Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 28th, 2016
Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1-14
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
We often say that the altar—the Communion table—is not our table. We are not the hosts at the meal of salvation. Jesus Christ is the host; we are the guests. And I am especially glad of that after reading today’s Gospel lesson because Jesus was not a very good guest. In fact, if I were giving a dinner party, I don’t know that I would want to invite Jesus. Because look what he does here: he starts out by embarrassing his fellow guests, and then he moves on to embarrassing the host, all while completely throwing out every piece of etiquette and protocol on the books.
Let me explain what dinner parties were like in the ancient world. First, these were not private affairs, a few friends getting together for a good time, the way we think of it. I mean, sure, they would mostly be friends at the party, but there was nothing casual about it. There was a very strict social and political order and agenda for such events. They were designed to facilitate connections between people of the same class and social sphere. You would invite people of roughly the same social status as you. They, in turn, would invite you to parties at their house. Both business and pleasure went on at the same time. If there was a court case coming up that affected you? The ruling would be influenced by whose party the judge had gone to the week before. If you ran a business and needed to hire a ship to transport your goods? You’d get a much better deal if you worked with someone at one of these parties. Anything that needed to be arranged would be up for discussion.
At the party, there was a strict social order observed. The highest ranked people were in the middle, with lower-status people on the ends of the table. Everyone could see just exactly where you ranked in the social scheme. Did you ever watch Downton Abbey? Those elaborate dinner parties they gave, with place cards for who sat where? It was a little bit like that. Where you sat at the table mattered. It could have a huge impact on your business, your standing in the community, your whole life. We don’t have anything quite like it, but think about parking spots. You know someone’s important when they have their own reserved spot. You know someone isn’t important when they take one of those spots and get told they have to move their car for the rightful owner. Or think how, when you walk into an office building, you can tell immediately what the pecking order is by who’s got the nicest office, who’s got a cubicle, and who doesn’t even get that.
If there was going to be something interesting at the party—a new and exciting religious speaker, for example, like that Jesus fellow, you might let it be known that you would let people in to watch. So at the center of the room, would be the table with the invited guests. And around the outside, standing against the walls out of the way, would be any community member who was interested but wasn’t high-enough status to get a seat at the table. (But even so, there were some people—the disabled and the ultra-poor, tax collectors, anyone labelled a “sinner”—who couldn’t even get in to watch from a spot along the wall.) So when Jesus stands up and starts talking about etiquette, there are a lot of people watching.
Now, the invited guests—the ones at the table—have been doing exactly what their society says they’re supposed to: jockeying for the best place, so that everyone can see their social status and how worthy and popular they are. Jesus, however, shoots that whole idea out of the window: don’t strive for the best seat. Go and take the lowest seat, instead. The one that’s beneath you. Let your host move you up if he thinks you’re worthy of a better spot. Completely ignore all the unwritten rules about how to make sure you come out ahead, and trust that someone else knows your worth. I can practically hear them scoff: yeah, but what if the host doesn’t invite you to a better spot? What if you’re stuck there? And I bet at least some of them felt like Jesus was attacking them, or criticizing them. Some were probably defensive—after all, they were doing what they were supposed to! That was the way the system worked! Others probably felt uncomfortable, remembering similar advice in the book of Proverbs. Could their whole society’s way of looking at this be wrong? Maybe wealth and power and influence aren’t as important as we’ve always thought?
Then Jesus turns to the host. “Hey, forget all those rules of etiquette you’ve learned. Forget trying to use your parties for social and political maneuvering; don’t invite the people who live next door and that you’re already friends with. Don’t worry about breaking ties with your business partners by eliminating them from your guest list. Don’t worry about being a laughingstock. Don’t worry about favors and quid pro quos; forget everything your community has ever said about the right way to do things. Instead of inviting your normal guests, invite the people on the very bottom of society, the ones you wouldn’t even allow in to watch the party from a distance.”
What Jesus is doing here is contrasting the way things will be in the kingdom of God with the way they are here on earth. Here on earth, we have hierarchies. And if our modern hierarchies are more flexible and less explicit than those of Jesus’ day, they are no less powerful. Some peoples’ lives matter more than others, to our society. Some peoples’ voices get heard, and some don’t. Ever heard someone called ‘poor white trash’? Yeah. That’s a nasty metaphor. It’s not a coincidence that most ecological disasters in this country, from Hurricane Katrina to the water crisis in Flint, mostly affect poor whites and people of color—Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans. Or how about the way we tend to assume that men of color are thugs and violent and if they get shot in the back they must have done something to deserve it? A few months back, a California judge gave a white college guy convicted of rape a sentence of only six months, because he said he didn’t want to ruin the guy’s life for twenty minutes of bad behavior. The judge evidently didn’t care about the victim’s ruined life. And then later that same judge gave a Latino rapist three years for the same crime that got the white rapist just six months. Despite our great principle that all people are created equal, we do not treat them that way. In George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm,” he explains it this way. “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.” We judge people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, and a host of other reasons. We exclude people, because down deep we’d rather find reasons to justify our own prejudices than deal with those different than us. And we buy in to society’s hierarchy because human beings love hierarchies—as long as there’s a chance we can make it to the top of them.
That is not what God’s kindom is like. God’s kingdom is based on true and radical equality of all people. Not just pretend equality, but real equality. Because all people are beloved children of God regardless of race, gender, social class, sexuality, physical and mental ability, or any other thing that divides us. Every single human being who ever lived—every one of us—was created in the image of God. And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And we have all been given the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and love. In our world today, even here in America, the principle of equality is more of a hope and dream than it is a reality. In God’s kingdom, that principle is actually true. And so when we exclude some people from the table—when we give some people the benefit of the doubt but not others, when we look for reasons to confirm our biases and prejudices, when we let the whole system of society treat some people better than others—we are excluding God’s children, made by God in God’s image, people who will be at the table with us in God’s kingdom. And we are excluding people whom God is working through today. As it says in our reading from Hebrews, we should always show hospitality, because sometimes God sends us messengers—angels—that we don’t even notice. Do we really want to take the chance of missing out on God’s message for us just because it comes in a package we’re not comfortable with?
I have no doubt that the people at that dinner party were very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words. They believed they were good and godly people living in a good and godly society. They probably believed that since they were good, faithful people, their ordinary way of doing things—including who they invited and who they didn’t—was good and faithful, too. And here Jesus is, pointing out that even though they’re faithful in some areas, others just don’t match up with the kingdom of God. But that’s true of all people, then and now. We are saved by God’s grace, but until Christ comes again we are still sinners living in a sinful world. We are always going to be falling short of God’s plan for us—but God loves us and saves us anyway. No matter how faithful we are, our world has very different standards than God’s kingdom. We are obsessed with status, and power, and wealth. But those have no meaning in God’s kingdom. We have a choice: we can follow the ways of the world, or we can shape our lives according to the standards of God’s kingdom, by making sure all are welcome and have a place at the table. May we learn to follow where Jesus leads, and live as children of God’s kingdom.