I had a fascinating conversation last week at a forum sponsored by the Marin Interfaith Coalition. The forum was about interfaith dialogue. The organizers had a panel—one Presbyterian minister, one Buddhist teacher and a Muslim lay woman. The organizer asked the question of the panelists—how do you talk to people of other faiths and what lessons can you share about that process?
The panelists had some very interesting responses. The Presbyterian minister talked about how there is a tendency to focus on our commonalities—what is most alike about us. But he said that this can lead to a rather superficial conversation. He suggested an alternative, that we look at our differences and instead of assuming that differences will drive us apart instead looking for ways that our differences might create opportunities for us to connect. (Like Velcro, or like an interlocking joint.)
The Buddhist talked about a central tenet of Buddhism—the ultimate purpose in our lives is to relieve suffering. He pointed out how this project is a project shared by many faithful people and that this provides a point of connection for us all.
The Muslim woman talked about connecting as people and recognizing our shared humanity. She talked about how without her headscarf she looks like any other mother, she care about her kids and their community, she wants the same things as most other families who are living in the Bay Area.
When I read this morning’s Gospel, I thought about this conversation because “interfaith dialogue” was essentially what Jesus was doing.
Luke’s gospel is very focused on the Pharisees and Jesus’ relationship with them. We know the Pharisees from all four gospels, first as Jesus’ persecutors—the ones who will put him on trial and condemn him to death. But maybe we need to look more closely at who they were—because here (and at two other points in Luke’s gospel) Jesus is sharing a meal with them.
The Pharisees were a jewish sect. They were one group among at least two others—the Sadduces, and the Essenes. They were all jewish, but quite different flavors. The Pharisees were very concerned with the form of the law—how they worshipped, what they ate, how they maintained purity. They were centered in Jerusalem and they were trying to impose the rules that priests had to follow on everyone. The Pharisees looked down on others who did not follow the law the way that they believed it should be followed and they excluded the “others”. By Luke’s account, the Pharisees look pretty arrogant, self-righteous. They were very pious on the surface, but Jesus points out that they were following the teachings by the letter of the law, but not really understanding how God viewed the “sinners” or others who did not practice like they did.
And this is the basis of the conflict with Jesus. He is breaking the rules by healing on the Sabbath (like we heard in last week’s Gospel), or by eating with people who are unclean (like lepers) or people who are undesirable (like the prostitute or the tax collectors).
So in this passage, we gets a picture of Jesus in dialogue with those who have strict rules about how to know God. And he is the just the opposite from them—when they exclude others, he includes them. Let’s look closely at this scene—the Pharisee has invited Jesus to a sabbath meal and those who are around the table are watching Jesus carefully, looking for how he’s going to break the rules.
Jesus, sees how the people are seating themselves, with some taking the places of honor and he decides to tell a parable. In his parable, Jesus shows that the one who takes the honored position runs the risk of being asked to move to a lesser position, but the one who takes the lesser position may be doubly honored by being “chosen” to take the more honored seat. The parable is a theological teaching. God will honor, God will choose those who act with humility, not those who hold themselves above everyone else. Jesus is showing the Pharisees that they should not be self-righteous or arrogant about their ways of worshipping God, because ultimately God’s love is for those who honor God first, in humility.
Jesus goes on to explain to his Pharisee host, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
In this interfaith dialogue with the Pharisee, Jesus is modeling a new kind of openness and acceptance. Even though he is a devout Jew, Jesus is not bound by the rules of his faith, but instead is focused on the intent—radical love, deep invitation and welcome to those who are marginalized by illness or injury, poverty or social status. It is interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t walk out of the Pharisee’s house. He is not rejecting or condemning the Pharisee even though the Pharisee is at least representative of the group who hate him most.
This teaching resonates in our passage from the Letter to the Hebrews. The letter to the Hebrews exhorts the people to follow their faith leaders, living as hey lived. Like Jesus’ instruction to his host, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews teaches about radical welcome and inclusion—naming the strangers, the prisoners and the tortured. These are the people we must love.
And our Hebrew Bible text today God tells the prophet Jeremiah that God’s people have failed in two critical ways—they have forsaken God and they have tried to build their own structures. God is the living water, and the manmade cistern attempts to substitute for the real fountain. Jeremiah’s lesson also speaks against human arrogance and focuses on the love of God first.
Going back to the Marin Interfaith Council’s forum on interfaith dialogue. I think about what these readings might mean for us as we meet people here in Marin or talk about people around the world of different faiths. What happens when we meet a religious fanatic—maybe someone who is like a Pharisee. Whether they are a fanatical Christian or Hindu, Jew or Buddhist. What about the fanatical vegetarian, or atheist who is totally focused on their self-help program or their fitness regime---trying to convert everyone they meet to their practice? Our passages today remind us that we, like Jesus, must sit down with them, just as Jesus sat with the Pharisee. When we meet someone who claims to have all the answers, or to have “found the way”, we can focus on continuing the “mutual love” project. Instead of condemning the believer for what they believe, we can focus on inclusivity and humility. Instead of saying, my faith teaches the “right” way to worship God (implying that your way is wrong), we can show God’s love by including those very people who are at the far margins of our community. Jesus doesn’t attack the Pharisees’ practices, instead he shows that God will judge based on how the Pharisee includes the poor, the tortured, the sinner.
When we meet the person of a different faith, maybe instead of challenging their belief, we need to speak with humility. We are all only human, we don’t “deserve” God’s favor, but we are chosen by God, chosen to sit in the place of honor when we follow God’s will in loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Today, as I bring together my experience at this forum and our readings, I hear a call to us to expand our loving relationships to those who worship differently, maybe even to those who condemn our practices. And a call to humbly seek to love those who are most difficult to love—the prisoners whom you visit at San Quentin, the youth who you serve at the Alternative High School, the strangers—the homeless, the immigrants, the day laborers—all those who are not already in the s powerful positions, but those who are most beloved by God. For when we love the least among us, we express our love for God.