By The Rev. Sherry Deets
15 Pentecost, Proper 17 – September 1, 2013
Jesus loved the gatherings around meals; at least, that’s what we are led to believe in the Gospel of Luke. In our story this morning, Jesus is at a banquet and tells “parable” about the meal setting, which is followed up by another story about another banquet. He can’t seem to get enough of what happens at meals.
You see, in today’s gospel reading Jesus takes on the social code of his day. He lives in an honor-and-shame culture where status is pretty much everything, and one of the key places where status was displayed is mealtime. Guests of honor were seated close to the host, while those of lesser importance sat further away. And those who weren’t invited at all correspondingly mattered not at all. Status was important … and it could be fragile. To be invited to a better position at the table of an important host wasn’t simply an honor, it could also have tangible benefits to your business pursuits as well. Similarly, to be invited to a lower position could affect all dimensions of your life.
Jesus, therefore, is touching on matters of great importance as he makes two sets of interesting and inter-related comments. In the first he gives what seems to be good advice — don’t think too highly of yourself. Be modest. Better to start from a lower position and be invited higher than place yourself ahead of others and asked to move lower.
The second commentary Jesus offers, however, is not addressed to those attending a banquet but to those giving it, and it moves beyond good advice to something that might have sounded to his audience as fairly ridiculous: don’t invite those in a position to do something for you, but rather invite those who cannot give you anything in return.
In an honor-and-shame culture, you see, counting is everything. Status, favors, debts, honor — it’s all about counting and reckoning and standing and the rest. Inviting persons to a banquet — whether family, friends, or business associates – put them in your debt and made a claim on them to return this favor to you. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world and meals are a great way to scratch someone’s back. Which is why Jesus’ “advice” probably sounded so ludicrous. Why on earth waste an opportunity for social commerce by inviting those who have nothing to give you, who can do nothing for you, and who typically mean nothing to you? It’s crazy.
True enough. But it’s also the kingdom of God.
There is no other defense for such counsel, really, except that this is the way God wants us to treat each other. Indeed, it’s the way God treats us — creating us, giving us what we need to flourish, caring for us, forgiving us, redeeming us — even though we can do nothing meaningful for God in return. In fact, about the only thing we can do in return, when you think about it, is to share what we’ve been given with others. This is the kingdom life, and it stands in stark contrast to the honor-and-shame world in which we live.
What did I say? The honor-and-shame world in which we live? Weren’t we were talking about the first century? Yeah, we are … and I’d contend it’s not that different from the world we occupy as well.
It’s back to school time. Do you remember, and for those in school – do you notice—how obvious the pecking order is at school? How important it was to sit with the right folks at lunch? How much it meant to you to have someone invite you to a party or even just save you a seat at lunch? The clear social demarcations of the various groups from band, sports teams, techies, or whatever? The seats of honor and those considered uncool, on the bus? (I’d offer more examples but most of us are probably already re-living some of our worst moments!) Our schools very much operate on a status system where everything counts and everything is counted.
Truth be told, I don’t think it ends at school. It happens in the work place and at book clubs, it’s present in the volunteering we do and even at church. It happens just about everywhere; it’s just a little more obvious at school. So, the question is, does our Christian faith means anything. Does it change how we interact with other people. Do we assume the humble position – and by humble, I mean the position of seeing everyone else just like you. We are all equal, none better or worse, therefore we treat each other as equals. Humility.
This past week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This is one of the finest examples in history of just what can happen when you dare to defy social convention and place concerns about status and security on the shelf in order to treat all people as God’s beloved children.
A true story – During the Vietnam War, Ann Landers visited soldiers in field hospitals. One of the officers who accompanied her on her rounds commented later that most celebrities walked through the wards, got their picture taken at the bedside of a patient, and then quickly departed. He said of Ann Landers, “This woman has visited every single patient. It’s almost eleven at night, and I know she’s been on her feet since this morning. Where in the world does that little woman get her energy?”
While visiting wounded soldiers, Ann took notes. Then, after returning to the States, Ann phoned many of their families. Imagine the family’s relief to hear, “George sends you all his love and wants to know how the garden is coming.”
That was a long time ago, and you might have forgotten how unpopular that war was and how many people shunned the soldiers who fought there. The fact was that most of them were drafted and would have preferred being anywhere but in a war zone. Still, they served and, for the most part, served honorably. In reaching out to these young soldiers and their families in a very personal way, Ann Landers demonstrated what it means to “ask the poor, the maimed, the lame, or the blind” to our banquet. Jesus promises that, when we open our hearts to such people that we “will be blessed…(and we) will be repaid in the resurrection of the righteous.” Quite a promise! Amen.
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