One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.
When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
My husband, Mitchell is a doctor and I am a minister, so we move in very different worlds during our workweeks and have friends with very different backgrounds.
We do not entertain in our home very often – only a couple times a year — so when we invite people over it’s impossible to limit the guest list to only “my friends” or “your friends” or even “our friends.” Our parties usually end up being a mishmash of guests, most of whom have very little if anything in common other than being friends with one of us.
We’ve hosted stockbrokers, bagpipe players, college professors, seminary students, teachers, attorneys, stay at home moms, physicians assistants, secretaries, ministers, doctors, rich people, poor people, white people, black people, hipsters, vegans, vegetarians, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, kids, babies, teenagers, college kids, little old ladies, gay people, straight people, atheists, Hindu, Christian, Jew – often all at the same time, in the same house, occasionally watching Steelers football which is the great social equalizer and spiritual unifier on Sundays in Pittsburgh.
But it’s always risky business to throw different people together as haphazardly as we do.
There’s always the risk that the Emily Post dinner party we envisioned can devolve into a fiasco.
Like when the attorney for a school district got into a heated debate with a high school teacher who just happened to be the head of the local teachers’ union. That was fun.
Or when the president of a synagogue met up over the buffet table with a pro-Palestinian seminary student who had just returned from Israel.
Those are the sort of evenings when I wish I could stand at the front door as guests enter the house to pass out a list of conversation topics that won’t lead to mayhem over the Buffalo wings.
But you know whom I really would think about leaving off the guest list? Jesus, that’s who.
Because Jesus doesn’t seem to be the kind of guy who reads etiquette books.
Jesus doesn’t innocently wander into uncomfortable conversations.
Jesus creates uncomfortable conversations.
In fact, you can’t invite Jesus anywhere in the gospel of Luke. He always manages to make a scene when he shows up for dinner.
For example, in chapter 5, Jesus goes to the home of Levi for a big party with a guest list including tax collectors and other offensive sinners. This sketchy gathering stirs up all kinds of issues for the Pharisees who end up calling Jesus and his friends a bunch of drunks and gluttons. Good times.
In Luke chapter 7, Jesus is at another dinner party and an uninvited crazy lady shows up. Most people would send such an unwelcome guest out the door, but Jesus lets her cry all over his feet and it’s all so embarrassing and weird that the Pharisees end up madder than hornets.
Martha and Mary? They practically get into a fistfight when they invite Jesus to dinner.
And of course, in Luke 22, the last dinner party Jesus hosts ends with him getting betrayed, arrested, and dragged off to prison.
We have another dinner party story in our text today.
Even though he has proven himself to be just about the worst guest ever, Jesus has been invited – again — to a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee and from the get go Jesus is not behaving as the sort of guest who hopes to be invited back.
Jesus does not really care much for polite dinner conversation. He does not bite his lip or hold back on offering an opinion, especially an opinion that is apt to tick off his host.
Instead Jesus quickly hones in on the dining customs of his hosts and Jesus decides he doesn’t much like what he sees.
Because what Jesus sees is a social hierarchy in which everyone knows their place based upon the seat they are assigned at dinner. The most important people are seated on the right and left of the host, the seats of honor.
And Jesus begins innocently enough by saying that nobody should come into a dinner party assuming they’ll receive the seats of honor. That would be sort of show-offy and nobody likes a show-off, even Pharisees. It is sort of show-offy to just assume you belong at the head table.
No, Jesus says – better to be humble and head for the cheap seats rather than to go to the head of the table and risk being embarrassed when somebody asks you to move.
You can imagine the guests who hear this parable murmuring in polite agreement with Jesus. After all, there’s nothing controversial in pretending to humble.
In fact, everyone thinks it’s kind of charming when someone important or famous demonstrates how very ordinary they are, really.
It’s like that section in Us Magazine: “The Stars – They’re Just Like Us!” They go to the grocery store! They take their kids to the playground! They go to baseball games! They carry their own luggage through the airport!
Everyone admires important people who pretend they’re not really as important as everyone thinks they are. Even if nobody actually believes that Ben Affleck carries his own suitcase through LaGuardia Airport. Really, if you were Ben Affleck, would you lug your own suitcase around?
It’s all a little game for these Pharisees. Jesus knows that it’s all an act. Jesus knows that while he’s watching the social maneuvering of the party guests, the Pharisees are watching him – as they always are –.to see how Jesus behaves.
This text isn’t about who sits where at dinner.
This text is about the larger power structure that Jesus has been poking at since his first sermon back in Nazareth.
And the Pharisees are watching Jesus and wondering: has Jesus finally gotten the message? Has Jesus finally decided to play the game? Has Jesus decided to stop coming so dangerously close to upending a carefully constructed hierarchy?
Or is Jesus going to keep making trouble for the guys who already have the game rigged in their favor?
Well, it is Jesus we’re talking about here.
Jesus is that terrible dinner guest you regret inviting because he ends up ruining everything.
Who does Jesus say should be invited to the banquet?
The poor, the blind, the crippled and the lame.
And this is where Jesus gets in trouble with the Pharisees
And if we’re being honest. This is the part of the story where we become either defensive or…well…even more defensive.
Because who does that? Who invites a homeless guy to their house for dinner? We might go serve dinner at a homeless shelter or give canned goods to the food pantry. But invite a homeless person to our house?
Jesus is really asking too much of us here, isn’t he?
Then it came to me. Jesus isn’t talking about who we should invite to our house for dinner once or twice, just to feel good about ourselves.
Jesus is talking about totally changing our view of who is worthy and who is not.
Jesus is talking about the dinner party to which we are invited – that great and crazy banquet God throws for all of us.
The Kingdom of God banquet.
Who do you think is invited to THAT dinner party?
All of us who are blind, lame, poor, insecure, frightened, broken and dysfunctional people who waste enormous amounts of energy pretending that we are not. We are invited.
We are all invited guests at God’s table of grace, whether we like the other people at the party or not.
If you’re going to have dinner with Jesus, the food will be incredible and the wine will never run out, but you will also find yourself at the table with other people with whom you would never choose to have a meal.
That’s the great joy of the kingdom of God and also the great pain in the butt of it. God will not leave anyone off the invitation list, which is the good news.
The bad news is that God will not leave anyone off the guest list, which means we’ll have to rub elbows with all sorts of people. And they will rub elbows with us.
How will we accept God’s invitation? Will we insist on picking who is worthy and not worthy of our time and consideration?
Or will we find the beauty in humility and be grateful just to have been invited at all?
The movie “Little Miss Sunshine” is the story of a lttle girl, Olive, who has been chosen as a finalist in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest.
So she and her family head off for an 800 mile road trip to the pageant in a old, beaten up, barely working Volkswagen van.
In fact, in order to get the van moving, the family has to push the van until it reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour and then they all jump in and turn on the engine.
Olive is a chubby little girl with big glasses. At one point early in the movie, Olive says: “I don’t want to be a loser because Daddy hates losers.” Olive’s father is a failed motivational speaker and throughout the film, he makes a lot of comments about there being two kinds of people: winners and losers.
The irony, of course, is that it’s absolutely clear to people watching this movie that Olive’s father is a loser and by most standards, so is the rest of the family. When Olive’s father says, “There are two kinds of people in this world: winners and losers,” the camera pans round the people in the van and the audience sees his foul-mouthed father, his suicidal brother-in-law, his son who refuses to speak, his exhausted wife who is trying to hold them all together, and himself, the failed businessman.
But there’s a great moment in the film when the family is driving down the road and discovers they’ve left Olive behind at a gas station.
We see the van moving across the screen in one direction and the whole family whisks her up into the vehicle without stopping because at this point, if they stop they won’t be able to restart the van at all. Then we hear Olive’s father’s voice: ‘No-one gets left behind, no-one gets left behind.’
And I think that’s sort of the point that Jesus is making in this parable he unloads on the dinner guests. In the kingdom of God, there are no winners and losers and no one gets left behind. No matter how broken. Or poor. No matter how difficult or annoying.
Which means that we are called to reach out and grab one another in this broken down, sputtering old van called “The Church.” That’s what Jesus tells us to do here. To continue going out into the world to gather up God’s people. Nobody left behind. That’s what church is about.
It’s like that game people sometimes play. You know this one. If you were able to invite three people to have dinner with you, living or dead, who would you pick? That’s always a hard one. You’d probably pick Jesus as one of your guests. Then maybe George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Maybe Ben Affleck. Who knows?
But if Jesus were playing the game, you’d ask: “Jesus, if you could invite any three people to dinner, alive or dead, who would they be?” And Jesus would reply, “That’s easy. The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”
And you would say, “But Jesus, that’s four people! The rules of the game are that you only get to choose three.”
Jesus would pause for a moment. And then he would say,
“Oh in that case, the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the stinky man on the bus, that kid with baggy shorts, your jag-off brother-in-law, the playground bully, that guy you can’t stand at work, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Mother Theresa, Charles Manson, Mister Rogers, Osama Bin Laden…”
Do you get it? The guest list goes on. And on. And on. No one is left behind.
That is why Jesus was so threatening to those who had a stake in keeping the higher ups high and the lowly low. That is why Jesus was so threatening to Pharisees who needed to separate the world into winners and losers, sinners and saints. That is why those invested in a social pecking order of judgment and shame – which still exists today and includes all of us — put Jesus to death.
What all of these texts about Jesus’ attending dinner parties suggest, at least to me, is that we need to turn the tables on our usual patterns.
We need to hang out with the wrong kind of people.
We need to notice who is missing from the circles we participate in.
We need to get to know and care about some strangers.
Rearrange the familiar.
Allow the humiliated components of our lives to move up, and let our prideful, aloof parts take a back seat.
We need to stop worrying so much about repairing this broken down van, and hit the road trusting God’s grace.
We’re rehearsing for nothing less than a resurrection feast — a new kingdom that has no place for our insecurities and hang-ups and prejudices and craving for order.
The good news is that you and I serve a resurrected Lord of life and love, who lifts his hands up in eternal blessing, welcoming all of us into a new vision where there is enough for everyone,
no first or last,
no honor or shame,
just God’s crazy, messy, beautiful creation,
forgiven and loved,
bound to one another in God’s abundant grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.