September 2, 2007

Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

One of the significant things that Jesus was constantly doing during his short ministry in Galilee was to challenge the social and religious practices of his people. He took part in religious worship and festivals in the synagogues and the temple, and he was an active participant in social events wherever he went. He attended weddings, dinners, and other functions in the homes of all kinds of people, and he was the recipient of a great deal of hospitality as he travelled about the countryside relying on the kindness of strangers and new friends.

On one occasion, when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, Luke’s Gospel tells us that people were watching him closely. Why were they watching him? Perhaps because he already had a reputation for being at the centre of all kinds of drama and debate.

Jesus did things (like healing people on the sabbath) that got the religious leaders upset. He did things like neglect to ritually wash before eating a meal, and then he criticized the Pharisees for neglecting justice. He did things like hang around with women, and known sinners, and tax collectors and prostitutes. And he dared to pronounce forgiveness of sins — something only God could rightly do. And of course, there had been miracles reported — multiplying loaves, walking on water, healing and casting out demons.

No wonder people were watching him! They wanted to see what he would do. They wanted to hear what he would say. Those who didn’t like him much wanted to catch him in another indiscretion… It was the sabbath, after all.

But while the people were watching Jesus closely, he was also paying attention to them. He was watching the other guests at the meal. He was noting who was there and who was not. He was paying attention to how they behaved, and he was not impressed!

Others had criticized Jesus in the past for how he acted at meals and with whom he chose to eat. Meals were important social ceremonies in Jesus’ culture, with little being left to chance. People noticed where one ate, with whom one ate, whether one washed before eating, and where one sat to eat. All of these details determined one’s social position or status within society.

If you did everything “properly,” ate with important people, and sat in the best seats at the table, then you would receive honour from your neighbours. If you broke all the rules and shared bread with outcasts like Jesus did, you would be shamed.

So Jesus is watching the other guests, and when he sees them all rushing for the best seats, he takes the opportunity to criticize the social practice that was prevalent in his society.

The author of Luke writes: “When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable.” The strange thing about this text is that what follows doesn’t sound like a parable. “The wedding banquet” — the very next story that Jesus tells is a great parable! On one level, the story is about a man hosting a party… but it has another level of meaning too. It’s about God. It’s about an invitation to join in God’s kingdom, in the heavenly feast. It’s about the fact that everyone is invited — most of all the people that some of us would never consider inviting to a party! It’s about the fact that we need to respond, that we have a chance to say “Yes, I’ll come,” and that God has great things in store for us. That’s a parable… two levels of meaning.

But what Jesus says here sounds more like a bit of wise advice or perhaps an ethical exhortation. He begins by addressing the other dinner guests… and remembering the “honour-shame” society in which they functioned, his advice seems to offer them a better strategy for gaining honour for themselves.

Jesus says: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 in the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you.”

It doesn’t sound like a parable, does it? It sounds like advice for how to play the honour-shame game that Jesus’ table-mates were all struggling with. It sounds like a shrewd strategy to avoid shame and embarrassment, and gain honour from all the observers at the dinner. The point Jesus seems to be making is that honour is not gained by seizing prominence. It must be given by others — so give your host the chance to show off your status by moving you to a better seat.

But could this possibly be Jesus’ intention? Is he just giving the Pharisees and lawyers a more effective way to gain honour? It seems unlikely, given the fact that Jesus didn’t hesitate to sacrifice his honour in the eyes of his observers for the sake of doing what was right.

Just think of the way that Jesus died… the lowest of the low, shamefully hanging on a cross. They called him a trouble-maker. They called him a blasphemer. But he would not give up. He would not abandon the mission God had given him. He would not shut his mouth and close his eyes to save his honour in the eyes of the people around him.

There are several hints in the text that Jesus is doing something different here. He’s not concerned about the honour and status of his fellow diners. First, there’s the fact that he tells the guests to take the “lowest place.” He doesn’t suggest a seat two or three steps below a person’s station — that would be enough to get them moved up. But Jesus tells them to take the “last place.” Maybe it’s not such a great strategy after all for gaining honour from your peers. Wouldn’t they soon catch on that it was just false modesty to draw attention?

And for Christian readers, when we hear the “last place,” we are reminded of Jesus’ famous saying: “the first will be last and the last will be first.” He’s got to be talking about something more than a dinner party here.

The second hint is only noticeable to those who read it in the original Greek. The Greek word , that is translated in our text as “honour” is normally translated as “glory.” “Honour” is something that the guests could gain from the others around the table who watched them getting an important place. “Glory” though, goes beyond the recognition they may receive from the other present to something that only God can give.

Thinking about it that way, it starts to become apparent that it really is a parable. On one level, it’s about where to sit at a dinner so as not to embarrass yourself. But on another level, it’s not about what others think at all! It’s about what God thinks! It’s not just about taking the last place at dinners and parties. It’s about putting others ahead of ourselves. It’s about doing without, so that someone else can get what they need. It’s about setting aside our desire for popularity, prestige, or prominence, for the sake of the other. And whether or not the people around us notice our sacrifices or not, God is paying attention, and God will reward us in the kingdom.

Luke’s Gospel says, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It is another parable of the kingdom of God. Humility is not a strategy for social recognition. It is a quality of life open to people who know that their worth is not measured by the recognition of their peers, but by the certainty that God has accepted them.

Wow! That’s a challenge! Can you really say that you don’t care what other people think about you? It’s a natural human tendency to seek the approval of the people around us. We want to be liked. We want to be popular. We want people to think well of us. Even when we’re trying hard to follow God and serve our neighbours, my tendency at least, is to want a little thanks. It feels good to receive praise from our friends. I enjoy the recognition I get when I have done well. But Jesus often asks us to live in ways that are contrary to our natural instincts and our desires.
To put it simply, he asks us to live like he did.

When we are the host at a dinner, we shouldn’t invite the rich and famous, our friends, and those who will invite us back. We should follow his example, and invite the poor and the outcast, and those that no one else would dare to invite. We should invite those who have never had such a meal, and those who could never return the favour. We should invite them into our homes. We should invite them into our churches. We should invite them into our friendship circles and into the community of Jesus’ followers. And the Gospel says, “And you will be blessed.”

It is clear that Jesus is not talking about getting recognition from the people around us. We may even get criticized for the company we keep, just like he did. The parable’s deeper meaning is not about getting praise from people. It’s about the approval of God. God is ultimately the only one who can bless us or whose praise matters.

May God help us as we seek to open our tables, our lives, and our hearts to all people. And let us rejoice and give thanks because we are all invited — riff raff that we are — to the greatest feast of all. Thanks be to God.