Following His Footsteps: “Master Storyteller” (Part One) – Luke 14

garrison keillorI didn’t grow up in the upper Midwest, and I have only been to Minnesota and Wisconsin a few times. In fact, thinking about it, I have never been in Minnesota during any season but winter. You cannot prove by my experience that anything grows in that state except house plants and hotel lobby plants – but that surely isn’t the case. If you DID grow up in Minnesota, I am certain that you have heard of the fictitious Lake Woebegone and it her favorite traveling minstrel, Gary Edward “Garrison” Keillor, who entered the real world of Minnesota in 1942, and grew to be the author, storyteller, humorist, and radio personality that he is today. He is probably best known as the host of the Minnesota Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion”.

If you have ever heard his voice, you know he is a world-class storyteller. Only the Irish come close to his talents in regard to spinning a saga. He has the ability to weave a tale about virtually nothing, and make it fascinating and funny. I am captivated by his homespun humor, but in this lesson I am focused on his storytelling ability. After following years of his radio persona, I have come to the conclusion that I am only now beginning to understand some of his humor – because it is rooted in specific knowledge of the culture of the upper Midwest that I simply didn’t understand. The more I understand about that culture, the funnier his references become. His humor is developed, at time at a very high level. The problem for the longest time wasn’t him – it was me. I just didn’t know what I needed to know to “get” what he was saying. I mention that, because it strikes me that the same problem exists for many Christians listening to Jesus as the Master Teacher that is reflected in the Gospels.

As we look more deeply into the teachings of the Master during His extended trip through Perea late in His earth ministry, listening to the parables becomes very important. Many a wrong theology came from a poor listener, who taught from the Bible with the confidence they were teaching truth – but close inspection shows those insights to be imposed on the Gospel account, not pulled from it. Nowhere is that problem more evident than in the teachings we will explore in this lesson. Here is the key we need to keep in mind….

Key Principle: You have to know the teacher to understand His message.

In order to truly understand the message, the hearer should understand the culture and teaching method of the speaker. If the teacher’s background is a mystery, the teachings they offer will be only vaguely understood.

I want to be honest and make clear to you that the key principle is normally a spiritual lesson that I derive FROM the text – and it is usually what I believe to be the underlying truth that binds the story together. For this lesson, I am deliberately doing some differently. In this case, the key principle is designed to “hover over the text” to help us make the words more clear. I recognize that means we need to take extra care here so that we don’t impose ideas on the narrative, but I believe every student of the Word will recognize the benefits of recalling the parables and teaching of Jesus in the way they were conveyed and interpreted by His original audience so long ago, as best we are able.

The Lesson of the Seating Chart (Luke 14:7-14)

Jesus was teaching at a banquet, where He was expected to offer insight while reclining beside a table, as that was the custom. The host was eager, and the guests were their to evaluate the teacher. Luke recorded:

Luke 14:7 And He [began] speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor [at the table], saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give [your] place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. 10 “But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. 11 “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 12 And He also went on to say to the one who had invited Him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and [that] will be your repayment. 13 “But when you give a reception, invite [the] poor, [the] crippled, [the] lame, [the] blind, 14 and you will be blessed, since they do not have [the means] to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

There are five important things I would like you to notice about the instruction:

The Setting: Both the instruction and the parable that followed it were given at a villa banquet, and directed at the invited guests, people of some importance and distinction, while other uninvited guests watched from the atrium of the home (14:7a).

The Cause: The Master gave the instruction after He noticed how people chose their seats around the table (14:7b).

The Truth: Jesus told the men not to choose a place that was highly important, because it created embarrassment when one who was more important entered, and left them moving to a lesser place. At the same time, that was the opening, not the main teaching (14:8-10).

The Teaching: Those who believe they are very important will find that others do not take their place seriously, but those who see others as more important than themselves will find that others show them greater honor. The way to be important to people is serve them.

The Instruction: Serve those who no one else is serving. Show love to those who have so little that they will know you did not do it for pay. God loves mercy and humility, and will not forget your deed.

In the world of the first century in the Judea and the Galilee, the customary presentation of a guest to a room mixed with scholars and seeker was the norm. Jesus interrupted the flow by teaching – not in vast generalizations – but in specific admonitions to those at the banquet table. That was different, but not entirely unheard of. What was difficult was the suggestion that they were not men of proper attitude. Insulting people never endears them to you. Jesus was making a point – and that was more important than making new friends in that room.

People of status have a tendency to spend their time with people of similar or greater rank. They see life, many of them, as a climb to the top – with many left beneath them in the end. They pass by hurting people, and consume their wealth on themselves, surrounded by other “beautiful people” – the people who have their problems well-hidden beneath coats of cosmetic paint and fancy clothes. It isn’t their wealth that makes them insensitive – it is their choice to use it to promote self instead of helping those who have greater need. The self-fixation is the real issue.

Let’s say it plainly: Jesus wants His followers to see themselves as less important than those around them. He wants His disciples to reflect humility and sensitivity. It is at the heart of His call and cannot be ignored if we are to be obedient to Him

The Parable of the Big Dinner (Luke 14:15-24)

When they heard Jesus’ words, they weren’t sure how to react. One man made clear that he expected to be a part of the kingdom of God, and knew that he would be happy to do so. He called from the table side:

Luke 14:15 When one of those who were reclining [at the table] with Him heard this, he said to Him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

The truth is, that was a quiet repudiation of the words Jesus had just uttered. No one at the table believed that blind, lame and poor were going to be ushered to seats of greatness by the Creator. After all, if He thought highly of them, why were they suffering now?

Luke recorded the parable Jesus offered in response to that thinking:

Luke 14:16 But He said to him, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; 17 and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ 18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ 19 “Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ 20 “Another one said, I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’ 21 “And the slave came [back] and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 “And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 “And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel [them] to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.'”

We might be able to pick out three parts of this parable of Jesus.

First, there was the initial invitation that met rejection. The man made preparations and invited the usual guests, but they offered excuses and didn’t respond to the invitation to come (14:15-20).

Second, there was the startling new invitation that met delight. When the slave that brought the invitation to the invited guests returned and told the man his invitations were turned down, the man didn’t cancel the banquet and toss the food, he decided to bring guests that were unlikely and normally uninvited (14:21). The slave obeyed, and each was brought to the banquet, but there was yet more room (14:22).

Finally, there was explanation that explained what the man was doing. The slave was told to go out and find anyone to fill the seats, because he did not want those who rejected his invitation to show up later and think a seat was waiting for them (14:23-24).

The point of the story is that some imagine themselves to be so important, their expectation becomes presumption. The man who thought he would be in the kingdom of God’s great banquet hall with the lame and blind left out did not understand what God was looking for inside those with whom He would work. God doesn’t need our vast confidence, only our commitment to follow Him when He calls. God doesn’t see our qualifications as our attraction point – because He knows our frame. He doesn’t work with us, or even desire to work in and through us, because of our accomplishments, our reputation or our potential. He calls us because He loves us. He wants us because He made us. It isn’t our beauty, our personality or our ability that He uses to draw us in – it is our neediness, our bankruptcy. God resists those who think they are good enough, but offers special favor to those who know their own brokenness and often seek His repair.

Every follower of Jesus, especially after we have followed for some time and have some “accomplishments for the Kingdom” under our belt, needs to heed the warnings of Jesus about attitude from this parable. We don’t have God because we deserve Him. We aren’t invited because we are better. We shouldn’t put God on “hold” because we have essential commitments that call us to do something BEFORE we get to deal with Him and His great invitation.

Jesus’ parable likely referred to the fact that the contemporary generation of Jewish leaders – those who delivered Him into the hands of Pilate and the Romans – would be set aside for a future generation of Jews, who would one day behold Him and know they need Him. Zechariah foretold:

Zechariah 12:8 “In that day the LORD will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the one who is feeble among them in that day will be like David, and the house of David [will be] like God, like the angel of the LORD before them. 9 “And in that day I will set about to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. 10 “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.

The Apostle Paul explained that day had not yet come, but he anticipated it to come in the future:

Romans 11:1 “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! …11 I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation [has come] to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. 12 Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!…18 do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, [remember that] it is not you who supports the root, but the root [supports] you…21 for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. 22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off….25 For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery– so that you will not be wise in your own estimation– that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; 26and so all Israel will be saved; just as it is written, “THE DELIVERER WILL COME FROM ZION, HE WILL REMOVE UNGODLINESS FROM JACOB.”

Essentially, Jesus made plain the great sin of presumption he heard from the man at the banquet. The man PRESUMED he would be called to be a part of the kingdom and its feasting – for God had so blessed Him in THIS life. He knew the “little people” were on the roadway – the hurting, the broken, the physically destroyed. They were the “other people” – those pitiful unfortunates that did not see the hand of blessing in this life that God had showered on him and his family. They were not blessed – and he presumed there must be a reason. Like Job’s friends, his theology allowed for blessing of the beloved and curse of the broken… and he was wrong.

Jesus made clear that people don’t have God’s blessing in the material world because we deserve it. Others in our world that struggle with extreme deprivation aren’t in that state because they don’t deserve what we have. There are many reasons for their lack and our abundance. The one thing Jesus made clear is that none of us can claim we have what we have because we are the deserving. Blessing is not God’s paycheck. Ease is not the stamp of God’s approval. Some who were approved of God in the text of Scripture struggled deeply and consistently – while many of those who lived in ease and relative comfort walked far from God. Despite what some have preached over the airwaves, Jesus made it abundantly clear that there is simply no fixed correlation between ease and righteousness, between material prosperity and God’s approval. Many who followed God throughout history found themselves wounded for doing do, while many who “blew through” accumulated material possessions didn’t even know God. Blessing in the coming kingdom cannot simply be measured by those who have much in the current earthly domain.

Some believers, sitting on dirt-floored huts in desolate villages, will enjoy great reward in the kingdom ahead – not because they were poor, but because they followed God greatly in spite of the fact they could not see immediate response in the temporal world. When we see our temporal privileges as a sign of God’s approval, we are too short-sighted. God DOES bless some now, because He chooses to do so. That was Jesus’ warning about presumption – and we need to revisit it again and again. Often we don’t see the world through His eyes.

Again, we must say it plainly, so it is not lost in Christian verbiage: Jesus wants His followers to see ourselves as entirely undeserving of His great invitation – and know that God chooses to work among the least, not the greatest.

The Call of True Invitation (Luke 14:25-35)

Luke attached another story directly after the banquet, and the language is not as clear in the original text as the English translation. It may be that the story is not AFTER Jesus left the room, but from the atrium of the home as they listened. This may be a story from the same setting, and the crowds “going along with Him” may be an expression of agreement, not a statement of travel. We simply cannot tell. Luke wrote:

Luke 14:25 Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27 “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28 “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29 “Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 “Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand [men] to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 “Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 “So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. 34 “Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? 35 “It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

There are two distinct parts to what Jesus said in this teaching, and both are tough but clear.

The first part we will extract from the middle of the text – the need to seriously count the cost before hastily agreeing to follow Jesus (14:28-32). His words to illustrate this truth were in pictures:

• There was a picture of a tower builder, who did not assess the total cost of the project, but had to stop half-way because of insufficient funds. He brought ridicule on himself by laying a foundation, but finding it impossible to finish.

• There was a picture of a ruler who bounded into battle without carefully considering whether his army could stand up to the fight against a larger army. He should have looked for a negotiated solution, but acted without forethought.

In our haste to offer Jesus to people as the answer for their momentary problem, we need to be careful not to remove the demands that Jesus places on His followers, and we need to heed the warnings He gave about considering the cost. We cannot simply offer new life in Christ without its requisite life surrender. When we do so, we are offering only part of the Biblical message. When we do so, we offer a message different than Jesus Himself offered. We must ask people to consider both the benefits of the Gospel and the demands of it as well. The Good News is that God has made a way for me to have a relationship with Him through Christ’s payment. The Good News is that God will declare me righteous because a Righteous One died in place of my death for my sin. The Good News is NOT that there is nothing God expects from me but a few words muttered under my breath at a Crusade or church service. He wants ME to surrender to HIM. If that is not included in the message, how can someone count the cost before they begin to claim Jesus as their Savior? No matter how one approaches the theology here, all believers of every stripe will agree that God’s plain desire is that His followers to yield to His direction – to do what He says. Some may think they can present Jesus without the message of surrender, but they will eventually have to agree that must be reckoned with before one is truly doing what God wants. Follower means that I… follow. How can someone know that is God’s desire and make an informed decision if that is not part of the message of the Gospel we preach?

The second are the tough conditions for becoming and remaining a disciple of Jesus (14:26-27 and 33). Jesus mentioned four specifics:

First, the area was surrendered relationships. He included parents, children and siblings. The simple question Jesus left us to answer is this: “Is there any relationship so important that I would not allow my Savior to direct me in it? Is there any relationship more important than my obedience to Him? If I cannot say without a doubt that all relationships are subject to my Master’s direction – I cannot claim I am His disciple. I simply can’t.

Second, Jesus included the follower’s own life. Jesus wanted it clear that His followers didn’t own their own lives – He did. He could call them to far flung places for His purpose, or place them, in His plan, in a hospital ward to be a witness for Him. Any follower who wants veto rights for his own life hasn’t surrendered that life. Jesus offered little to the one who wanted eternal life but also ownership of his own life – He simply said they CANNOT be my disciple.

Third, the area of life direction was made clear. Jesus expects followers to give up choices in life direction, and follow Him in the path He guides. If we think we are Christian, but are making the choices for our life without His guiding hand and our humble submission, we are not. A disciple doesn’t dictate terms to his teacher – he follows directions. He listens to God’s path and then follows it. That includes marriage choices, career choices, school choices, parenting choices, new homes, new cars, new jobs – all of it. Either we are deliberately and consciously following Jesus’ direction or we are not – and we may be the only one who truly knows if we are or not.

Fourth, the area of possessions was highlighted. Jesus clearly outlined that any who follow Him would stop possessing the things in their life, and would deliberately surrender them to the Savior. That surrender of the use of anything God provided for my life comes as a natural byproduct of giving up my direction, health and relationships. Either the stuff in my life is His to take away or increase – or it is mine. Jesus made clear if it is mine, I am not His disciple.

I keep reading about people that posit the term “Christian” and “disciple” are not interchangeable – as if one can begin to follow Jesus for salvation, surrender nothing, and yet claim to be one of His. The problem is, that doesn’t seem to have Biblical support. It may make us feel better by suggesting a lesser standard – but the two terms appear to be used interchangeably in the text. The term “disciples” occurs 269 times in the Christian Scriptures, but the term “Christian” occurs a mere three (3) times.

Luke recorded: “The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch” (Acts 11:26). This suggests the early believers used the terms to mean the same thing. The hard part is the implication: if the two words mean the same thing in the usage of Jesus, when He said “you cannot be My disciple” He was also saying “you cannot call yourself a Christian”. If that sounds too harsh, consider the meaning of Christian as “little Christ” or “follower of Christ” – and it seems clearer. Jesus’ words in 14:27, “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” could also be phrased as “Anybody who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be a Christian.” When I say it that way it not only gets my attention more, it clarifies how serious the issue was to the Master.

When Luke introduced the crowd in the beginning, he noted several things about them. First, they were large, and second they were “going along after Him.” Jesus “turned to them” and taught on being a disciple. He didn’t drop into their lives – they were already curiously following Him around to observe what the fuss was all about. They weren’t antagonistic towards the Master, nor uninterested in His presentation. In “going along after Him” they seemed to be positive in their attitude toward Him, but not yet a part of His discipleship group. Like many today, they apparently mistook a positive attitude toward Jesus and some curious interest in Jesus for discipleship. They were certainly casual fans, but not committed followers.

So many in our time are like them – willing to quote Jesus when He says something warm and comforting, but unwilling to explore any teaching that would present a high cost to their prized personal freedom. They would be willing to give Him an hour on Sunday, a hymn, acknowledgement at a friend’s funeral, and a thirty second recitation of prayer before eating. Look at what Jesus truly required. No relationship could be more important. We couldn’t cling even to our own life as more significant than His direction. Our stuff is placed in His hands. Our direction for the few years of life we have are placed in His care.

Oswald Chambers put it this way: “The religion of Jesus is the religion of a little child. There is no affectation about a disciple of Jesus, he is as a little child, amazingly simple but unfathomably deep. Many of us are not childlike enough, we are childish.

We must recite the words yet again: Jesus wants His followers to recognize that we own nothing. We possess nothing. Our relationships are subject to Him, as is even our own breath. We are His and not our own. There simply is no selfish form of disciple – that is a myth. Followers surrender and the un-surrendered aren’t truly following.

Shortly after coming to Christ, Sadhu Sundar, a Hindu convert to Christ, felt called to become a missionary to India. Late one afternoon Sadhu was traveling on foot through the Himalayas with a Buddhist monk. It was bitterly cold and the wind felt like sharp blades slicing into Sadhu’s skin. Night was approaching fast when the monk warned Sadhu that they were in danger of freezing to death if they did not reach the monastery before darkness fell. Just as they were traversing a narrow path above a steep cliff, they heard a cry for help. Down the cliff lay a man, fallen and badly hurt. The monk looked at Sadhu and said, “Do not stop. God has brought this man to his fate. He must work it out for himself.” The he quickly added while walking on, “Let us hurry on before we , too, perish.” But Sadhu replied, “God has sent me here to help my brother. I cannot abandon him.” The monk continued trudging off through the whirling snow, while the missionary clambered down the steep embankment. The man’s leg was broken and he could not walk. So Sadhu took his blanket and made a sling of it and tied the man on his back. Then, bending under his burden, he began a body-torturing climb. By the time he reached the narrow path again, he was drenched in perspiration. Doggedly, he made his way through the deepening snow and darkness. It was all he could do to follow the path. But he persevered, though faint with fatigue and overheated from exertion. Finally he saw ahead the lights of the monastery. Then, for the first time, Sadhu stumbled and nearly fell. But not from weakness. He had stumbled over an object lying in the snow-covered road. Slowly he bent down on one knee and brushed the snow off the object. It was the body of the monk, frozen to death. (Taken from Sermon Central illustrations).

Jesus made it clear: those who love their life lose it. Those who yield it to Him gain life beyond their own compare. The problem is that not everyone understands what He said. Why? You have to know the teacher to understand His message.