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Duration:18 mins 41 secs

Etiquette for the Kingdom of God

Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Isaiah 25:6-9)

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

            I don’t know how the party Jesus attended at the Pharisee’s house turned out, but it certainly got off to a rocky start. Luke’s description almost makes me glad I wasn’t there.

          Before people even began to sit down for the meal, there was already tension in the air. The Pharisees were “watching Jesus closely,” Luke tells us, suggesting that he had been invited not because they wanted his company, but because they wanted to keep him in their sights. And Jesus did nothing to disarm them; in the part of our text that the lectionary leaves out, we learn that he provoked them by performing a Sabbath-day healing and then daring them to criticize him for it.

          Continuing this display of bad manners as the dinner begins, he rebukes the guests for sitting down in the places of honor, and then turns his attention to his host, taking him to task for the composition of the guest list. I can’t help thinking of that old jingle, “Every party needs a pooper, that’s why we invited you.”

          Jesus’s behavior was strange, when you think about it, because by all accounts, he loved parties. The Gospels tell us that he generally had so much fun at parties that he was accused by some of being a glutton and a drunk. But he doesn’t seem to have been having much fun at this one. For that matter, I can’t imagine the guests were having much fun, either. I think I would need a dose of Paxil to enter that banquet hall. Even before Jesus entered the scene, there had to be a lot of anxiety in that room.

          Meals in the ancient world were elaborate social ceremonies. No less than a high-profile Washington dinner party, they were occasions for the display of wealth and social power. Pliny the Younger provides a telling anecdote from the first century:

“Some very elegant dishes were served up to [my host] and a few more of the company; while those which were placed before the rest were cheap and paltry. He had apportioned in small flagons three different sorts of wine; but you are not to suppose it was that the guests might take their choice: on the contrary, that they might not choose at all. One was for himself and me; the next for his friends of lower order (for you must know that he measures out his friendship according to the degrees of quality); and the third was for his own freed-men and mine.”[1]

         

In the rigidly stratified social world of the first century, dinner and luncheon parties were occasions where rank and status were clearly delineated; not to be aware of the boundaries was social suicide. So when Jesus gave the guests advice about avoiding the places of honor at a dinner party, he seemed to be simply offering common-sense advice about how to avoid being embarrassed.

          However, Jesus’s intention was much more subversive. Because when he turned to the host, what he had to say upset all the conventional ideas about entertaining at home.

          Imagine being a prominent Washington host or hostess and being told something like this: “Stop inviting all the wealthy, good-looking, famous and powerful people to your parties. They are the ones who can return the favor by inviting you to their fabulous parties, where you can enjoy interesting conversation, insider tips about Washington politics, beautiful surroundings, and excellent food and wine. You don’t want any of that stuff. What you want to do is go out and invite some homeless people and social misfits. They will be poorly dressed, they’ll eat up all your food and guzzle your wine without appreciating its quality, and they won’t have anything interesting to talk about. They won’t know anyone you’d like to be introduced to, and they’ll drive away your more genteel friends. Can you start making the guest list now, please?”

          If Jesus came across as a poor sport at the Pharisee’s house, it’s because what he was witnessing there didn’t seem to be a party at all, not by the standards of the kingdom of God. For Jesus, the way people acted at a party, both host and guests, was an indicator of how they understood the world. Social behavior was a sign of character. So a party where people were stepping all over each other to get to the best seats and the host invited only the people who could offer him a return on his investment was not a real party. The problem with the folks at the Pharisee’s house was not a problem of etiquette, it was the basic outlook of the host and his guests. The etiquette guide for losers Jesus seemed to be offering was actually a hospitality guide for the kingdom of God.  

          From a Biblical perspective, a party is supposed to be a kind of gospel feast, a sign of God’s kingdom breaking in, offering hope to the poor and oppressed, the least and the lost. A party is the Bible’s symbol for God’s hospitality. Listen again to Isaiah’s description of the great messianic banquet, where God will be the host: “…the LORD will make for all people a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines…and wipe away the tears from all faces” (25:6,8).

            Notice that Isaiah says “all people.” That is part of what Jesus was getting at when he told his host he should invite the poor and the lame and the blind – not the social elite, but the ones who have nothing of their own to bring. They can’t offer anything in return for their invitation. One thing you can be sure of, they won’t be heading for the “highest,” most prestigious seats. They’ll hang shyly by the door, afraid to take any seat, until the host comes over, puts a reassuring arm around their shoulders, pilots them to a table, and then introduces them to the other guests. That’s what a party is like in the kingdom of God.

          No wonder the Pharisees – who were the good Presbyterians of their day – were offended by Jesus’s suggestions. He was turning upside down all the formulas that normal people lived by. If you had a place of honor at a banquet, it was because you had earned it, or your parents or grandparents had earned it for you. The formula is essentially the same today: get the right education, use the right language, wear the right clothes, go to the right church, and you will be hired by the best companies, be able to buy a house in the best neighborhoods, and have a place at the table at the best parties. If you are one of the insiders, this formula seems right and appropriate, and you are not going to appreciate anyone who challenges it. 

          Looked at another way, Jesus is offering a radical cure for anxiety – social, professional, and spiritual. By calling into question all systems of human merit or entitlement, Jesus cuts to the heart of all of the ways in which people worry about whether or not they will measure up.

          Of course, if you are one of those people who always get the place of honor, who feels secure in your place in the world, this leveling Jesus recommends may not sound like such good news. What is the fun of having premium-quality food and wine in a desirable location if everyone else is enjoying exactly the same things? Maybe the fun is to be able to relax and stop worrying about holding your place at the top of the pecking order, constantly scanning the room to see who might displace you. Maybe the fun is in the freedom toward yourself and other people that is suddenly open to you.

          Jesus was always getting in trouble because he actually seemed to prefer the company of the people everyone else looked down on. Maybe it was because they were the only ones who weren’t always trying to put themselves forward. They weren’t so full of themselves that they couldn’t see something in Jesus of Nazareth that they knew they didn’t have. Maybe it was because they had such an acute sense of their own insufficiency, and were able to see in him something that they needed. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant by saying that those who humble themselves will be exalted. The needy, vulnerable people that Jesus sought out were not worrying about how they measured up, because they knew they didn’t. That gave them a kind of freedom that the socially and religiously well-placed people didn’t have.

          It can be hard for us 21st century Presbyterians to hear this gospel word that Jesus speaks to us. For the most part, we are the insiders. We’re not the ones hanging anxiously by the door or looking into the windows from outside. We have a voice in our social, civic and church communities.

          Even so, we are no strangers to the fear of not measuring up. We are acutely conscious of things like degrees, titles, markers of professional accomplishment. We fret about what kind of schools our children will get into. We worry about staying in the middle or upper-middle class. Jesus the Lord addresses us in the midst of our struggles to fit in or stay in, to make something of our lives, to believe that we have succeeded. He does not “measure out his friendship according to [our] degrees of quality” like that first-century host, but according to his infinite mercy.

          That great party that the Bible talks about -- not the one at the Pharisee’s house, where the guests jockeyed for position -- but the great salvation feast, in which God wipes away the tears from all faces: that’s the one we are invited to. It’s for every one of us who has the sense to realize that we come bringing nothing of our own, and that if we are determined to stand on our own merits, we have already cut ourselves out of the picture. Our salvation is not in what we can achieve for ourselves, but in God’s movement of grace toward us.

          We have received an invitation we can never reciprocate. Jesus stands waiting as our host, ready to put reassuring arms around our shoulders and guide us to places of honor in the kingdom of God.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

September 1, 2019

           

 

[1] Pliny, the Younger Letters 2.6, in Pliny: Letters, trans. William Melmoth; rev. W.M.L. Hutchinson, LCL (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1915), 109-11. Quoted by R. Allen Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX  (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 286.

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