This morning, I want to invite you into a time of dialogue with our Gospel text. I will begin by offering some thoughts about the historical context of the story. Then I will have Xan read the text again, while I pose some questions about its meaning for us today. After that, we’ll have some silence and time for quiet dialogue with the text. And then, there will be some time to share reflections.
One overarching observation about this story is that communal meals were at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and were central in the lives of his first followers. The groups that followed Jesus in the first centuries after his death were extremely diverse in terms of beliefs and practices, and yet, they all practiced table fellowship. These early followers of Jesus spent most of their time together at meals—long, intimate gatherings in which people reclined to enjoy food and wine, and to engage in passionate discussions and arguments. It wasn’t until the fourth century that people consistently worshipped in churches. At that time, the communal feast turned into a symbolic event which the early followers of Jesus probably wouldn’t have recognized.
In the Gospel of Luke, both meals and the observance of the Sabbath were frequently the setting for debate and conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities. This is the third dinner invitation Jesus has accepted from a Pharisee in Luke. At the last such meal, in chapter 11, Jesus went on a scathing rant, accusing the Pharisees of pursuing prestige and power while neglecting justice and the care of the people. So now the Pharisees were “watching Jesus closely.” The words here suggest hostility. They had Jesus under surveillance. However, the next verse describes how Jesus shifted the gaze, how he turned the scrutiny on them. He noticed the behavior of the guests at the meal, how they jockeyed for position.
The society of Jesus’ time was rooted in a culture of honor and shame. It was critical to play your cards right when in the public gaze. Honor was a limited good; if your honor increased, someone else’s had to decrease. If you aimed too high, and overshot your place, you would be shamed. And shame could be life-threatening; it meant a blow to both your social standing and your material well-being. So when Jesus looked out and noticed how people were enmeshed in this system of honor and shame, he told a parable. At first, he seems to be simply reinforcing the way things work with some commonsense advice. He quotes today’s passage from Proverbs—not word for word, but in concept:
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
I’m not certain, but my impression is that Jesus’ advice about how to find the best place at the wedding banquet is not something he meant straightforwardly. Social norms and conventions function best when they are not noticed, when they are invisible, when they just seem normal. I think Jesus re-stated the conventional wisdom about how to get ahead in order to expose it, to bring it into the light, to question it, to mock it, and to propose an alternative. So he turned to his host, to the one who invited him, and said: don’t play this game of honor and shame. Don’t make invitations only at your own social level. That practice reinforces the hierarchy that keeps everyone in their place—makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. Share meals, and therefore life, with the people below you. Create community with those you would normally never talk to, let alone sit at a table with. The way things are may feel normal, but it’s not fair or life-giving. It’s not what God wants.
Now I’m going to ask Xan to read this story again and I will pose some questions for you to reflect on. You have both the text and my questions in front of you on the handout or the screen. On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, What would it be like to recover the vibrancy and centrality of communal meals among the first followers of Jesus? They were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, What might Jesus be calling us to notice today? 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. What conventional wisdom would Jesus expose and mock today? For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” What do you think true humility looks like? Can humility be life-giving? Jesus 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. What do we do or say that reinforces our society’s destructive hierarchies? But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” How is Jesus calling us to share God’s invitation and welcome? And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” What does it look like in your life to belong to a community that is hospitable and generous, blessed by God?
I invite you into a time of silence. And now, please share a reflection if you would like. We can pass the mic in the sanctuary so that all can hear. Those on Zoom can participate using the chat, and I will read those comments.
The Spirit is moving among us as we speak the truths that arise for us when we hear scripture, and hear each other. The Spirit is moving especially in the creativity and insight that arises as we wrestle with tension and contradiction. And the Spirit is moving as we act, as we respond to Jesus’ teachings and invitations. Amen.