First Reading Proverbs 25:6-7
Psalm Psalm 112
Second Reading Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Gospel Luke 14:1, 7-14
“Light shines in the darkness for the upright; the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.”
(Ps 112:4) In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s scripture seems like a lesson in etiquette. The concise wisdom from Proverbs is clear. It is better to recognize our subordinate status than to lose face when asked to step down. People were very aware of social shame in the ancient near east. Proverbs proclaims the value of humility to avoid such public tensions. Take the lower place, and perhaps you will be asked to step up and claim a place of honor.
We do not typically jockey for position at parties this way. There are name cards on wedding banquet tables, but this is not usually intended to denote honor or shame, but to keep the peace. We have our own modern tidbits of wisdom. For example, if your significant other puts on an outfit and asks, “Does this make me look fat?”, the answer is always, “No!” Trust me on this. It will help keep the peace.
On the surface, Jesus seems to echo and concur with the wisdom of Proverbs. But Jesus is not just teaching us how to choose a seat at the party. If we take traditional wisdom literally, then the lesson is only about avoiding shame and the opportunity for receiving honor. Jesus encourages us to dig deeper into our motivations, our desire for place and power, and how we treat others. Jesus reinterprets and expands scripture and known wisdom to teach us about life in the kingdom.
Jesus goes to a dinner hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. These are the same people who have been arguing with Jesus throughout his ministry and plotting and scheming to take him down. He is walking into the lion’s den. Preacher Fred Craddock states, “the mark of a Christian is not who you feed, but who you eat with.” This symbolic gesture of accepting an invitation and dining with those who would seem to be Jesus’ enemy is as powerful as feeding multitudes with a few fish and loaves of bread.
The guest list is primarily lawyers and Pharisees. It is sabbath. If Jesus is eating a meal with the Pharisees on the sabbath, there will surely be conflict. In between our chosen verses today, for good measure, and as a flashback to last week, Jesus cures another person on the sabbath. The Rev. Jesse Jackson describes how harsh public opinion can be, even when one is doing good work. He stated, “If Jesse Jackson saw a man drowning and walked across the water and saved the man’s life, the next day the headlines would read, ‘Jesse can’t swim’”. The Pharisees were certainly fuming when Jesus healed on the sabbath, again, but this time the opposition remains silent.
The lawyers and Pharisees are ‘watching Jesus closely’. Jesus is also watching them, as they attempt to place themselves on a pedestal and choose places of honor. Jesus senses their probing eyes, and speaks up, turning the spotlight on themselves. They expected a spectacle, but now they have become the spectacle.
What scripture calls a parable is more of a teaching scenario. Jesus’ words are even in the form of a command. ‘When you are invited ...’ do not do this, do that. Jesus echos the teaching from Proverbs, practical advice from traditional wisdom. To avoid embarrassment, take a modest place at a dinner party. It is a gentle rebuke of those seeking honor and prestige. These are not the values of the kingdom.
Recognizing the exclusive nature of the VIP guest list, Jesus goes further, instructing the host, and any of us who might throw a party. Don’t limit your guest list to friends and relatives and rich neighbors. Today Jesus might also mention celebrities, politicians, or other people with social influence. Inviting these people raises the status of the host and the party, so that others might call it the social event of the season. It also reveals the customary etiquette of reciprocity. If I invite you to my party, you are expected to invite me to your party. This supposes that the guests have the resources to throw a party. Instead, Jesus encourages us to invite the poor, crippled, and lame. These are not just people who cannot provide for themselves. They probably do not have the means to ever throw a party and repay the invite. Yet, Jesus is more deeply preaching the priorities of the kingdom. The poor, crippled, and lame are specifically excluded from the Levite priesthood by law. They are social outcasts. They would never make the guest list of the social event of the season. Unless, the social event of the season is the heavenly banquet. To God, these are honored guests, VIPs, and will be seated with honor. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
As much as this passage is about practicing humility, it is even more about lifting others up. Jesus expands traditional wisdom from a discussion of impressive guest lists, honor and shame, position and power ... to grace in the law, gospel hospitality, and mutual love and respect. Over and over in the gospels, we see people coming to Jesus with the same kind of questions about hierarchy and position, about how to order and measure the world and find the best place for themselves in it. And over and over again Jesus simply refuses to answer in those terms. Jesus is not rejecting and replacing their hierarchy with a new one, but inviting humanity to start again with a completely different set of assumptions.
Jesus seems to suggest to his distinguished audience that they have no idea at all of the criteria God is using to send out invitation. There is no working our way up the religious ladder. There is no rank of good or better or bad Christians. And if invited to the banquet, one might find oneself in some very strange company. God’s social structure for humanity begins and ends with love, inclusion, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness. These are the priorities of the kingdom.
We engage in the love and care and service of others. We seek out those in need, not because they are less fortunate, but because like us, they are made in the image of God, and are just as invited and valued and loved as we are. We strive to be aware of those often overlooked, and be ever mindful of those who are left out.
God is searching us out, searching our heart, and teaching us humility. We have done remarkably little, if anything, to earn our invitation. How can we be resentful of God’s grace and abundant invitation? We are not worthy of the Eucharistic feast, yet we are invited anyway. Perhaps we should strive to resemble God’s grace and inclusion. The heavenly banquet is about God’s generosity, not our merit. Perhaps if we do our best to adopt humility, follow God’s lead, and practice intentional invitation, we might find life here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.