September 1, 2013
An updated sermon on this text can be found here.
Several celebrations this week focused on civil rights and equality for all. On Wednesday, you may have heard excerpts from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech as the nation remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, a major event in the struggle for racial equality, a struggle that continues even today. On Monday, we also observed Women’s Equality Day, celebrating the 93rd anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Were you aware that Monday was Women’s Equality Day? Among the historic events noted in that celebration was the women’s equal pay act of 1963, the same year of the March on Washington.
This particular law had a great impact on my family. My mother had been working two jobs as a single parent of five children, and we were all happy for her when she landed a job at the local company that printed city directories, because this meant she could work one job. She ran one of two large Xerox machines, and often came home with black printing dust spattered on her clothes. But it was a good job, and the hours roughly coincided with our school day, so she didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving us at home alone. An added plus was that the print shop was only a couple of blocks from our house – within walking distance! – and even at 29 cents a gallon, gas for the car was a precious commodity. One day, her supervisor called her into his office to give her good news – she was getting a raise! She thanked him, then asked how much the guy was getting who ran the other Xerox machine, doing exactly the same work as my mom. The supervisor spluttered and stuttered. The other guy had a family to support, after all. “What on earth do you think I’m doing?” my mother asked him. Equality isn’t always something you can legislate.
In the passage we have before us today, Jesus is talking about Kingdom equality. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to us through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 14, verse 1, then skipping to verses 7 through 14. Luke writes:
Luke 14:1 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.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”12 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The Jesus of Luke’s gospel has a strong interest in eating. There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table in Luke than in any other gospel. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like reading Luke so much – I share his affinity for all things associated with food! So here we find Jesus at table with a large group of people, and –as is his habit – Jesus is teaching while everyone eats. Jesus isn’t particularly interested in the food being served. What he’s really interested in is the people at the table.
Jesus was not giving a Miss Manners lesson for table etiquette here. He was explaining, once again, how different the rules are in the Kingdom of God. To understand just how radical this teaching was for the people gathered at that Pharisee’s table, we need to remember the social system that was in place at the time.
Jewish Palestine, where Jesus lived, was a part of the Roman Empire and governed by the Roman class structure. Birth, wealth, position and citizenship determined the social classes. You were either a patrician eligible for the senate, an equestrian – one small step down from a patrician, or a plebian – of the lowest class, just above slaves. There was no middle class. Women were in the same class as their fathers or husbands.
The foundation of Roman class structure was Patronage, an intricate system of benefactors and their clients. Favors were the currency of this system, and the more favors that were owed to you as a benefactor, the higher you could rank in society. That ranking was also affected by the number of favors you, as a client, owed yourself. Tied up in this system of favors owed and collected was a strong sense of honor and shame. It would be extremely embarrassing to owe someone a favor and be unable to repay that debt when the benefactor requested it. Such an embarrassment would certainly lower your social standing. At the same time, there was some stigma attached to calling in a debt that you knew could not be repaid. Social advancement was everyone’s goal, and putting yourself forward by associating with those who were one rung above you on the social ladder, while making sure you were owed enough favors by others who were one rung below you, required constant maneuvering – and a good memory for who owed what to whom.
But Jesus has a different idea for the way things ought to work. By now, we should be familiar with Luke’s focus on turning expectations upside down. As Jesus watched the guests at this Pharisee’s house jockeying for good positions at the table, he saw a double teaching opportunity, and he grabbed it.
First, he addressed the guests. He reminded them of the advice found in Proverbs: “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.” While this was practical social advice for his listeners, it carried with it a reminder that the people present at the table belonged to God, not Rome. Jesus was reinforcing their identity as children of Israel, an identity that had eroded as Roman customs and attitudes had been adopted over time. The Roman practice of self-promotion did not fit well with the prophets of old, who had encouraged “walking humbly with your God.”
Within a few years, the early church would sing a hymn about Jesus that the Apostle Paul would record in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes:
3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very natureof a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus was telling the guests at this feast, “Instead of seeking glory for yourself, spend your time and energy giving glory to God.” While the guests chewed on that food for thought, Jesus turned to his host, the leader of the Pharisees.
Knowing what we do about social customs of the time, and recognizing that any self-respecting Pharisee would invite to a dinner only those who could be considered at least equals, one has to wonder what Jesus was doing there in the first place. Granted, not all Pharisees were opposed to Jesus – in fact, some had warned him earlier when Herod was looking for Jesus to kill him. And it’s possible that Jesus was invited to this particular banquet simply so the Pharisees present could watch him, to see if he broke Sabbath rules again. But it is also possible that this particular Pharisee did, in fact, consider Jesus to be at least an equal. He may have even seen Jesus as a step up the social ladder from himself. Jesus had demonstrated a keen understanding of scripture, and had been an effective teacher in synagogues wherever he traveled. Jesus certainly had a following. Whatever the connection was, Jesus had no intention of letting his host off the hook when it came to table etiquette in the Kingdom of God.
“You’re inviting the wrong people,” Jesus told him. “By including only friends, family, and those who can advance your status, you are no better than these guests who are fighting over the best seat in the house. You’re trying to make yourself look good by surrounding yourself with “important” people, while you ignore the ones who should be enjoying your hospitality.”
Jesus always knows how to cut to the chase, doesn’t he? He recognized both the guests and their host as social climbers, and he wanted to urge them toward true generosity, real hospitality that expected nothing in return. It was time to throw out the old guest list of relatives and members of the same social class, and replace it with a list of people who would never be the natural choice, people who could never return the favor. It was time to throw out the old order of self-promotion and realize that we are all in equal need of grace and mercy in the eyes of God. And if we are in equal need of grace, how can we continue to participate in a system that places more value on some people and less value on others?
Treating others, such as the poor, the sick, the blind, the crippled in spirit, as if they were our equals still places barriers between “us” and “them.” Treating others as equals is only the first step toward becoming equal as joint-heirs in the family of God. And this is what Jesus came to accomplish. Jesus came to level the playing field between the haves and the have nots, between the wealthy and the poor, between the healthy and the sick. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All of us need grace. Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-human drive to seek the best seat in the house does not show genuine participation in God’s mercy or love. Even treating others as if they were our equals is not enough. Only true humility can give us the right perspective.
Think about it. How often do we draw attention to what we are doing for God, in an attempt to justify ourselves? This is the same thing as taking a “better seat” at the table. We do not need to justify ourselves before God – he has already justified us through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Or maybe we are trying to prove to others that we are good Christians by doing more and more. We wear our hyperactivity like a badge of honor – see how much I love Jesus? Look at all the good works I am doing for the Lord!
But Jesus says, you don’t need to try to impress anyone with your righteousness. The only one whose opinion of you matters is God, and he knows your heart. He knows how far short of his righteousness you really fall. And he loves you anyway.
The one who issues the invitation has the final say about the ranking of guests. As we accept Christ’s invitation to join him at Table in the Kingdom of God we must admit that we are only there by grace. We don’t deserve such grace, and we aren’t any better than anyone else because of it. Taking our place at the bottom of the table, where we know we belong if we’re really honest, allows us to respond with joy when Jesus, our host, taps us on the shoulder and says, “What are you doing down here? Come on up and sit by me.”
 Proverbs 25:6-7
 Micah 6:8
 Philippians 2:3-11