every day in the mail. When Jesus asks us if we are aware, we can only say, “Yes, painfully so.”

But when Jesus asks, “Will you share?” that’s a different story. We are programmed to take, rather than give. We are taught by our society to receive, but not necessarily to share. We are challenged by our age to grab for all the gusto we can get, and not to deprive ourselves of anything for the sake of others.

John Bright, a British politician of the nineteenth century, was walking down a street one day when a fellow was seriously injured in an accident. The crowds gathered around, gasping in delighted horror at the blood and gore. But Bright took off his hat, grabbed a ten-pound note from his wallet, and stuffed it into his hat. Then he pushed his way through the crowd and said, “I’m ten pounds sorry for this man! How sorry are you?”

In moments he had turned the sickening curiosity of the people into sympathetic compassion.

Are you aware? Will you share? Who is on your guest list?
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