LEST YOU GET BEAT AT YOUR OWN GAME
There is an old saying that goes, "Beware, lest you get beat at your own game." And there is an African folktale that goes like this:
A Nigerian tribal chief sent out his messengers to invite all the men of the tribe to a great feast. "All of the food will be provided," they announced, "but each man must bring one jug of palm wine."I have begun today using a similar pattern as our lessons this morning: a proverb illustrated by a parable or folktale. The first lesson from Proverbs gives us a bit of folk wisdom about seating etiquette at fancy social affairs. In today's gospel lesson Jesus expands on this proverbial wisdom with a story to illustrate. I have similarly begun with a bit of folk wisdom: "Beware, lest you get beat at your own game." And then given a story for illustration. Ezra made a game out of going to the great festival for free and got beat at his own game, when he discovered that everyone else had tried to play the same game. Similarly, Jesus tells us that if we play the game of striving after the highest position at a social gathering, we had better be prepared to get beat at our game. In a sense, he suggests to us a better strategy: if we intentionally take a seat of lower prestige, we may win by being asked to move up. Pastor Mary and I actually had that experience not too long ago at Lyle Zielke's retirement banquet. We simply took a seat near the back of the room, and Lyle himself came to let us know that there were seats for us at the head table. Jesus was right! It's a more pleasant experience to move up than the other way around.
Ezra wanted to attend the great festival very much, but he had no wine. He paced the floor trying to think of a solution for his dilemma. Finally his wife suggested, "You could buy a jug of wine. It's not too expensive for such a great occasion."
"How foolish," Ezra cried, "to spend money when there is a way to go free." Once again he paced until he came upon a plan. "Rather than wine I will carry water in my jug. Several hundred men will attend the festival. What will it hurt to add one jug of water to the great pot of wine?"
On the day of the feast the tribal drums began to beat early in the morning, reminding the people of the great festival. All of the men came dressed in their finest clothes, gathering by mid-morning at the home of the chief. As each man entered the tribal grounds, he poured his jug of wine into a large earthen pot. Ezra carefully poured the contents of his container into the pot, greeted the chief, and joined the dancers.
When all of the guests arrived, the chief commanded the music to cease and ordered the servants to fill everyone's glass with wine. As the chief spoke the opening words of the festival, all of the guests raised their glasses and drank. Suddenly a cry of disbelief arose from the crowd, and they quickly drank again. What they tasted was not wine, but water. Each guest had decided that his one jug of water could not spoil the great pot of palm wine. (1)
But is that all that Jesus had for us? Nice strategies on how to play such games of high society? There are many through the ages who have emphasized that aspect of Jesus, that he came as a wise teacher to give us sage guidance for life. It certainly wasn't beneath Jesus to make a positive use of folk wisdom. But we proclaim Jesus as the Son of God, as the living Word of God dwelling among us. So we need to see the significance of these few verses in Luke's gospel this morning in the context of Jesus' wider mission.
I have suggested in recent weeks that the wider significance of Jesus' mission was not just to give us better strategies for playing the games that we humans tend to play with each other, but that Jesus came to blow the cover off these games and to help us to stop playing them altogether.
In essence, I think that Jesus did not just to teach us our sage advice of the day: namely, that we'd better beware lest we get beat at our own games. He didn't even just teach us as an acted-out parable, so to speak, showing us the deadly nature of our games on the cross. He did that, to be sure. The cross does in fact show us the deadliness of our games. But in proclaiming him the Son of God we are saying even more than that. Why? Because God raised him from the dead. It is the Resurrection which makes this absolutely different, because in it God doesn't just teach us about our games, nor only show us their deadly nature, but God breaks the power of those games by finally declaring a winner. We don't otherwise realize how deadly our games are: they are so deadly that there are never any ultimate winners. Nobody can be winner when the final result is the same for everyone: death. But in raising Jesus from the dead God shows us the utter folly of all our games, for the first winner of our games was the ultimate victim. The one who was made a loser in our games has been declared a winner. And so it's only in following Jesus by being a loser in these human games that God can also come to declare us winners.
What are these games we play? You've heard me refer to them most basically as insider/outsider games. They have the structure of some people being designated insiders and others as outsiders. If I haven't seemed to get specific, it's partly because there's a million ways we play these games and a million ways to talk about them. There's a different way each week. Last week, for example, Pastor Mary helped us talk about the image of the narrow door that may close to us. I loved the children's sermon where we met Mrs. Comes-a-Lot, Mr. Gives-a-lot, and Ms. Does-a-Lot, those people whose egos are so puffed up like balloons that there's no way for them to fit through the narrow door. What a wonderful image to help us see that those egos need to be deflated and joined to the cross of Christ to get through the narrow door.
But the insider/outsider structure to the games we play can help us to see one more thing about that narrow door: namely, that it is of our making in the first place. The fundamental purpose of a door is to separate inside from outside, which is a game we play, not God. No! God doesn't make any narrow doors to heaven! Don't you see? We make those doors to try to keep the insiders in and the outsiders out. Jesus is trying to help us see the consequences of playing our own games of striving to enter through a narrow door--namely, that we will find ourselves shut off from God. When we go through all our games of making narrow doors to enter--like trying to earn insider status by coming to church a lot, or giving a lot, or doing a lot--then we think God will be inside that narrow door with us. But Jesus tells us that we will instead come to find ourselves on the opposite side of the door, because as the crucified one he is made an outsider to our games. No one would consider a criminal who was executed on the cross as an insider! No one except God, that is. When God raised Jesus, God made it clear that God's home is with such outsiders as Jesus. So the results of playing our games of striving to be insiders by entering the narrow doors of our own making is to find ourselves on the outside of God's home. In short, Jesus is telling us, "Beware lest you get beat at your own game."
It is far better news to hear that God is throwing a party that doesn't play such games. God doesn't make such narrow doors. Rather, God invites everyone and anyone. That's our image for today, that of being invited to a party. Jesus is invited to a party thrown by a Pharisee. In the folktale with which we began, Ezra is invited to the party of the Nigerian tribal chief. In contrast to God's party, though, the Pharisee and the tribal chief didn't invite just anyone. That tribal chief, for instance, required that only those men who could bring palm wine could come. Having set that criteria for the insiders at his great feast, what happened? Men began trying to find ways around the rules, like bringing a jug of water instead. And what were the results? Everyone was a loser--which is always the result of our insider/outsider games. Everyone loses in the end.
Finally, I'll call your attention to the fact that there was one other obvious criteria set for the chief's party: It was only for men. Perhaps that was another mistake, for who was the only one who spoke sense in this folktale? Yes, it's only woman, Ezra's wife, who suggested to him that he pay the price of joining in the celebration. Perhaps she made better sense because she was a woman--there's probably at least one half of us here today that might agree with that assessment! Or perhaps Ezra's wife made sense because she was deemed an outsider to this party anyway. She wasn't invited to the chief's party. But that ends up being O.K. because as an outsider she is invited to God's party.
Jesus tries to clue his host the Pharisee in on this fact: "When you give a banquet," he tells him, "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." In other words, invite those whom this world deems as losers in the insider/outsider game. To invite them you may not seem like a winner now, but you will find yourself blessed when God declares the true winners at the resurrection of the righteous. Well, God has already raised one righteous and has begun to throw a party. Everyone is invited! Even now our host is setting the table...
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, September 16-17, 1995
1. This African folktale is entitled "The Jug of Water," as recorded by William R. White in Stories for Telling [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986], pp. 66-67.