My mother crafted needle-point covered seats for all her dining chairs. She used background colors that ranged from dark blue to a medium brown to an almost white. For several years it appeared to me that the “honored guest” at the table was the one who got the chair with the white seat. I later found out that mother’s seating plan had to do with her guess about the probability of the person’s spilling food. S/he who was least likely to spill was given the white covered chair. Everyone else was assigned seating according to this same sort of calculation. I think I usually got the dark blue covered chair. I don’t know whether guests knew they were being “ranked” in this manner or not.
Anyone who has ridden on an airplane in the last few years has also dealt with ranking, but of a much more obvious type. Beginning with boarding procedures, differences in rank and /or class are clear. These differences starkly reflect what one has been willing to spend. There is a clear difference in the type of treatment, food, and seating comfort sold in each of the available “classes.”
Jesus seemed to have enjoyed sharing meals with people-- Pharisees, tax-collectors, fishermen, and others. In the Gospel of Luke, meals are a central part of the settings for Jesus’ mission. The language of food was often the basis for Jesus’ teaching. Finding pleasure in eating meals was one of the many ways that Jesus seemed to be a contrast to his ascetic cousin, John the Baptist.
Jesus knew about “ranking.” He gives advice this week to both guests and hosts of a meal. In today’s gospel reading Jesus works with the social code of his day. Jesus lived in an honor-and-shame culture where social status was very important. One of the key places where social status was displayed was at mealtime. Jesus knew about the meaning implied by dining arrangements.
Jesus spoke of seating comfort and discomfort too—not on planes, of course, but for meals in a home. Being seated near the host or near the guest of honor was a statement for all to see about a person’s importance. If a person were to presume wrongly about his own importance and sit in the wrong seat and then have to be moved to a less significant location, this “demotion” would be a source of great shame. To be invited by the host to take a better position at the table wasn’t just an honor, it also might have led to improvements in other parts of one’s life as well. Conversely, to be guided by the host to a lower seating position could negatively affect all dimensions of one’s life.
Jesus gave the very practical advice that a guest be very humble as he approached the table as he came to a meal, and then he could enjoy the honor of being “up-graded” by the host, if such were a more appropriate placement.
Meals were one of the ways ancient people enforced the strict social divisions of their times. In other words, who was invited, where and with whom the person sat, and even what they were fed, signified who was important and who was not.
Pride and humility were both important subjects in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus wants us to “put away” pride. Pride can lead to ruinous situations. A heart full of love is a humble heart. True humility displaces pride and leaves no room for selfishness. A heart full of love has a purpose; that purpose is not expressed by grabbing the best seat in the house. It finds a seat of service and is concerned to help others instead.
A heart filled with love mirrors the heart of Christ: it serves the Father. It reflects the love of the Son. It follows the direction of the Holy Spirit. It has been purged of pride and serves in humility.
Jesus exemplified humility. Worldly society seeks status and recognition. Jesus, instead, teaches Kingdom values that include everyone. Society ranks people. In the Kingdom, all are recognized as Children of God. In the kingdom, God is always host. Think of the name of the third of God’s persons -- “The Holy (G)host.”
There are additional instructions in this Gospel reading. Jesus advises us not to do favors based on a calculation of who will pay a person back. In our text for today, Jesus reminds his host that he doesn’t get “credit” for hospitality to strangers when the host invites those who are actually not strangers to the host at all. Notice the list of people that Jesus tells us not to seek credit for entertaining: friends, brothers, other relatives, and neighbors.
Have you ever had someone do something for you that you couldn’t possibly repay? I have. In fact I’ve lost count of how very many times – I know I don’t have enough fingers and toes. I try to remember this when I forget how blessed I’ve been and am.
Jesus seems to be less interested in the menu than in the composition of the guest list for the banquet. He tells a story about meals and honor. His story emphasizes two components of the banquet setting: (1) the seating arrangement and, (2) the composition of the invitation list. In an honor and shame culture, avoiding shame is of the utmost importance. Shame is much worse than simple embarrassment.
Jesus teaching is addressed to those giving the banquet. It moves beyond good advice to advice that might sound odd: don’t invite those in a position to do something for you, but rather invite those who cannot give you anything in return. Jesus’ teaching focuses on the way we treat others, and is not concerned about who is unable to “pay us back.”
This is the way God wants us to treat each other – focusing on the care of the other person. Indeed, it’s the way God treats us -- creating us, giving us what we need to flourish, caring for us, forgiving us, redeeming us -- even though we can do nothing to “pay back” God in return.
In this passage Jesus teaches both his first-century hearers and his twenty-first century followers to live differently and to stop considering “what have you done for me lately?” as the way of evaluating others. Instead, we love others because of who they are and who we each are too: children of God.
Jesus calls for inclusion of those who cannot return the invitation: "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" (14:13). This resonates with the Isaiah-recalling mission of Jesus found in Luke 4:18, where the poor and the blind are mentioned as recipients of Jesus' ministry. In Luke, Jesus denies the expectation that social payment and repayment should govern life in God's community. His promise is that God will “repay” such hospitality at the "resurrection of the righteous.”
It is the nature of God’s kingdom that many things that we expect — don’t happen. And, certainly, there are many times that we are surprised (often graciously so) by things that happen that we did not expect. Of course, not every surprise in God’s kingdom economy is pleasant. The great danger is that we will so busy looking after our place at the table, and maintaining our place in the world, that we find we have missed the real feast.
Showing up, sitting down, and sharing our abundant blessings is the kind of banquet Jesus is talking about. Every place is a place of honor in God’s economy. We are invited to the banquet. We are here. The question now is not, "Where shall I sit?" but "How can I best serve?" We are being set free from enslavement to status and privilege. Status and privilege will tumble off our list of what really counts about life.
Instead of a guest list that has been carefully crafted to reflect our limited, foolish thinking, Jesus crafts a “grace list” that is an open invitation to the party. The point is this: At Jesus’ banquet table there is room for everyone.
We are not asked to repay God for God’s hospitality, nor could we ever repay God for the gift of life and love. His hospitality comes with no strings attached. His banquet is free.
Silence about the menu leads us to remember that Jesus is our bread and food at the welcome table. Our needs will be met. Our invitation is a call to trust God to provide our daily bread. Maybe, just maybe, we are not told what is on the table because God is our host who has “hosted us into the world,” from our first breath to our last. The way we reach the table is through God’s grace. It is not by accident that the bread blessed at communion is also called the host.
Come, you are called to the banquet. God’s loving welcome awaits. There is a seat for you – it might even have a needlepoint one. Amen