A Sermon Preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
Aug 29, 2010
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.
Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.
And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?”
But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away.
Then he said to them, “If one 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?”
And they could not reply to this.
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.”
Randy and I like to banter about which Gospel is the “best”. He’s a big fan of Luke’s Gospel. I am not. There are certainly stories and passages I appreciate in Luke, but it is not my “go to” book. In this story, I appreciate that Jesus calls us to be humble. I appreciate that Jesus reminds us that hospitality and generosity are done best when they are shared with people from whom you aren’t expecting a return invitation.
But I don’t always agree with Jesus.
I recognize there are some problems with that.
I know he’s the Son of God and all that.
I know he has a bigger perspective on things than I do and I’m willing to acknowledge that he’s the one you should listen to, not me.
But here’s what I want to know.
Why would he go and eat dinner at the home of a Pharisee?
The Pharisees didn’t like him. They’re trying to kill him, after all. He’s a threat to everything they hold dear—their power, their authority, their privilege.
Did he end up there because they are trying to trap him? They’ve already asked him some “gotcha” questions in Luke’s gospel. And if that’s why he’s been invited, I want to say, “Jesus! Don’t do it. These people don’t like you. They want to use this against you. Be careful.” But Jesus doesn’t need my advice.
Did he end up there because there’s a Pharisee who is convicted by Jesus’ teachings and wants to learn more? Even then, I feel myself being stingy with grace. “But the Pharisees are so mean, Lord. Do you really want him as a follower? What will it look like to the people who have been judged by them to see you eating at this table?”
Why would he go and eat dinner with Pharisees when he could have gone out for pizza with the man he just healed?
Why would he go and eat dinner with Pharisees when he could have eaten at a homeless shelter, or been at the CATCH fundraiser—bidding on items at the auction to raise money for homelessness relief?
Why would he go and eat dinner with the Pharisees when he could have been marching in a Civil Rights march with Martin Luther King, Jr?
The frustration that hits me again and again when I encounter these stories of Jesus is that he is beyond my control or my ability to predict. Even when I think I know something about Jesus—he’s the champion for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed—then he stops what he’s doing and says to me—Marci, I am also the champion of the rich, the oppressing, and those who have bought in to the illusion of their own power.
Jesus drives me nuts! Can’t he just like the same people I do?
It would be so much easier.
The writer Anne Lamott, when referring to someone she didn’t like much, said that she was sure God couldn’t stand this person either. “Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Perhaps I don’t like Luke because I don’t like the way he throws Truth in my face.
Okay, so Jesus is having dinner with Pharisees and I should too….
And while there, Jesus comments on a particular 1st century Palestinian custom. As people would gather in homes for meals, it was the custom to have the more prominent people, who were all men, at the head of the table near the host. The lower down you were on the social ladder, the further away from the host you sat. So when Jesus comments on their seating arrangements, he’s making a broad comment on cultural behavior.
“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.”
I don’t know about you, but this is a tough custom for me to understand. I can’t quite find the 21st century parallel. I would feel, I am sure we would all feel, horribly uncomfortable if we showed up late to a dinner party and the host told someone they had to move further away so that we could sit where the other person had been.
For many of us, taking the seat furthest away is just the polite thing to do, right?
Isn’t that why you are all in the back pews?
But this humility that Jesus is talking about plays out in different ways for different people, often depending on the situation. Sometimes we are over prideful, which keeps us from recognizing the gifts and the worth of others.
Sometimes we have too much humility, not thinking that our gifts are worth sharing, not clear on what we bring to the table. Perhaps this can even keep us from sharing our gifts at all, afraid nobody would come to our dinner party.
Sometimes we don’t have enough humility and limit who we invite to the table.
But it is important to remember that whenever Jesus starts talking about tables, meals, and invitations, he is NOT just talking about your next dinner party.
“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.”
Whenever Jesus talks about inviting people to the table, he is talking about this Table. About his Table.
And at this Table, there isn’t room for excessive pride because it isn’t our table. It is Christ’s Table. And we are but guests.
At this Table there isn’t room for false modesty either. Because God knows our hearts and recognizes, as we do, when the words we speak don’t match what we believe.
At this Table, there isn’t room for excessive and untrue humility, because we come to this Table as God’s own children, who have been uniquely gifted. So to say, “I have nothing to offer. I don’t bring anything to the Table”, is to deny the gifts of the one who created you.
So when we’re here we can say, “thank you” for the gifts we have to share with the world.
At this Table, there isn’t room for exclusion. Jesus ate with sinners and outcasts. Jesus ate with Pharisees and Tax Collectors.
Today, we’ll baptize Milly, and we’ll set one more place at the Table as welcome one more member into the family. What a gift and a responsibility for us to have the privilege to welcome her to our family!
And this Table is a reminder to us that we are all connected. That our gifts are supposed to come together for the benefit of all. Yesterday was the anniversary of the day in 1963 when Martin Luther King made his “I have a dream speech” in front of 200,000 Civil Rights Supporters and before the entire world. I missed that speech the first time around, but we listened to it yesterday, and I was struck by the importance he placed on mutuality—about how it matters not just that people of all colors are free to live their lives, but that they are free to live together, holding hands as brothers and sisters. We are NOT called to just live our lives as if the well being of those around us is unimportant.
Here’s a quote from Dr. King, from a commencement address he gave at Oberlin College in 1965.
“All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
This is, I think, what Jesus’ speech about the Pharisees dinner party is about. At the very end of his instructions, he tells the people at the table, “And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
So, friends, who is invited to this Table?
Who are you inviting to this Table?
Because this is no place for either excessive pride, for false modesty, or for exclusion.
When you look around at the people in your life, don’t limit your invitation with thoughts of “they wouldn’t want to come eat with me” or with thoughts of “I wouldn’t want to eat with them”. Because Christ has called us all to feast together. So live lives of invitation and welcome! And when we live into Jesus’ call to inclusion at the Table, we will see more clearly how we are an “inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny”.
May it be so. Amen.