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.”
When he was invited to the dinner party he knew it was a mistake. To begin with, he had never been to a dinner party before and this one was being hosted by all the religious big-wigs in the area.
But the invitation had come nonetheless, and the host wanted him to be there.
He mulled over the possibility of going for a few days, weighing out the pros and cons. From what he could tell, it would be a boring evening. These weren’t really the type of people known for being fun. But they were the people with power, and he apparently had a place at the table. So he decided to go.
When he got to the house he was immediately overwhelmed with the opulence. It was as if it had been taken right out of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, and he was worried about touching anything and everything.
He had spent hours fretting over what to wear, and even though he settled on jeans and a button up shirt, he was clearly underdressed. The men were in suits and the women were in long flowing dresses.
Nevertheless, he politely tiptoed through room after room, with the occasional nod toward one of the other guests until he heard a simple bell ringing from the other side of the house, and assumed the time had come for the dinner party to begin.
He entered the dining room and was bombarded by the bartender who wanted to know his order.
“Got any wine?” He asked.
“Why sir, we have the cave filled to the brim with a great variety of years and regions! Shall I make a recommendation?”
“How about you bring me a glass of the stuff that you can’t get rid of, that’ll be fine.”
And with that the bartender started off in a fit of rage.
The man then turned toward the dining room table and took in its perfection. The settings were beautiful and the napkins looked as if a professional origami artist had spent hours creating unique folds for each plate. He felt all of the eyes in the room on him as he made his way over to the table, but before he could pull out a chair, the man next to him winced and reached for his lower back.
“Something wrong?” He asked.
The man was doubled over now and said, “I threw my back out this morning and I thought I had worked it out but now I feel like I can’t move.”
So he took the man by the hand, led him over to the table, pushed some of the plates and cups and cutlery out of the way, and laid the man down. He fussed around for a few minutes poking here and there while muttering a few things under his breath and immediately everyone gathered around in a tight circle with their jaws on the floor.
“Has he no decency?
“Where are his manners?”
And finally, the host entered only to exclaim, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
The man looked up from his make shift examining table and simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it was your kid, or your spouse, who was hurting, wouldn’t you drop everything to do something about it?”
And no one said a word.
The man with the back problem promptly got off the table, now fit as a fiddle, and the hired help rushed in to put everything back in its proper place.
With a wave of the hand the host encouraged everyone to find their seats so the feast could begin.
And yet the man, who had already offended everyone in the room, noticed that all the guests rushed to get to the seats as close to the host as possible.
He stood there in silence, observing the frantic frenzy of power dynamics, and contended himself to remain silent until they noticed that he had not taken the remaining seat.
And so it was in the midst of a profoundly uncomfortable silence that all the eyes fell upon him once again.
“Hey, the next time any of you go to a party, don’t sit in the best places. Someone more important than you might’ve been invited, and then you’re going to have to give up your seat to go sit in the last place. So, don’t you think it would be better to start off at the end, and that way the host can come and raise you up to a better place?”
Again, no one said a word.
The man took it as a sign that he should keep going.
“Where has all the humility gone? There is a great and wonderful joy, known only to a few, that comes with humility. It comes not because humility earns you anything, but it brings a newfound sense of joy from not having to be in control of every little thing. You can finally enjoy the party instead of trying to be responsible for it.”
The other guests started to fidget uncomfortably in the chairs.
“Look at yourselves. If you keep showing up at these things and only choose the best seats, you’re going to cut yourselves off from all the other places and all the other people at the table, who, in my experience, are the ones who have the most fun. I know some of you would rather die that have sit in the back, but dying to all of this is the best thing you could ever do.”
The man started to really feel the words bubbling up within him and he began swinging his arms with ferocity spilling wine all over the oriental rug.
He stared deeply into the eyes of everyone around the table, all of the winners of the community, people who were so self-satisfied with all they had done and earned, and he began to pity them. He instantly knew that, to them, this was the most important moment of their week – sitting around a table, jockeying for power, doing everything they could to impress the person to their left and right.
So he continued, “Just go ahead and die to everything you think you’ve done and earned for yourself. None of you are as good as you think you are anyway. And if, only if, you’re able to die to that, maybe you can actually start enjoying yourself.”
And he sat down.
Over the next hour the guests ate in silence as the courses of food were brought out in proper order. They were either so moved by his words or infuriated by them that they did not know what to do or what to say.
The evening quickly came to its inevitable conclusion and the guests began to express their gratitude to the host, promising to return the favor by having the host come to their respective places, and the man felt another rally coming.
“You need to throw away the book.”
“What did you say?”
“You need to toss it out to the trash and leave it there forever.”
“The one you’ve been keeping in your head about who owes you what. You’re so stupidly stuck in your bookkeeping that you’re trying to keep the world together and you can’t even see how quickly its ripping at the seams. Why don’t you just let it all go? I mean, what good does it do you to climb the social ladder by inviting people just to have them invite you back. You already have all of this. Next time, try inviting the wrong people. Think about how much fun you could have at the table surrounded by the last, least, lost, little, and dead. I promise you this: you will never really be happy until the bookkeeping stops, until you learn how to let go of your clenched hand, so that someone else can grab hold and bring you onto the dance floor of life.”
The guests, again, looked upon the scene with disbelief at a man with no sense of manners at all and they, along with the host, fumed.
“Anyway,” he began, “Thanks for the evening I guess. The wine was okay, the food was good, and the conversation was to die for.” And with that he left.
It was only then that one of the guests worked up the courage to ask the host a question: “Who was that guy?”
And the host replied, “His name is Jesus. And I could just kill him for everything he did and said tonight.”
If we want to take Jesus’ words from the parable at the dinner party literally, that’s fine, but it’s a quick recipe for a ruined evening. If we invite the wrong people over, they’re not going to invite us to their houses, nor would we really want to go to theirs in the first place. But, again, these parables aren’t here for us to understand how we are supposed to be living, but they function to show how God lives for us.
Jesus destroys the exceptions of the dinner party crowd and he does it throughout his ministry. He is a critical Lord, though we often forget that part of him. He’s critical because he wants to destroy all of our favorite and foolish expectations. Being first, found, big, important, and alive matter little in the kingdom of God. They matter little because Jesus didn’t come to make the first firster, or the found founder, or the important importanter, or the alive aliver. He came to raise the dead.
And we can die, we can die to the desire to sit at the best places, we can die to the bookkeeping that keeps us awake at night. We really can die to all of that because Jesus already has.
Look: It’s as if Jesus is sneaking into the dinner parties of our lives, seeing our jockeying and our comparing and our bookkeeping, just to whisper into our ears: “Why are you doing all of this when I already threw out the book on you? Why are you keeping score when God doesn’t? God already nailed all of your sins to my cross, past-present-future. Go ahead and die to all of that so you can finally start having some fun.”
So hear Jesus today, hear him through scripture and song and silence and sermon, hear him through the sacrament to which we are invited at the table. For as much as we would like to argue against it, we are the poor, the cripple, the lame, and the blind. We are the ones invited to Christ’s dinner party, an invitation we cannot repay, and he wants us to have fun. Amen.