Who is Around the Table?
12th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 17C)
September 1, 2019
Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
He said also 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, 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."
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
It all begins around a dinner table -- a certain Pharisee’s dinner table. Jesus accepted an invitation to this man’s dinner party and sat down for a meal. This dinner is a little awkward from the beginning.
Jesus has openly engaged in debates and disputes with many Pharisees. We have read many stories in the Gospels in which Jesus challenges the Pharisees about something they have taught or done. Sometimes the Pharisees instigate the confrontation, and sometimes Jesus does. But it has been a somewhat tense relationship from most of what we can tell.
Granted, not all Pharisees are the same. Not all Pharisees opposed Jesus and not all were hyper-legalistic. The Gospel writers generally view the Pharisees negatively, but they were a diverse group of religious leaders with varying opinions on Jesus. While many were critics, some became allies. Despite the Gospels’ bias against them, we still see Pharisees coming to Jesus’ defense against Herod (Luke 13:31), Pharisees who believe in Jesus during his life (Nicodemus in John 3), and Pharisees who became Christians after the resurrection in Jerusalem (Acts 15:5). So the Pharisees, like any religious denomination or political party, were a diverse group that shared some common values. Some of them rejected Jesus, but some were convinced.
Now, in this passage, Jesus is invited to the home of “a leader of the Pharisees.” It’s unclear from Luke’s account whether these Pharisees were for Jesus or against him. It seems like the host and his other guests were undecided about this new teacher from Nazareth. It says, “they were watching him closely.” They were paying attention to what Jesus did and said and trying to feel him out. What does he really believe? What does he stand for? Are the rumors about him true? Does he obey the Law or is he as irreverent as some of our brothers say he is?
And Jesus knows this. He wouldn’t have to be the Son of God to figure out that the other guys at this party were skeptical. He can tell that they are hesitant to accept what he says, that they are still questioning. Maybe they will be convinced, but maybe not. Nevertheless, Jesus is okay accepting an invitation to eat with people who criticize him and disagree with him. He doesn’t close himself off from criticism. He doesn’t live inside a bubble of sameness or agreement. He is willing to sit with and listen to people who are different from him. He honors their opinions and ideas with his presence and his attention. He shows them love and respect, knowing that they might or might not return it to him.
Just in the first verse, we have already seen Jesus do something that is exceedingly rare in our world. Jesus refuses to exist within a religious or political or ideological silo. He seeks relationships across differences and disagreements. He models for us how to transcend human divisions because the love of God is stronger than our hate.
During dinner, Jesus observes the Pharisees at the party just as closely as they observe him. He notices that they are concerned with their social status and ranking, as demonstrated by where they sit around the table.
Jesus tells them to avoid getting sent down the table to avoid shame. “Do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
This is practical advice in a culture that has very concrete ideas about gaining public honor and avoiding public shame. Almost every decision and action made by someone in fit into this honor-shame matrix. Were you advancing in honor or shaming yourself and those around you? Getting sent to a lower seat? That’s shame. Getting called to a higher one? That’s honor. Dinner with the local rabbi? Honor. Dinner with the local tax collector? Shame.
So, Jesus tells the Pharisees, humble yourself externally to get yourself some honor. Show others that you don’t think highly of yourself so they will think highly of you. People were nodding their heads in approval of this teaching.
But then, he flips the script. Jesus calls the Pharisees to extend their privileges into blessings for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Underprivileged, underappreciated people who are considered undesirable to society -- these are children of the Most High God. God loves them just as God loves you and me. God loves all regardless of what people might say. So, in the words of the Rev. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith, “God calls us to turn our privilege into blessings” (Smith).
Jesus understood that the host could gain honor within the community by holding this party and inviting Jesus, the popular rabbi, under his roof. Jesus was aware that he had some privilege through his teaching, miracles, and popularity (despite not having wealth). He was privileged enough to be invited to this prestigious dinner party. The Pharisees respected him enough for his works to let him join them for a meal. But there were many others who needed a bite to eat that night who were not invited because their presence brought shame. Nobody respects you when the underbelly of society comes to your house.
I serve on the Board of Directors with Emmaus House, a ministry that feeds breakfast to people in downtown Savannah every weekday. Our Executive Director, Mrs. Ariana Berksteiner, was talking to a group the other day about what they do. She was telling about Emmaus House’s clients, who have next to no privileges because of their poverty or their appearance or their behavior. Many charities have policies about who they will and won’t feed or house. (In other places, you might need a government ID or you might have a limit on how many times you can come each month or you might need to be sober.) But Emmaus House asks no questions and turns no one away. In her words, “If you have a stomach, you’re welcome here.” The only qualification for eating is that you’re hungry.
Like the leaders of Emmaus House and many of us in this church, Jesus had a leg up in society compared to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” He carried enough privilege to be invited to dinner with the pastors of his community, who had the ability to be influencers, movers, and shakers. Jesus had a seat at the table and he used it to speak up for people who didn’t. He could see who wasn’t invited.
He challenged the Pharisees to move beyond worrying about their own honor. He encouraged them to love people with such boldness and courage that they would willingly endure shame. Accept the criticism that comes with inviting “lower class people” and show them that God loves them and that you do too. Break down the dividing wall between “us” and “them” because all people are children of the Most High God.
Jesus didn’t only do this at dinner parties. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jeuss “endured the cross, disregarding its shame” so that he could save and redeem the whole world (Heb 12:2). Out of love for you and me, while we were still sinners, Jesus Christ lived on earth and died for us. And all he asks is that we continue to show hospitality to those in need.
When we are invited to dinner, Jesus wants us to ask who isn’t there around the table. When we host a dinner, Jesus wants us to consider who we chose not to invite. Because if we have a seat at the table, it is our turn to speak for those who don’t have a seat. It’s our time to turn privileges into blessings. Amen.
Image Credit: http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48397