PROPER 17, 2016 St. Luke 14: 7-14
We all need to be noticed. Being lost in the crowd can be a frightening experience. Recognition feels good. Unfortunately it can become a drug, driving us to extremes in order to feel the rush of pleasure experienced when someone important smiles and speaking our name, guides us to an adjacent seat at the dinner table.
St. Luke, reputed to be both a doctor and an artist paints a picture in vivid colors and not without a tinge of humor. One sees Jesus, in the home of a pious rich man, leaning against a pillar as guests bend over to see if they have a place at table close to their important host.
Don’t think of a modern dining room table, or “high table” at a banquet. Jesus was looking at a number of low tables against which were arranged couches, which looked rather like an antique chaise longe. One lay down, head on large pillows, and faced sideways. One doesn’t know whether there were place cards. Perhaps at a feast to which the important and the self important were invited, there may have been cards. At any rate one imagines the scene as the guests frantically seek recognition, a recognition granted by being close to influence and power.
St. Luke quotes Jesus: “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 told them a parable.” A child once defined a parable as being a heavenly story with no earthly meaning. Nothing could be further than the truth in this case. But we must be careful. This isn’t a useful story to share with the upwardly mobile or a lesson in etiquette. Episcopalians are often described as the former and alleged to be obsessed with the latter. We may seem to be more interested in good taste than in good theology: more intent on success than salvation. Congregations, if they can, spend a good deal of money on vestments, furniture, choirs and organs, guitars and studied, tasteful informality. Evangelism is back in fashion. The finance committee hopes and prays that the Jesus Movement will bring people of means who will solve the budget crunch. Perhaps such people will be asked to come up higher.
Jesus, having annoyed the guests by delivering his short, withering story about snobbery, suddenly moves the message, addressing those who have sought recognition from their puritanical host but now addressing them as potential hosts. Instead of inviting to dinner those who inflate their egos because they are seeking recognition, they are to “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.”
Notice the last phrase. The host of the feast to which Jesus has been invited is a Pharisee. The word means a Righteous or Pious one. A hundred and fifty years earlier Israel was a province of the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The local governor encouraged the Jews to adopt Greek customs and religious observances. A Jewish priest and his sons rebelled and founded a society to uphold and preserve the Jewish Law and religious observances. In Jesus’s time these Pharisees attacked those who compromised with Roman culture. They believed that by keeping the ritual and moral law they would, when the Messiah came, be “repaid” with the best seats at the table. Those who obviously didn’t observe the law were to be shunned. They had no place at the table. That they were poor, crippled, lame and blind was proof of their depravity. If they were responsible, respectable, Torah-observing people they wouldn’t be poor or ill. At the very least the sins of their fathers were visited on them.
Leaning against a wall in the dining room of a Pious One, Jesus quietly disturbed the religious and social order. More than disturbing it, he overthrew it. No wonder they planned his assassination. How could religion as an effective moral force against power survive such an assault? “He takes down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek.” So sang Jesus’s holy mother, so often that it is quoted in the Gospels. Jesus had learnt well.
Of course the poor and ill are not automatically to be seated next to Jesus at the heavenly banquet any more than the rich are to be rejected: Jesus does seem to suggest the rich may have a harder time, particularly where wealth and self-righteousness combine to form character. That’s not the point here. The point is, if anything, more troubling. We are called to seek out those we don’t often see in church on Sunday. We may champion them, feed and clothe them, but what about asking them to kneel next to us at the communion rail? We may share with them daily bread, but what about the Bread of Life? Jesus, the Host, invites all who work and labor to enjoy his peace and rest.
If we could hear the Jesus who as Risen Lord deigns to be our guest this morning, what parable would he tell? How might we react?