12 Pentecost, Proper 17 – August 28, 2022
Luke 14:1, 7-14
This morning we are ushered into a room where a dinner party is in progress. At the head of the table is the host, a Pharisee, a leader of the local community. The leaders were watching Jesus closely. But, as the guests arrive Jesus notices how they are jockeying for the seats of honor next to the host.
If we’re honest with ourselves, this sort of things still happens. We walk into a social networking function, for example, and scan the room for what we think would be the best seat. Who will I sit next to? Who would help to advance my agenda?
Have you ever walked into a party, a gathering, any social function and tried to take a seat, only to be told, well that’s saved for someone else? It’s uncomfortable. I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there or that we might be the one saving the seats and denying ourselves the opportunity to meet someone new.
Jesus is also advising him that the guest list shouldn’t be limited to those within and above his social class; he should include people who can’t return the favor of hosting a feast to which he would be invited.
Where you eat, what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, and who you eat with all suggest something about your identity, your community, and certainly your social status. Food plays a conspicuous role throughout the Bible. Jews celebrate liberation from Egypt with the Passover meal. Jesus’s first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding party. The gospels speak of the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper, and the Great Supper — all material signs that signify spiritual realities.
There are stories about feeding the multitudes, feeding the hungry, eating with dirty utensils, farming, fasting, which foods are ritually clean or unclean, and the poor begging crumbs from the rich. Our story today is only one of several stories that Jesus told in which food is a metaphor for power that either builds or destroys human community.
Jesus is showing us a different way. He is inviting us to stop counting the costs, benefits, and rewards of our actions and to live from a sense of abundance and blessing. So, what does that mean? To live from a sense of abundance and blessing?
You probably remember Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland. It’s a classic. Alice falls asleep and has this amazing dream where everything seems to be upside down and back to front.
She encounters White Rabbit with a pocket watch but White Rabbit is always running late, a Caterpillar (a small brained creature) who gives advice and bits of wisdom, a grinning and talking Cheshire Cat that keeps vanishing, the King and Queen of Hearts who are always saying “Off with their heads!” Then there is the rude Mad Hatter who is always rebuking Alice for her rudeness.
Alice notices that everything is quite back to front in this strange world. She discovers surprise after surprise as she meets back to front people and creatures.
What Jesus is saying is upside down and back to front. He says that those who are great will be the least in the Kingdom of God and those who are humble will be the greatest. That is so back to front.
We are more used to the idea that those who get ahead – the winners in this world – are those who push themselves forward, promoting their worth over and above everyone else. Winners are the successful people; those who make a lot of money; those who are famous; the ones who outmaneuver others; those who are good at using the moment to outdo others and make more for themselves. It is these people whom we call successful and hold in high regard, right? Seems that not much has changed since Jesus’ day.
Jesus’ whole life is centered on inviting into the presence of God those who neither expect nor deserve such an invitation. And he expects us to do the same. He invites us to stop counting the costs, benefits, and rewards of our actions and live from a sense of abundance and blessing.
God, the Great Reverser of our priorities, our hierarchies, and our values. God, who turns us inside out and upside down because there is no end to the miserable human game of who is “in” and who is “out,” and God in his wisdom knows that our anxious scramble for greatness will lead to nothing but more anxiety, more suspicion, more loneliness, more hatred, and more devastation.
Though we have such a hard time believing it, Jesus insists that God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of scarcity; it is one of abundance, where all are already welcome, already loved, already known, and already cherished. The currency of that kingdom is humility, not arrogance; generosity, not stinginess; hospitality, not fear. The table at the center of that kingdom has so many seats — all of them premier seats, all of them first-class seats, all of them honorable seats — so that we don’t have to scramble and exhaust ourselves to secure a good spot anymore.
Jesus asks us to believe that our behavior at the table matters — because it does. Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people whom we choose to welcome reveal the stuff of our souls. Favor the ones who cannot repay you. Prefer the poor. Choose obscurity. This is God’s world we live in, and nothing here is ordinary. In the realm of God, the ragged strangers at our doorstep are the angels.
Being first is not always best. The lesson Jesus taught reminds us to think of others and remember that, above all, God should have first place in our lives. There is a freedom in living a life in this upside-down Kingdom of God sort of way. The freedom to be wholly and fully who God created us to be. Amen.