Proper 17, Year C
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes I think we Episcopalians have to put up with a lot. Some people say the Episcopal church is obsessed by sex. Others describe Episcopalians as bon vivants who are heavy on form and light on theology. We’ve been called “whiskeypalians.” We’ve been described as “Catholic lite.” We’ve even been called “The Church of the Correct Salad Fork,” as if table manners were more important for us than how we think about God. But table manners aren’t an entirely frivolous concern. Those of us who’ve heard the Gospel read and preached on week after week may have noticed that Jesus pays a great deal of attention to the dinner table. What we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat it with are not trivial matters. How we carry out this basic and essential human activity says much about our relationship with one another and with God.
In the Gospel today, Jesus begins by telling us that when we are invited by someone to a wedding banquet that we shouldn’t sit at the place of honor. It’s preferable instead to sit at the lowest place and be asked to move up rather than take the highest place and risk the disgrace of being asked to move down. At first reading, Jesus’ advice sounds to us like a clever bit of social strategy. Pretend humility for the purpose of getting the status we think we really deserve.
But this isn’t what Jesus is really telling us. Jesus isn’t in the business of teaching us to be successful in any conventional understanding of being successful. Also, there is something in what Jesus says that for us is quite literally lost in translation. Jesus’ original audience would have picked right up on his choice of one important word. The word that is translated here as “honor” is the Greek word doxa. The more usual translation of doxa is “glory,” and for Jesus’ disciples, and for us today, the word “glory” is usually associated with God. Think “doxology.” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” is one example of a doxology that most of us are familiar with. Glory is given to God and glory must be given by God; glory can’t be given by one human being to another. Unlike honor, it’s glory that really counts in God’s kingdom, and glory is awarded by God to the humble rather than to those who try to lift themselves up.
Although most of us wouldn’t have noticed the Greek usage, Jesus has another way of letting us know his advice extends far beyond the dinner table, important though the dinner table is. Jesus’ advice concerns our salvation. He tells us “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Far more is at stake for us than our human power games. Jesus gives our social relationships cosmic signficance.
Just as Jesus gives advice to guests, he has some instructions for hosts as well. He tells us that when hosting a meal, we shouldn’t invite our friends, relatives, or wealthy neighbors because these people would reciprocate and we would be making an exchange rather than a gift. Jesus’ instructions require that we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Choosing our guests this way involves more than an act of charity, though it certainly is that too. These four groups of people—poor, crippled, lame, and blind—are specifically excluded from temple priesthood in the book of Leviticus and were also excluded from some religious communities in Jesus’ time. Here too Jesus lets us know that more than simple kindness is involved in having us follow his instructions. Just as the guest who takes the lowest seat at the table will be honored, or receive glory, the host who invites the untouchables of society will be “blessed.” Who usually blesses? God. And here too more reward is involved, for Jesus says “you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Again, salvation is at stake.
At this point you may be getting a bit restless in the pew, thinking that however important it is, the resurrection of the righteous is a long way off. So what does today’s Gospel mean for you and me now, today, the last Sunday of August in 2010? While we don’t want to take away anything from the resurrection of the righteous, we really aren’t looking forward to that anytime soon. We have more immediate things on our minds, like how we’re going to pay our bills, make childcare arrangements, look after an ill family member, or how we’re going to cram all we have to do into that one day off and have a little relaxation besides.
Fortunately for us, there is good news in what Jesus tells us, and the good news is here and now. The good news is that living by Jesus’ words will help us enjoy abundant life right now as well as in the hereafter. Jesus gives us permission to let go of being number one all of the time. I imagine most of us like to be number one in some way or another. It starts early in life. Just watch what happens when a teacher asks a group of preschool children to form a line. There’s a mad dash for the front of that line, and probably even a bit of pushing and nudging is involved. First in line is the coveted spot. Later in life it’s the same story. We want to be on the winning team, be on the “A” honor roll, and eventually occupy the corner office. We take great delight in telling our friends how we got upgraded to first class on our last flight or how we got the best table on the busiest night of the week in the most popular restaurant in town. These are not bad things in themselves, and I have to admit that the occasional times I’ve been upgraded on an airplane I’ve enjoyed it immensely.
So then what’s bad about wanting to be number one? A couple of things. When it’s really important for us to be number one, it takes a lot of our time and energy to get there and to stay there. It’s hard work being number one, and it’s constant work, because someone else wants to be number one too and take our place. And, being number one is a mixed blessing. Yes, it feels good, but we might think that unless we’re number one we’re not worth much. What Jesus tells us to do in today’s gospel is to get out of this rat race.
Not only does Jesus say we should stop striving to be top dog, he tells us to get out of the business of bookkeeping, too. We don’t have to keep mental accounts of whom we did things for and who did things for us and make sure the two columns always balance. If we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to our tables, we don’t have to worry about being asked in return. When we’re planning a dinner party we can stop saying things like, “We don’t have to ask the Joneses. After all, we’ve had them over for dinner three times and we haven’t even been asked for a glass of wine at their house.” We may even be able to stop obsessing over who paid the check last time. When we stop expecting comparable returns for what we give it’s actually quite liberating. We really don’t need to worry about it, because eventually all will be settled in God’s own good time.
And what will our lives look like if we get out of the rat race and we stop our social bookkeeping? What will life be like if we value ourselves not by our position but because of the simple fact that we are children of God? What will life be like if we forget about the things other people can do for us and simply enjoy their company? I think that our priorities will change. For one thing, if we’re not worrying about being number one we will be able to love ourselves. If we can love ourselves we will be more able to love our neighbors. When all are welcome, the dinner table will become a joyful feast for all and not an anxious occasion for social one-upmanship. We will create space in our lives for joyful possibilities that we couldn’t have imagined previously.
If I and not the lectionary had been in charge of selecting the gospel reading for today, my last Sunday with you at St. Joseph’s, I could not have chosen better than our reading today. I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to St. Joseph’s two years ago. What I found was a church that knows all about table fellowship, a church made up of folks who regularly sit down and break bread with those who are seldom invited elsewhere. I feel singularly blessed to have had the chance to serve as the deacon of a church that lives out Christ’s ministry every single day of the week.
“Let mutual love continue,” says today’s Epistle. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” If we can open our hearts and our dinner tables, who knows who will come to share the feast? Amen.