This sermon is based on Luke 14:1, 7-14.
When I was in my 20s, a friend of mine from University invited me on a weekend away to some friends of her parents. My university friend had developed a close bond with our host and hostess, whom she called ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ and they were very hospitable people.
They had a big house in the countryside and there were plenty of recreational activities in the area. These people liked to have weekend house-parties and they seemed to make a particular habit of inviting my friend to their home because they knew that she couldn’t afford to get away otherwise.
I was the only ‘stranger’ that weekend. There were four other guests besides me and my friend: two couples who were long-time friends of our hosts.
Our hosts made a feature of the evening meal and they owned large dinner table around which everyone could gather. As everyone was having drinks before dinner, I noticed one place that had a different place-setting from all the rest. It was set with a beautiful hand-made ceramic plate, silver cutlery and beautiful crystal. I remarked on this to the hostess.
She replied: ‘Oh yes. At every weekend we like to set one special place for a special guest.’ I said ‘Oh, what a nice idea!’ and I thought to myself ‘That place is for me since I’m the only person they don’t know well. I’m the special guest.’
When it came time to sit down to dinner, I was still certain that this was my place, but thank goodness I didn’t sit there! It turned out that the place was set for one of their friends – a woman who had just been let out of hospital after having an operation for cancer.
I can’t even begin to imagine how utterly mortified I would have been if I had not been saved by dumb luck from sitting down in that place. I was still extremely embarrassed in myself when I realised that, for all intents and purposes, I had been operating in my own mind as if I was the centre of the universe.
Of course, as embarrassing as this would have been today, it would have been even more embarrassing in Jesus’ time when being seen to be an honourable person was of the utmost importance.
Common Sense & Bad Advice
At first reading, this morning’s Gospel story might be seen as a story about good common sense in a culture which values honour. In such a society, the smartest thing to do is to take a seat in a relatively insignificant place and then wait to be invited to a higher place.
Just about the stupidest thing that you could do would be to take the seat of the guest of honour and then be asked to vacate it. This would expose you as a person who was, in fact, dishonourable.
Because in a society that operates according to code of honour, to be an honourable person is to observe, uphold and defend the values and the society structures of the larger group. In an honour culture the strict observance of group values, systems and structures leads to self-fulfilment and advancement as one is recognised as an upholder and defender of social values.
Any self-respecting Pharisee or Rabbi would see the sense in not taking the seat of the guest of honour without being invited first. That would be disaster!
I think that Jesus’ parable about the dinner guests would have been easily accepted by the crowd as simple common sense advice in a culture that prizes personal honour.
But what are we to make of Jesus’ further recommendation that the properly invited guests to our dinner parties should not be our peers but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind?
It would have been a normal sight in Jesus’ time to see the poor and the disabled at a banquet being given by the rich. These people – who were deemed to be poor and disabled because of some sin they had committed – would be able to avail themselves of the charity of the rich, but they were most certainly not invited guests with seats at the table.
Jewish law and custom required those who had the means to give charity to the poor, but it did not require people to associate with the poor. In the honour system, to associate with the poor, to mix with them, to eat with them at your table, would be to dishonour yourself.
When we give charity to someone, we retain power over them. To mix with the poor or any dishonoured group is to be equal with them and thereby forfeit your own honour.
So, in the first story, Jesus seems to be giving some good common-sense advice to those of us who consider ourselves ‘honourable’ so that we don’t lose our honour.
In the second story, Jesus is suggesting that we consort and associate with the dishonourable people of the world. Jesus is suggesting that we give up our honour.
The Good News of the Dishonourable God
Is there any way to soften Jesus rather difficult commandment in the second story? A number of commentators have suggested ways of ‘softening’ the second story, but I think that if we soften it, we risk losing the point.
The point is that Jesus himself, God incarnate, mixed with the dishonourable, associated with the dishonourable and thereby dishonoured himself in the process.
But we seem to have a schizophrenic attitude toward Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
On the one hand, we will all utter a silent prayer of thanksgiving when we read in Philippians 2 that Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself in the form of a slave to be born in human likeness. But do we really accept those words about slavery and emptying?
I suspect that we don’t. In our minds God somehow manages to remain high and mighty whilst simultaneously debasing himself. And that’s what we want for ourselves too.
Like James and John, we prefer to see God on his throne and we prefer to see ourselves sitting on his right hand in the Kingdom. We don’t want to think about a crucified Christ – even if he rises from the dead.
We are happy to think of ourselves as imitating Jesus by doing good works, but not if that imitation requires us to lose respect in the eyes of wider society.
So far, this morning’s Gospel reading perhaps risks sounding like bad news rather than good news, so where can we find the good news in these passages?
Well, the good news is that God will do anything, absolutely anything, to get alongside humankind. And God doesn’t reserve his hospitality for the honoured guests. God also invites the dishonoured, the poor and the outcasts to his celebration feast.
The good news is that God does not require the dishonourable to take their customary place on the fringes of the celebration; he does not require them to accept charity from a God who maintains his right to wield his power over them. The good news is that God goes out to the so-called dishonoured, makes himself their equal, associates with them and thereby turns everything upside down so that the fringes of the celebration become the place of importance.
And the good news is that, in one way or another, we are all dishonourable people. When God goes out to the fringes of the banquet in order to demonstrate that the dishonourable people are offered citizenship in his Kingdom, he’s going out to invite you and me into his banquet.
I was lucky. I had a narrow escape at my friend’s aunt’s dinner table. Sheer dumb luck meant that I didn’t voice my assumption that I was to be the person at the place of honour. Sheer dumb luck saved me from the shame and embarrassment of sitting down in the place of honour.
But in that narrow escape, I was also given a lesson – a lesson that I’ve had a number of times since then and that I will probably have again in the future! I was shown how I assume that I’m the centre of the universe: how, most of the time I neglect to think of others or to think of God.
But unlike me, God isn’t sitting up in heaven contemplating his divine navel and thinking about what he can do to attract more honour to himself. On the contrary, God is continually looking outside himself: to creation and to all living beings, doing everything that he can to draw everything and everyone into his circle of divine love.
In a few minutes, we will come to the Lord’s Table. The celebration of Holy Communion is a sacrament and an ordinance but it is also a physical symbol of the feast of the Kingdom of God. All are invited to this table today because all are invited to the feast of God’s Kingdom.
God goes out into the highways and byways in order to walk among those who are ‘not allowed’ into honourable society, and he invites them into the feast of his Kingdom.
I pray that we will not only heed the invitation to his table, but that we too will also look outside ourselves in order to invite the poor, the outcast and the dishonourable into the Kingdom.