Jamie Howison’s sermon on Luke 14:1,7-14 for August 28, 2016
There are an awful lot of meals shared in the Gospel according to Luke. It seems one of the things that he really wants to emphasize, that unlike the rather more austere John the Baptist, Jesus wasn’t at all shy about eating and drinking. Over the course of the gospel we see him sharing table with all sorts of people, from Zacchaeus the despised tax collector to—in today’s reading—a leader of the Pharisees with whom he ate a Sabbath meal. It was a world in which hospitality figured mightily, so all of these meals have an even greater significance than they would in our own culture.
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But is was also a world that Emerson Powery characterizes as “an honor and shame culture,” and you can signs of that in today’s reading. In such a context, Powery notes, “avoiding shame is of the utmost importance. This is not simply embarrassment. A family’s bartering practices or marriage proposals can be negatively affected by a public shaming, if the shame is significant enough.” There’s a lot at stake, in other words, such that to be viewed as honorable was incredibly valued, whereas to be shamed was potentially very, very costly.
Jesus knows how embedded this all is in his culture, and so was probably not at all surprised to see that at that Sabbath meal “the guests chose the places of honour.” He responds with what at first sounds like a bit of strategic advice. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.” If you’ve chosen for yourself the prime seat closest to the bride and groom and the local mayor walks in, you might find yourself in the shameful place of being bumped from your seat to make room for this more honoured guest. Not just bumped, but displaced right down to the worst seat in the house, off in a back corner, halfway behind a pillar that obstructs your view of the head table. What would it feel like to have to walk from that prime seat all the way to the back of the hall, with every eye in the place watching you? Not just embarrassing, but shameful, because in being dishonoured like that you feel that something is being said about your very person.
So instead of risking that, Jesus says, “go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may—may—say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” We don’t know what the Pharisees made of that. Maybe some of them thought to themselves, “well, that’s an unusual strategy,” while others might have just dismissed out of hand the idea that you’d place yourself in the seat of lowest honour when you should claim the seat you deserve in the social pecking order. I wonder, though, if any one of them heard the deeper meaning and challenge that Jesus was actually trying to convey.
Because you know Luke is clear. This isn’t just advice on how to navigate a shame and honour culture; it is a parable. And what do parables do? They take a story or a set piece like this one, and in the telling of it unsettle our judgments and assumptions. Sometimes they do it with a kind of hard-to-miss clarity—the parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance—but just as often they have a more subtle way of working, sometimes in a way that is intended to burrow into the soul in a most disarming way.
So what is a work with this parable? The closing line is key: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” And what is the context into which Jesus is speaking, because it is clearly not just a challenge about banquet etiquette. N.T. Wright offers the following insight:
The rest of the chapter makes it clear that Jesus is talking about the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God… The real meaning is to be found in the warning against pushing oneself forward in the sight of God. In Jesus’ day it was all too easy for the well-off and legally trained to imagine that they were superior in God’s sight to the poor, to those without the opportunity to study, let alone practice, the law.
To place yourself before God based on your learning, your piety, your good behaviour, your status, your adherence to the particularities of your religious tradition, your achievements; that’s all a blind alley. Place yourself before God in frank honesty about who you are? That’s a different matter altogether. And so, Robert Farrar Capon comments:
At this dinner party Jesus has found himself in the presence of a bunch of certified, solid-brass winners: establishment types who are positive they’ve got all the right tickets, religious and otherwise, and who think a fun evening consists of clawing your way to the top of the social heap. Therefore when Jesus addresses his host, he is principally concerned to redress the imbalance he feels all around him, to assert once again his conviction that a live lived by winning is a losing proposition.
Winning is a losing proposition, because death is the engine of grace. Jesus’ death turns out to be not the bitter end his disciples thought it was, but a whole new beginning. We too are resurrected in the resurrection of Jesus, but that also means dying to self. That’s a hard phrase, dying to self, because it can sometimes feel like it requires an endless cycle of self-denial and of a sort of impossibly disciplined squelching of anything pleasant or attractive. But clearly that not what this feasting Jesus requires of us, right? After all, this Jesus eats and he drinks in such abundance that he scandalizes the moral police of his day. No, dying to self ultimately means acknowledging that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, nothing we can do to make God love us less. What is required is simply a willingness to drop our illusions that we can make ourselves just before God, that somehow we can be righteous enough to earn that prime seat at the wedding banquet.
Yet he also does offer the host of that Sabbath meal a serious challenge as to what that dying to self might look like when it is lived out in the real world:
‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, 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.’
We are invited by Christ, the inveterately hospitable party host, to come freely and truthfully to the table. Invited week by week to his communion table, but even more, in the fullness of time we shall be invited to take our places at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, as the Book of Revelation imagines it. In the meantime, to again cite N.T. Wright, “party guests are expected to become party hosts in their turn.” What that looks like will be a little different in each of our lives, so let this gospel burrow into your soul to do its work of unsettling your assumptions and challenging your judgments… and start planning your version of a party from there.