"When you give a banquet"-A sermon for Proper 17, Luke 14:1, 7-14
As I prayed over the scriptures for this Sunday and began to study the Gospel lesson in particular…the utter radicalness of it…the utterly transformational picture it paints for life in the kingdom of God…entirely overwhelmed me. It convicted me in some sort of way that felt unique…life altering…like I was reading the passage for the very first time…rather than perhaps the hundredth…which is more likely accurate. So I want to stick pretty close to the Gospel today…and hope that my own reflections on it might bless you in a similar sort of way.
So let me begin at the beginning with the setting…Jesus has been invited to a dinner party…it seems a fairly formal gathering that included many important people. VIP’s if you will…religious leaders and highly successful folk who were educated, wealthy and powerful…perhaps not a State Dinner gathering world leaders like at the White House…but also perhaps as close to that scenario, as Jesus might have participated in…in his first century Palestinian world. So Jesus enters a home full of the power brokers of his day…influential ones…and Luke tell us they were watching him. Watching him, I think primarily because Jesus doesn’t seem willing to play by the rules…the excepted norms of the polite and powerful of his day. Let’s face it, Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in maintaining the status quo…he seems to be utterly interested in turning the status quo on its head…and is doing so more or less constantly. He has women among his closest followers…that was not done in that culture…women served men…not alongside them in a shared life...but literally served them…like a servant. Jesus healed people on the Sabbath. We might think…big deal. But the truth is observance to the Sabbath in Jesus’ day was considered of utmost importance…honoring God’s law to rest and do no work on the Sabbath…was an act of obedience to God’s will…one of the Ten Commandments no less…and was inviolate. Thus this included not healing someone unless their life was in imminent danger. But Jesus overturns this way of thinking suggesting that people’s health and well-being, even if they are not in literal danger of dying, is a higher good that honoring the Sabbath which is good as well…but again not as good. Thus people and their real needs are of greater import than a strict observance of Sabbath. And this shakes to the very core the accepted understandings of religious order…and thus unsettles those who are in charge of maintaining the established religious order. And Jesus spends time with the un-liked and untouchable…from tax collectors to lepers. In the world view held in Jesus’ day, these people deserved their suffering as a result of their own sin and were not worth any time being given to them at best and utterly corrupting at worse. But not to Jesus…these were God’s beloved children in need of time and attention…of love and belonging…just as much as anyone else. And the list of ways that Jesus overturns the accepted order of his day over and over again is really inexhaustible…blessed are the poor…blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who are weak…blessed are the persecuted…Samaritans are indeed good…the prodigal is welcomed back without consequences and the list goes on.
So indeed those who oversee maintaining the order of the day…those with whom Jesus dines…those who benefit from society as it exists…in the way that it exists…are watching Jesus…and understandably so…he threatens the life they enjoy…the power they enjoy…the position of privilege they enjoy. Thus one could argue that inviting Jesus to this dinner party was courageous at best…and downright dumb at worst. The only two reasons I can think of that the host, a leader of the Pharisees, would invite Jesus to this august dinner party was either to get as much dirt on him as possible, hoping he will do or say something to utterly discredit him among those in authority…so that he could be discarded, marginalized or worse…or…or to try and placate him…bring him on board…get him in their good graces…on their side of the team…so that he can become a pawn used to their own ends…to pad and protect their way of life…their way of seeing the world…their own positions of privilege. Like a scene in any political drama we might watch today from Game of Thrones to House of Cards.
With all this in mind, one could argue that Jesus’ best move would be to keep his mouth shut…make polite conversation about the weather…try to be as invisible as possible…and exit the scene as quickly as possible…but Jesus can do no such thing. First off, as aforementioned, he heals a man of dropsy on the Sabbath as he enters the party…pointing out the cruelty that results from a religious observance that is blind to human need and should be subordinate to human suffering…and then he shares the two short anecdotes or teachings that make up our Gospel reading today…for all to hear and judge.
Now, the first story could be interpreted as simply about humility…perhaps even a false sense of humility. Jesus says essentially don’t make assumptions about the place of honor you have in the estimation of your host at a dinner party much like this one…because if you take a seat of greater importance or honor than is intended for you…you will have to suffer the disgrace and public humiliation of being told, perhaps in the hearing of others, to get up and move to a lower seat…a place of less importance…shaming indeed. So if you don’t know where to be seated…if you don’t know your place, if you will, take the seat of lowest importance…and then…your host might honor you by asking you to move up the table…to a seat of greater importance. The crowd will then actually get to see you elevated and honored…and I am sure both envy of you and applause for you will then follow. Or perhaps just the thought will pass through the crowd…see how humble that person is…never assuming they are greater than they really are…how delightful…perhaps even inspiring. Again…at a surface level…Jesus could be seen as simply sharing sage advice for saving face…or practicing impeccable etiquette…or at best is indeed urging humility…particularly among such a high brow and privileged crowd.
But I don’t think Jesus is simply passing out advice on social graces…or means for elevating one’s own status in the estimation of others…all of which would indeed reside in the realm of false humility. Instead, Jesus’ closing line to this anecdote or teaching is the key to properly understanding his point. He concludes, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” This language would be familiar to Jesus’ followers in his own day and should be to us as well. Jesus is saying essentially that in the kingdom of God…humility is an essential virtue. For humility…that is authentic humility recognizes that we are all equal before the eyes of God, our host in all of life, and that the distinctions of honor that we bestow upon people, giving greater importance to one person over another, is utterly antithetical to life in God’s kingdom. Further when we humbly value all people as created in God’s image and loved by God entirely…and thus lift them up, make a good and welcoming place at the table for them…we name them as worthy of love and belonging…ours and God’s, which is a sign of true humility. And the result is that in doing so we are all as God’s people exalted...we look, really look, like the children of God. All of God’s people surrounding God’s altar, God’s great dinner table, sitting in a circle of love and caring…all an equal distance from the altar…a place for everyone…no exceptions…and this is indeed a great exaltation.
And if Jesus’ point wasn’t clear enough…and I admit Jesus first anecdote or teaching takes some diving into to really understand…he is not finished yet. Jesus continues with some more advice directed specifically to the host of the dinner. He says, "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." Now I don’t believe Jesus is suggesting that having friends or family over for dinner is really a problem…whether they are rich or poor. Instead, Jesus is affirming that breaking bread with one another is indeed sacred…it is important. At the table we celebrate life, we share our hopes and dreams, we affirm our love and need of one another. Food is needed to literally live, and thus sharing a meal with others provides both the physical sustenance we need to literally live and the spiritual sustenance we need to live abundantly. We feed at the table with others on the food of body and soul. We are fed by both that which sits on our plates and on the relationships with those with whom we share the meal, which brings meaning and direction and encouragement to our lives. And thus eating together is needed by everyone…it is for everyone…thus everyone should then be welcome. Our meals should not be about conferring status or maintaining a social order that elevates some and utterly leaves out others. Instead our tables in our homes…and most especially this table we share in our church…our altar…should be tables of welcome…that we gather around without distinction…where we create an inclusive human community that enjoys together the love of one another and the grace and provision of God…who sits in the center…the only place of privilege. And when this is indeed what our tables look like…we actually get a glimpse…we get to see what the resurrection of the righteous will really be like…what it really looks like…again all of God’s people surrounding God’s altar, God’s great dinner table, sitting in a circle of love and caring…all an equal distance from the altar…a place for everyone…no exceptions…and this is indeed a great exaltation…and humility where Jesus begins is the virtue that helps us create, in some small way, in our own real lives lived, this vision…this foretaste of God’s kingdom.
So as I began…this image, this teaching from Jesus, convicts me…it excites me. I want to do that here at St. Julian’s…I want this to be the sort of place where meals like this are provided and shared an experienced…where the people of God without distinction gather together…share and celebrate life together…a place where we can all be fed in body and soul…in belonging to one another…just as we all belong to God.
And as hard as I was on those privileged folk, those religious leaders and power brokers of Jesus day, that were invited to the dinner party in our Gospel lesson…it seems they, or at least some of them, wanted to experience God’s kingdom too…rather than digging up dirt or manipulating Jesus to their own ends…they were moved…their own vision of life in God’s kingdom for all without distinction begins to emerge. If we read one more verse past where our Gospel lesson ends today, you would see that Luke writes, “One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to Jesus, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’”. Indeed…anyone and everyone…all of God’s people surrounding God’s altar, God’s great dinner table, sitting in a circle of love and caring…all an equal distance from the altar…a place for everyone…no exceptions…and this is indeed a great exaltation. Amen.