WHEN YOU GIVE A BANQUET
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We’re talking about guests and hosts today. Welcomes. Hospitality. This is an area of life that has largely been left to professionals. We talk about the hospitality industry. We can think about the transactional nature of hospitality. I pay a company to stay in their hotel, to eat in their restaurant. It’s a monetary transaction. I’ve found it strange that customers are referred to these days as “guests.” The last time I checked I didn’t charge guests in my home to eat there or to stay the night. However, it might just be me and I’m aware of not wanting to sound like a crank.
Jesus is talking here about what hospitality looks like in the Kingdom of God. He is on his way to Jerusalem. On his way, he finds himself a guest at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. This man was a big deal. We’re talking about a dinner party. Good times! It might have been the kind of party known as a symposium. After dinner people would talk, give speeches and so on. This might seem like less of a good time, but remember we’re talking no t.v., no devices etc. The only one speaking at this party is Jesus. He has healed a man with dropsy. They had been watching him closely, these lawyers and Pharisees. These people who were very familiar with the law. He asks them “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” They don’t answer him. In fact, no one speaks at all through these scenes except for Jesus. Jesus heals the man and sends him on his way. He says to them “If anyone of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” They could not reply to this.
The law of love. The weightier matters of the law. Justice. Mercy. Faith.
Jesus proves himself to be a disruptive dinner guest. I think this is a good thing though. We talked 3 weeks ago about the people of Nazareth claiming Jesus as one of their own. About their familiarity with Jesus getting in the way of hearing what Jesus is saying, what Jesus is demanding of us. Which might be quite disruptive. So let us be disrupted. We don’t come here just so we can feel good about ourselves after all.
While he is at a dinner party, Jesus sees something which makes him think of the Kingdom of God. Life of the Kingdom is revealed in the everyday. Let us not miss this. It is often in the details of life that not only our characters are revealed, but the character of God is revealed. The Greek essayist Plutarch wrote that it is in the small, apparently trivial act that character is reflected. It is in the small, apparently trivial act that we learn something about life in the Kingdom of God as we travel with Jesus towards Jerusalem.
Of course, there’s nothing trivial about this episode at all. There’s nothing trivial about any moment of a life in which God is present. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. The guests are occupying the best seats. Literally the “first couches.” Normal yes? Who doesn’t want the place of honour? The first couch. We deserve it after all. You can picture Jesus looking on at this behaviour and he tells them a parable. We spent a lot of time looking at parables last summer. Stories that point to a meaning beyond themselves. When you are invited to a wedding banquet, do not take the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you comes and your host has to come tell you to move and in disgrace, you have to go take the lowest place. Instead, take the lowest place so that your host may come up to you and say “Friend, take a higher place!” for then you will be honoured.
Now there are two ways to read this. One way would be to say Jesus is talking about social mores. There’s a verse in Proverbs that goes like this – “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Prov 25:6-7)
We get this, don’t we? How embarrassing! There was once a certain man who, along with his wife, went to the wedding of a certain relation. This couple could not find the seating chart. Seeing two spots free at a table that was fairly close to the head table, which looked like a good place to sit and at which the man saw some people that he knew, he said to his wife “Well let’s just sit down!” His wife, hesitant, said “You know I really think we should check in the hallway for the seating chart or ask someone,” to which the man replied “I’m sure we’ll be fine here, who really sticks to those things anyway” and just generally disregarding the whole idea of a seating chart. Right before dinner was served and everyone was seated the father of the bride came over and told them that he was very sorry but they needed to be moving to a table that was a little farther from the head table action and everyone was looking at them as they got up and the certain man’s wife was giving him a look.
Could you imagine? It didn’t really happen. It’s a parable. I could end it like this. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus is not just talking about how to elevate ourselves socially any more than he was just talking about agriculture earlier in Luke when he told the parable of the sower or the parable of the soils. Here’s how to get a good crop? No. Here’s a truth about life in the kingdom. Here’s a truth. Those who humble themselves will be exalted.
Look at the one who’s telling the parable. The ultimate example of humbling. Described in that Christ hymn from the letter to the Philippians. Jesus speaks these words about being humbled and exalted in another spot. Another parable actually about a tax collector and a Pharisee. They’re at the Temple and the tax collector is beating his chest crying out “Lord have mercy on me a sinner!” The Pharisee is seeking God too, but the Pharisee’s prayer is “Thank you that I am not like him.”
What are we to learn from this parable apart from a lesson in social comportment? That we have been invited to a banquet as guests. That we are not at this banquet because of any merit or competency or achievement or anything else that causes us to exalt ourselves. That we are to remember that we are at this banquet at all solely because of God’s grace.
After this negative command, we get the positive one from Jesus. This one is for the hosts. Luke 14:12-14.
So much about hospitality these days is transactional. Particularly when we consider how professionalized it has become. In Jesus’ day you invited people in to increase your social standing. Jesus is observing. Someone describes it like this – “Jesus observed an occasion, and not an isolated one, on which hosting was an act by which one person gained power over others and put them in his debt… A host who expects a return on his or her behaviour will not offer service or food to those who cannot repay, and so guest lists consist of persons who are able to return the favour.”
We get this too. They used to make films and write cookbooks about how to impress the boss when you had the boss over for dinner. We know how we feel when we do something like accept an invitation from a timeshare. Sure they’ll have you over and give you dinner or whatever as long as you hear their pitch. Often it’s a pretty hard sell. We’re talking about attaching strings to our invitations. The idea is so deeply ingrained. How often are we leaving a dinner party and we say something like “We’ll have you over really soon.” We must reciprocate (and I know sometimes this is only because we enjoy the pleasure of one another’s company so and am not in any way trying to assign motivations here, but it’s what we say).
Jesus is talking about invitations with no strings attached. “When you give a luncheon, or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, 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.”
What’s the meaning behind this? What are we to take from these words as we follow Jesus along his way? We’re being reminded that we’ve been invited to a banquet. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who threw a banquet. We’ve been invited not because there is something that we need to repay because we could never repay. It’s been put like this – “Since God is host of us all, we as hosts are really behaving as guests, making no claims, setting no conditions, expecting no return.”
We’re all guests in the kingdom of God. We’ve all been welcomed in as strangers. Not because of anything we can do for God. God’s love is not transactional. It can be hard to get our minds around this. So much in our lives is about transactions. I said Jesus was a disturbing guest/host. We’re talking about welcoming strangers. The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this – “Be sure to welcome strangers into your home…” Not just strangers in terms of people we don’t know either. Look at the people with whom Jesus is associating. Someone has described it as entertaining unknown strangers, which might seem redundant, but strangers being described as “people without a place… detached from basic, life-supporting institutions – family, work, polity, religious community, and to be without networks of relations that sustain and support human beings.” Those who cannot provide for themselves being made welcome because we who could not provide for ourselves have been made welcome at Christ’s banquet table. In sitting down together we enact life in the Kingdom of God.
Sitting down together note. Jesus as a disruptive guest. Shaking up our practices. Note that Jesus is not even talking simply of a redistribution of funds or resources. He’s talking about sitting down with people around a table. Not with an agenda. Not with an ulterior motive. In doing we reflect life in the kingdom and we anticipate life in the kingdom. What might that look like for us? It may be difficult to do individually. What if we could do it together? What if we could sit and eat with strangers on a Saturday night here? Or on a Thursday night? What might be revealed of God in the everyday act of sitting down and eating pizza? It’s a great leveller and a great unifier. We all need to eat after all!
Humble guests. Servants. Welcoming hosts. Following the one who is at the same time a guest and host. Following the one by whose grace we are invited to sit at the banquet table. May we too see truths of the kingdom in the every day and may this always cause us to wonder. May this be true for us all.