Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 for Pentecost +15, Aug 28, 2016
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.”
Miss Manners was not a revolutionary. I think we can all agree about that. I was thinking of words to describe discussions of rules for politeness and social protocol: I came up with boring, pedestrian, banal, and arbitrary.
So is this text about Jesus being Miss Manners? Or is it revolutionary? I believe it is revolutionary. Here is why.
The Magic of Meals
What happens when we eat food? We take something living – a plant, or fish or animal (most people), and it becomes part of us. The nutrients enter our bloodstreams, feed our cells, and sustain our lives. In other words, we take a life-source and it becomes part of us.
So what happens when we eat a common meal with others? Whoever is at the table is sharing a life source together. That single source, that loaf of bread or that lettuce or that meat becomes a source a life to everyone at the table.
This is part of the logic, in the ancient world, of animal sacrifice. Most sacrifices were not completely consumed in the fire, rather they were cooked. Some of the sacrificial animal became smoke which rises upwards. In antiquity, with its three-story concept of the world, God, or the gods are up in heaven. The gods consume sacrifices by ingesting the smoke. The aroma is “pleasing” not just because it smells good, but the ancient gods were sustained by it. Literally, it fed them.
The part of the animal that did not become smoke was eaten by the worshippers and the priest in many cases. In other words, they shared a common life-source with each other and the gods, or in Israel’s case, the one God.
Think of all the times in the bible in which God gets involved in meals. There is a very odd, numinous scene in Exodus at Mt. Sinai in which God invites Moses, along with 70 elders, to come up onto the mountain, covered in the mysterious cloud, and it says,
“they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” (Exod. 24:11).
They encountered God in a shared meal.
A banquet table with rich food and aged wines is how Isaiah imagines the future feast God will make for all nations, when the common enemy of death has been defeated. (Isaiah 25) So, everything culminates in a banquet.
The Anthropology of Eating
Sharing a common meal is universally significant for humans on all kinds of levels. Anthropologists tell us that implicit in shared meals is obligation to give and receive, and repay.
“Eating is a behavior which symbolizes feelings and relationships, mediates social status and power, and expresses the boundaries of group identity.”
“In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…. Once the anthropologist finds out where, when, and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members…. To know what, where, how, when, and with whom people eat is to know the character of their society.”
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus (p. 77). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition, cites Peter Farb and George Armelagos, Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), pages 4 and 211.
Jesus: Revolutionary Dining
So, Luke’s gospel has this scene in which Jesus is at a meal of a prominent person, and he has two issues to raise.
The first is with the guests. In an honor-shame based culture, seating placement had everything to do with status, and therefore honor. One of two things is true about this text. Either Jesus is offering a “Miss Manners” kind of advice about how not to get yourself publicly shamed by an honor over-reach, or he is undermining the very structure of valuing persons on the basis of honor.
His concluding aphorism is a revolutionary attack on that whole system of values:
“all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The very structure of valuing persons on the basis of honor has been overturned. This is revolutionary.
Who is at the table?
Jesus then turns to the host to raise another issue. It is not just about who gets to sit where at the table; it is also about who gets a place at the table at all. Going directly against the socially accepted, historically validated, intuitively obvious way of choosing with whom you eat, Jesus says, instead,
“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”
In other words, invite the people without honor, without status, the people in whose presence you do not get any cool points.
In Jesus’ day, society was organized by a patronage system. Wealthy landowners were the patrons. The people who worked for them were clients. Brokers were the middle men. Poor clients were often dependent on the wealthy patrons for all kinds of things, from work, and therefore income, to protection. (see Crossan, Jesus p. 107).
The patrons got to decide who was at the table, and who was out back, rummaging for scraps in the trash dump with the dogs, or begging for alms in the streets. What Jesus is saying is that there never should be anyone out there with the dogs, or on the streets. The people who are normally there, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, should be treated with dignity and respect by having a place inside the house, at the banquet table. That, is revolutionary.
This revolution is necessary for people who believe what we believe about God. Most of the time, because we are more at home with metaphors than with abstractions, we speak of God as a separate being. We call God “Father” for example.
But when we think deeply about God, we are forced to use words like mystery. We know that it is inadequate to conceive of God simply as a Super-being, “out there”, but rather we believe that God is the ground of all being. God is Ultimate Reality. God is the depth dimension of life that we all experience; that which gives us purpose and meaning.
God, as the ground of our being is not simply an abstract power, but rather God is personal. God must be more than what we conceive of as personal, but certainly, not less. This means that ultimate reality is personal, which is why we get closest to encountering ultimate reality in the depths of personal relationships.
We go so far as to say that the best way to understand this personal ultimate reality is to say that God is Love. This is why, when we trust God with our lives, we are aware that we have been entirely accepted by love. We have been invited to the banquet table. We are valued, respected, and affirmed. Our lives matter. Our lives have meaning. Our stories, our history is part of a larger history. In other words, we have hope.
This is exactly what gave the prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah the ability to look at their times, times when there was great poverty, injustice, oppression and abuse, and imagine a different future. They were people of hope because they trusted that God, Ultimate Reality, is Love.
God shows up in the world in every action motivated by love. God is present where compassion is present. God is present where people work for justice. God is found where people are helping to get “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” a place at the table.
We see God in Jesus, as he sets forth this vision, which he called the kingdom of God. An open table that excludes no one. An open table that serves everyone. A meal shared equally, without any external value judgments.
The Blessed Life
“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed”
What is the path to the blessed life? It is the path of compassion, the path of love. When we come home to Love, when we find ourselves accepted and invited to the banquet table, we feel blessed. And when we join in God’s quest for the world, to keep spreading that love in ever widening circles, we are even more blessed.
This means that we are committed to the task of continually asking,
“Who is not at the table?”
“What can we do to help get them to the table?”
We do not need advice from Miss Manners, but we do need a revolution today. We need a newly inspired army of people who are grounded in the ultimate reality we call love, and whom we know as God. An army of people so grounded in love, so at home, that they can be people for others, as Jesus was.
People who value other people the way God, their Creator values them: not for their status or power, not for their race or even their religion, but for their common humanity.
Their lives do matter to us! And, the more their lives have not mattered to others, because they are poor, crippled, blind, lame, or of a different race than we, or a different faith, then the more we single them out for mattering, just as Jesus did with those who were shut out of the table in his day.
The people at the table are the people with privilege. We, as mostly middle class Caucasians, in this church, and we, as followers of Jesus, are therefore open to looking at our our own privilege. Almost all of us were handed a seat at the table as a birthright. This is simply, honestly called white privilege. We do not have any interest in denying this most obvious fact.
But, grounded in the ultimate reality of Love, we have the vision of the truly blessed life, which is the life of a shared table; an ever-growing table, a table of diversity and humility without any honor-seats or empty seats.