Dinner in the Kingdom
Luke 14.1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “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 said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, 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.
A few years ago, I sat in the depth of a couch listening to one of my best friends named Josh [you can check out his blog here] talk about our assignment for the week. A number of us had been gathering on a regular basis in a sort-of “spiritual discipline accountability group.” Every week we read through a chapter from James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful Life, discussed what we had learned, prayed, and then talked about our assignment for the next week. To be honest, the assignments were what I enjoyed most about the group because every week we were given a new challenge regarding our faith lives that we could live out.
For instance one week we discussed the super-abundance of technological distractions in our lives and our challenge was to go on a “media-fast.” This meant that for 48 hours we were to try our best to put our cell phones away, rid ourselves of Facebook and twitter, keep the television turned off, and the magazines closed. For those two days we would distance ourselves from the distractions in our lives.
Most of our assignments were straightforward, and the results predictable. By fasting from media, we would inevitably spend more time with God and realize how much time we waste every single day. When we spent the week praying for our enemies, we would realize how connected we really are as the body of Christ, etc.
However, when I sat on the couch that night a few years ago, we were given a task that I thought would be too easy. “This week,” my friend read aloud, “you are to give away possessions to people. (Easy, I remembered thinking to myself) But here’s the catch,” he continued, “you have to do it in secret. This doesn’t mean you need to go out and buy something nice for someone, but truly give away something that you love without any expectation of receiving anything in turn.”
Giving and receiving gifts can both be a joy and a challenge. We live in culture so saturated in capitalism that nearly everything we do is based on a “giving-receiving model.” When someone offers to pay for our lunch, the conversation usually continues with, I’ll get the next one. When we give someone a gift, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we hope that we will receive something just as nice in return, eventually. We no longer know how to receive gifts with true gratitude because before we even enjoy whatever has been given, we feel indebted and begin to plan on giving something back in return.
And so it came to pass one evening that Jesus went to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat dinner. As everyone was getting settled, sitting down in their chairs, filling up their glasses of wine, Jesus looked around and noticed how the invited guests were choosing the places of honor. He cleared his throat, and started to tell those with ears to hear, a parable: “when you are invited by someone to a banquet, do not sit down in the best places, in case someone more distinguished than you arrives and then the host will have to tell you to go sit somewhere else. Instead, you should sit in the lowest place, so that when the host sees you they will say, “my friend, move up higher, take one of the better seats.” For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Jesus loves to use the mundane, the everyday, to help convey the depth of God’s kingdom. He uses the common experiences of people, the home or marketplace, farms and fishing boats, to reveal aspects of the character of his listeners, while also demonstrating the way of life in the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the Kingdom is like a sower going out to sow, the Kingdom is like a dinner party. So the first part of our passage today is therefore fairly straightforward: Stay humble. When you get invited places, do not assume that you are worthy of the best seat, but seek the lowest.
But Jesus continues on beyond the parable by addressing the one who had invited him: “When you have people over for a lunch or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, who can all return the favor of your invitation. Instead, when you’re hosting a party 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.”
It is very easy to read this passage from scripture and limit the meaning to social justice and ethics. In fact most of the commentaries written on this part of Luke 14 constrain the interpretation to simple ethical contributions. However, Luke gives us plenty of evidence to show that the real subject at hand is the Kingdom of God.
From the beginning of the passage Luke has given us a clue that there is more at stake here than etiquette; Jesus is telling a parable; Jesus is calling for kingdom behavior.
For the first part of the parable we do well to remember to resist the temptation to use humility as a means of receiving benefits. Taking the low seat because one is humble is one thing; taking the low seat as a way to move up is another. This is about maintaining our humility so that we embody the kind of life Jesus led and therefore receive exaltation in our humility.
As Jesus continues by addressing the host we can all imagine the wonderful elements that come with hosting a party. Inviting others embodies friendliness, generosity, graciousness, and concern for the comfort of others. However all of us know the ugly face of generosity that binds us when gifts come with strings attached. Just as in Jesus’ time, hosts often expect a return on their generosity toward others and therefore only invite people who are able to return the favor. But in the kingdom, God is the host, and who can truly repay God?
When we started our week of giving away possessions I was truly excited. I love giving gifts to people, and like the host in our parable I love inviting people over for dinner. I started scheming and planning on how I could start to give away my things to my friends. I analyzed them individually and started to think about who could use certain things. I went first to my collection of vinyl records and books, pulled out some of my very favorites, wrapped them up, and delivered them in secret without any indication that I had been the one to do so. I hid their gifts by their front doors, in the academic boxes at school, and I even left a few on the hoods of cars. Now to be clear, these were not just simple things that I had collected and would be willing to give away, but they were truly sentimental items that I had grown very attached to. I can remember wrapping up my first iTouch, my favorite Jazz LP from Dave Brubeck, and the first theological work I ever read from Karl Barth. These weren’t just “things” but were part of who I am. In the days that followed after the surprise deliveries I felt absolutely miserable.
The hard part was not parting with the objects, but it was doing it in obscurity. I wanted all of my friends to know that I was the one who gave them their gifts. Keeping my mouth shut was so very difficult for me, because I wanted credit for the good deeds I had done. I thought that I wanted them to know how much time and energy I had put into their surprises, but what I really wanted was a little praise for what I had done. I realized that I was just like the host of the party in our scripture today; I was doing something nice to mask my own desire for affirmation.
But in the kingdom of God, things work differently.
The story from scripture today is about God’s continued commitment to make us into people who can be depended upon to love strangers since we have learned, in Christ, what its like to be a stranger and be loved, even when we least deserve it. Preachers often list off virtues for people to emulate but there is only one true virtue: the lowly acknowledgment of God. Preachers also often list off sins to be avoided, but there is only one true sin: self-worship, our attempt to set ourselves at the center of the world, and the center of God’s table.
Jesus confronts us this morning: Who are you inviting over? To whom are you showing hospitality? Are you having over the same old people who can continue to pay you back for what you’re doing? Or are you reaching out to the last, least, and the lost?
To entertain for those with whom we are most comfortable is to set one’s own circle as the center of the universe; it is selfish. To entertain people beyond our comfort zone is to remember that God sees humanity as one family and that his love runs most quickly to those who are most in need.
Jesus is the one who chooses us, not the other way around. Jesus is not calling us here to provide for the needs of the poor and the disabled; He very simply asks us to invite them over for dinner. True hospitality is not having one another over on Friday night, but welcoming those who are in no position to host us in return.
This week we cannot rationalize ourselves out of the text and we cannot use metaphors or other interpretative elements to make it say something different. Luke 14 is not just about “loving” people, because Jesus didn’t get killed for loving… a lot more is at stake than just being nice. God is pulling us out of our comfort and complacency to live radically transformed lives. It does not matter whether you 71 or 17, our lives have been transformed in Jesus Christ and it is never too late to rediscover that transformation.
Christ is the host of this party. This is not St. John’s table, or my table, or even our table, but it belongs to Christ. None of us deserve to be invited. We regularly forget the goodness of God in our lives, we ignore the commands to love the unloved, and we fall short of his glory over and over. Yet, here we are. We come to this table with empty hands and hungry hearts, needing God to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
Christ freed, and continues to free us from the expectations of the world. We no longer have to follow along with everyone else but instead get to live new and exciting lives. Who do you know that needs to feel a little more love?
Christ has invited you to his table. Who are you inviting to yours?