12th Week after Pentecost Year C 2019
Four years ago, in the Fall of 2015, after twenty-seven years as an ordained minister, I took my first sabbatical. Thanks to the generosity of Grace Church, Laurie and I spent a couple of months living in Cambridge, England, going on pilgrimage to Ireland and France, and exploring some of our civic and religious heritage in Italy. Mostly, we lived in other people’s apartments, which we rented through sites like AirBnb or VRBO. Living in unfamiliar places we were constantly at the mercy of kind-hearted locals whom we would ask for help with directions, or where the nearest restroom might be, all the while butchering their language with our attempts at translation.
Even in English speaking countries like England and Ireland we had to figure out what the correct word was for their common vernacular. For instance, chips means French fries and not potato chips, and if you want potato chips you order what they call crisps. Biscuits are cookies or crackers, but scones are various kinds of what we call biscuits. In any case, traveling and living abroad made me much more aware of what it might feel like to be a stranger in my own land and even right here in Siloam Springs. Other people, who are not from here, are at my mercy to help them find there way to the nearest loo.
Living somewhere unfamiliar teaches you humility and you learn to lean on other people’s hospitality. Humility and hospitality are twin themes in our lectionary readings today. Jesus is invited to dinner with some of the religious leaders, who are watching him closely, the reading tells us, probably not to help him find the restroom, by the way, but to evaluate him, to judge him, to maybe catch him doing or saying something so they could accuse him of violating the law, like healing on the Sabbath.
But Jesus is also observing them and notices how the other guests chose the places of honor. So in typical Jesus fashion, he tells them a parable. Remember that a parable is meant to communicate something deeper than the story itself. And a parable is supposed to throw us off balance, maybe even surprise us. So what is Jesus up to in this parable?
First, the seating order at dinner parties of Jesus’ day was well known. Everyone knew where the places of honor were, closest to the host. But what people didn’t know was what hierarchy the host would place for each person in attendance. Assuming a place of honor before being told by the host where one should sit might result in an embarrassing situation where the host asks you to relinquish your seat for someone you thought less, but the host deemed more important. This would be a demonstration of hubris. And the resulting move, down in status, would be awkward at best.
The prevailing wisdom of the day was, when you were invited to dinner to sit two or three places below what you understood your rank to be, thereby displaying an appropriate amount of humility and potentially getting to move up a few places at the table.
But Jesus throws the prevailing wisdom of his day under the proverbial chariot, and says, “when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place.” Not two or three spots below your self-perceived status, but at the bottom rung of the ladder. Why? Because this is how the kingdom of God works. The one who desires to be the best, the first, must be the servant of everyone else. This is the example Jesus was setting for his disciples and for us. He became the servant of all through the way he lived his life and went to his death. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
After pointing out the differences between the hierarchical ways of Jewish society to the other guests jockeying for the places of honor at the Pharisee’s table, Jesus turns his attention to the host and addresses the guest list this Pharisee had put together.
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.
Jesus is describing something we all have experienced over and over. I buy your lunch and next time we go out you say, my turn to buy yours, you got mine last time. Or we go to someone’s house for dinner and a few months go by and we haven’t invited them over to our house and we find out they’ve gotten their feelings hurt because we haven’t returned the “favor.” That’s how the world works, Jesus is saying, but that’s not how the kingdom works.
We are all beggars at God’s table, not one of us deserves the place of honor, especially when we see who has taken the lowest seat there, It’s Jesus. But God’s love is so great that God invites us to God’s table because of Jesus.
Jesus says, come on up friend and take a seat by me and invite your friends as well. You see, we are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, but maybe we haven’t seen ourselves that way. Maybe we have seen ourselves as the honored guest that deserves the seat of honor. But Jesus says, look around, there are plenty of people worse off than you. Invite them to the banquet. Let them know how much God loves them. And bring them to the seats of honor where their souls may be filled with all of the goodness of God’s love.
Humility and hospitality are at the heart of what Jesus is teaching us about God’s kingdom. And remember what humility actually is, not a deprecating view of ourselves, but a realistic and honest assessment of who we are, wonderfully created in the image and likeness of a loving God, but no better than any other of God’s creation. There is a divine leveling out in the hierarchy of the kingdom.
And secondly, radical hospitality. A welcome that knows no stranger, but only children of our heavenly Father. And if children, then brothers and sisters of us. People we once thought of as strangers, we now recognize as family. This is the radical good news of God’s Kingdom, where everyone is welcome at God’s table. And it’s our responsibility to invite them.