Sermon for Sept 1, 2013, Pentecost +15, 22nd Ordinary, Year C
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.”
The fork goes on the left, the knife goes on the right, and then the spoon, to the right of the knife. I did not need Jesus to tell me that, I had my mom.
So, did I need Jesus to tell me where to sit at the table or to whom I should send dinner invitations? The book of Proverbs had already given table seating advice hundreds of years before Jesus, so what’s the point of this text we just read? Why did Jesus bother with it and why did Luke waste good papyrus on old advice?
Perhaps there are things going on here that are a lot deeper than table seating and guest list advice. Perhaps Jesus is really getting at deep issues that are crucial for us to hear. I believe he is.
Jesus and That Table
Of course, on the surface level, it is true that the culture Jesus lived in was an honor-shame culture. Literally getting the best seat was a point of honor, and being moved out of a good seat really did bring shame. Everybody knew that. My brother in law who works in Senegal says that the exact same things go on there today.
But let us take a step back and look at the bigger picture. First notice the fact that Jesus is there, unexpectedly, in the home of a Pharisee. Jesus has already faced stiff opposition from that group according to Luke, some of whom consider him an outright enemy. But there he is, willing to accept an invitation to eat with them. While it is true that Jesus considered them misguided about many things, he never wrote them off. He stayed engaged. The conversation continued, all the way up to the end.
This is part of the Jesus-way of dealing with enemies. It is not common today. We are living in extremely polarized times when genuine dialogue seems rare. People get shrill, attack each other’s motives and their character. This may be the way our brains evolved to deal with conflicts as we emerged out of Africa, but we are not primates any longer. We have choices.
Jesus had real disagreements; he had enemies, but he did not write them off; he stayed engaged. There he was, at table in a Pharisee’s home on the Sabbath. Our modern preference to simply perpetuate hostility may make us feel smug and self-satisfied, but it is spiritually immature. It’s not the Jesus-way. May we recall that fact, even when the politicians we support use those tactics.
That’s the big picture, now for the details. Jesus stayed engaged with his enemies, and in that context, he comments about their values. What is at stake in the seating arrangement? What is at stake in the guest list that is filled out with the goal of return invitations? At stake is something simple, but profound: ego. More specifically e-investment: ego-investment.
Here is how ego works: when my sense of being OK about myself comes from a fragile, unstable source, I will always feel threatened and defensive. And no source of ego-nourishment is weaker than public approval. Honor and prestige are constantly vulnerable; they can be lost in an instant. When that is what I am ego-invested in, then I have to be constantly defensive about my public image. When my ego is invested in status or prestige or superiority, or performance, then the return on investment is guaranteed; guaranteed to be low.
When Jesus addresses this invested ego situation at the table, he is actually getting at the fundamental building blocks of the Christian life. The Christian world view turns this whole situation upside down and inside out. Kingdom values are counter-cultural here. The Jesus-way looks at the self quite differently.
It starts with the understanding that I am not perfect; I make mistakes. I don’t even live up to my own standards, let alone God’s. When I fail, I make excuses for myself while judging other people mercilessly. I come to realize that this too is part of my fallen condition. I see it, and admit it.
Step one in the Christian spiritual life is always admitting our own failings. This is why the message of the coming of the kingdom always starts: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Once we admit that truth, the pressure is off to pretend. We have no need to hide.
So if spiritual step one is recognizing my own human failings, then step two is acknowledging that if there is any hope at all, it’s got to begin with God’s willingness to embrace sinners like me with mercy. And that is exactly what God does.
If step one is knowing I’m not perfect and step two is understanding that I’m forgiven by God’s love and mercy, then step three has to be that both of those things are true of you too, and of everybody. The playing filed is absolutely level.
The Ultimate Round Table
This means that there can only be one possible shape for God’s banquet table: a circle, without head or foot. There simply are no seats of honor. And if everyone is invited to the table, then the invitation list is always the same: whoever wants to come, may come. No exceptions.
If I understand that my ego, my sense of myself is rooted not in the fragility of performance and public approval, but in God’s loving welcome of me, in all of my imperfection, then I am free from the power-game. If I know that God accepts and loves me, even knowing everything I’m trying to hide from myself and from others, then I have no need to step on anyone else to feel good about myself.
When we come to know ourselves as people whom God loves, we can stop being ego-invested in being right all the time, in winning, in having control. We can stop judging and condemning others, and instead, we can extend compassion and understanding. If we do not feel the need to be self-righteous, we can stop scapegoating bad guys; we can stop the blame-game that produces only losers and never winners.
This is really what God wants: all of God’s children, of all races and conditions, rich an poor, gay, straight, young, old, conservative and progressives, together at one round table, giving thanks to the one in the center whose mercy and love is infinite and whose welcome is permanent.
How to get there from here: Strategies
This is not the way most people live, and it is not our natural inclination. We were prepared, by our long evolutionary history, to be vigilant about threats. Our brains are wired to respond to all threats alike. Threats to our lives from predators like lions and snakes sets off a defensive, fight or flight response. This was a survival mechanism that worked for many thousands of years.
The trouble now is that our brains also interpret threats to our sense of well being, like insults or offenses in the exact same way. When we feel slighted or challenged, we get angry, defensive, even shrill. Everything in us seems to work against adopting the Jesus-strategy of mutuality.
It is not enough to learn or even to agree that the Jesus-way of being non-ego-invested in personal honor is right and good. We need strategies that produce spiritually transforming results; strategies that change our brains.
This is why daily Christian practices are so important. Without them, we are simply going to be self-serving, best-seat-seeking, neighbor-despising, ego-threatened people. But with daily practices, especially a daily practice of at least 20 minutes of contemplative prayer can reverse that lizard-brain syndrome. Now, even neuroscientists see that this strategy is effective.
We can become people of compassion and grace. We can learn forgiveness and we can be inclusive instead of fearful and defensive. We can find joy sitting at table with fellow fallible human beings without feeling superior to any of them. We can find joy in the blessing, of finding our rightful place at a table seated next to, as Jesus said,
“the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
This is the Jesus-way.
This is our calling.