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.” – Luke 14:1, 7-14 (NRSV)
Josiah – Joe, for short – was a man with a keen intellect, an ornery sense of humor, and a big heart. At various times in his life, he was a family man, an accomplished attorney, beloved law professor, university president, and a good Presbyterian elder who’d always wanted to go to seminary but never managed to make it. He was a good and gentle man, and for a time, I was blessed to be able to call him friend. He wrote the first letter of recommendation for me when I applied to seminary, and I always valued his thoughts and insights. I got to know Joe later in his life, after he’d retired from the halls of academia, and he and his wonderful wife Joyce began yet another chapter of life as alpaca ranchers.
I remember visiting with Joe and Joyce one evening. The alpacas had been herded up and gotten into the barn, and we were all sitting in the living room. Their dog, Lorna, had found what she at least felt was a comfortable place to rest, flopped on top of my feet while we sat talking. At one point, the conversation turned to a mutual friend, who’d been very successful in the business world. At the time of this conversation, Hummers – those big, boxy SUVs modeled on the military vehicle – had just come out on the market, and they were all the buzz, the new hot thing; it was something unusual and special to see one on the road – and our mutual friend had just bought one. I told Joe that I’d gone out riding around with the friend in his new Hummer just a few days earlier. And I said that I knew that the vehicle was too big, too expensive, an environmentally unfriendly gas-guzzling symbol of conspicuous consumption that no one should ever own, and a sign of basically everything that’s wrong with our wealth-worshiping society. But then, I chuckled and had to admit – it was actually pretty fun. It felt really good sitting up high in that tricked out fancy leather interior, driving around town and having everyone stopping gawking and looking up at you as you went by. It felt good to be what everyone was looking at. Joe just nodded as I said that, then he smiled and looked at me and said, “Yes, but what were they *thinking* while they were looking?”
And in those few words, Joe had brought me back down to earth. I recognized that I’d allowed myself to get caught up in that same kind of status-through-money mindset that I hated so much when I saw it in others.
It’s easy to do, and I suppose if we’re honest with ourselves, at one point or another we all get sucked into it. And when we hear this passage from Luke’s gospel, we can see that it isn’t anything new, because that’s exactly what’s at play in this story about Jesus having dinner in the Pharisee’s home. The social situation back then was basically the same as it is today. If you were considered someone important, you got one of the best seats in the house at a dinner. If you weren’t quite on the “A” list, you got seated further away from the host, and you probably didn’t get to see the impressive view out the windows. And if you’d just barely made it onto the guest list, you ended up at the cramped little table near the kitchen door, with all the noise and where you’d keep getting bumped by the servers as they went back and forth. There’s really nothing new under the sun; that just was, and is, the way of the world.
But here, Jesus was telling people about a different way – some would consider it an odd way, but it’s certainly a revolutionary way of understanding things. He was making it clear that in the Kingdom of God, none of the rules that we typically use to assign status and importance applied. We’ve come up with all these categories and labels to divide us into groups – and usually, with the purpose of whoever’s coming up with the labels being to identify their own group as superior to the people in the other categories. We’ve done it on the base of wealth or income; skin color and physical characteristics or physical ability; education level or intelligence; gender and sexual orientation; religious profession, and on and on. Here, Jesus is saying that God isn’t particularly impressed with those kinds of distinctions. In a sense, Jesus is saying that God doesn’t really care whether you drive a shiny new Hummer or a rusty old Hyundai, and if you’ve seen what I’m driving at the moment, you know I’m particularly grateful for that. In fact, Jesus’ point here seems to be that God’s love and grace is big enough and broad enough for all of us, regardless of any of those labels.
There’s a special significance to so many of Jesus’ teachings occurring around a dinner table or another meal, because at different places in the scriptures, the Kingdom of God is compared to a great banquet, a feast, featuring the best and richest of foods, and the finest of wines. The scriptures don’t make any particular mention of bourbon, but I’m sure that’s part of it, too. In this story, Jesus is saying that the guest list to this eternal, cosmic banquet is based on God’s standards, not ours, regarding who would be invited to the table and who, if anyone, shouldn’t. The guest list is based on the nature of God’s grace, which is broad and inclusive enough for all of us.
There’s a fairly well-known short story by Flannery O’Connor titled “Revelation.” The story’s main character is Ruby Turpin, who considers herself a proper, upstanding Christian woman, a moral pillar of all good society, and who’s obviously superior to all sorts of other social undesirables. Keeping this story short, Ruby ends up getting pounced on, physically attacked by one of those undesirables. After her attacker is subdued, Ruby is sure that this person would see the error of their ways for attacking someone of her stature and apologize, but when the attacker doesn’t show any remorse at all, it causes Ruby to be shocked, and to ponder the meaning of it all. As she was thinking about it, Ruby had an epiphany of sorts, a vision – a revelation; hence the name of the story. In her vision, she sees a big, broad highway, a ramp, moving upward and leading directly to the very gates of heaven. And she sees a whole long line of all the lesser-than, all those people she considers social undesirables, laughing and dancing and joking as they all joyfully walk onward and upward into heaven – and the really shocking thing was that all of them doing so ahead of her and her like-minded friends, who still in the line, but who are bringing up the rear; all headed soberly, reservedly, maybe decently and in order, but as they did, they were all shocked and confused that all the supposed trashy people were getting in ahead of them – that apparently, God’s way of seeing things was so different, so much broader, than they’d ever dreamt. I think there’s a lot of that kind of subtext going on in today’s gospel lesson.
From the place of social and economic privilege that all of us here this morning enjoy, it’s easy to hear these words of Jesus that Luke shares with us, and to maybe feel a bit of sting in his words. It’s easy to feel like he’s shaking a finger at his Pharisee host, and that it extends across the years all the way to us, too. And undoubtedly, some of that sting is justified. Of course, we really do need to consider that message well, and recognize that we need to work harder, with God’s help, to be more broad in our acceptance of others, regardless of their labels, in both church and society. We need to recognize that that’s a key, fundamental part of what it means to live out the truth of the gospel. So yes, there’s a bit of sting there.
But I don’t think that’s where Jesus’ message ends. The reality is that while in one sense, in the sense of our own definitions, yes, we are privileged. But in another sense, we really aren’t. In God’s eyes, we’re really no better than the ones we consider less-than. But God’s grace – God’s love and mercy and acceptance, welcomes us to the banquet, too. In truth, we’re really just as unlikely to have dinner reservations to God’s great eternal banquet as they are – and yet, somehow, we do. We are invited. And the gratitude, and thankfulness, and joy that should bubble up within us if we truly grasp that great truth, is what should enable us to be more welcoming to the table toward everyone else, and being welcome on equal terms, not treating those others as second- or third-class attendees sluffed off to the table by the kitchen.
Jesus was using the real banquet, the real table in front of him, to teach something important about the Kingdom of God – the great eternal banquet. This morning, as I think about that great banquet, I imagine myself sitting at the table, laughing and smiling. And I have a big platter of some delicious food in my hands, and after I spoon out a helping of it for myself, I turn, and smile, and offer it to Joe, the university president; who will take some, and smile, and pass it on to Tina, the crystal meth addict; who will pass it on to Roger, the police chief; who will pass it on to Jamal, who was kicked out of his parents’ home because he was transgender; who will pass it on to Stephanie, the homeless working-poor single mother of three; who will pass it on Antwan, who grew up in the ghetto and who knew racial prejudice and discrimination his entire short life; who will pass it to Ruby Turpin herself, who will be sitting there looking very shocked and confused by it all, but finally, very happy; and she’ll pass it on… and on… and on.
Thanks be to God.