© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…but go and sit down at the lowest place.” Jesus also says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends or relatives or rich neighbors…but invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Those are pretty clear instructions. And they probably made his hearers uncomfortable, given that Jesus offered them while being entertained at a formal sabbath dinner by a local religious authority.
But today I wonder whether Jesus meant those words as an earthly teaching or as heavenly advice. Is he telling us how to behave at a dinner party or how to get ready for God’s eternal banquet? Sometimes our knowledge of God shapes the way we live our lives, but sometimes it’s the way we live that shapes what we know about God.
It was, again, the sabbath. This probably wasn’t the same sabbath or the same synagogue that we heard about in last week’s gospel lesson, when Jesus called the leader of the synagogue a hypocrite and invoked the law of Moses in ways that made him look pretentious and foolish. I doubt Jesus hung around that place long enough to go over to that man’s house for Shabbat dinner. But the setting isn’t all that different. In the opening verse of today’s reading, Luke tells us not only that Jesus was headed to the home of a leader of the Pharisees for dinner on the sabbath, but he also tells us that everyone in the place was watching him closely—scrutinizing his every move and every word.
But then our gospel lessons skips over five verses. Perhaps that’s because, in those five verses, Jesus does, more or less, the same thing he did last week: he heals on the sabbath someone who was sick. I think the committee that put together the lectionary wanted to spare you from hearing the same sermon two weeks in a row. But I think it’s helpful to know that, when all the eyes were fixed on him, Jesus again stepped out beyond the traditions of his people and their faith. By healing a man with edema-swollen limbs on the day when no work was supposed to be done, Jesus was claiming for himself an authority to reinterpret the heart of the Jewish faith. “If on the sabbath you would waste no time pulling out a child or an ox that had fallen into a well,” Jesus said, using logic strikingly similar to that of last week’s encounter, “surely it is within God’s good and gracious will that we heal someone in need on the sabbath day.”
No one uttered a word in reply. Their silence said everything. And now that Jesus had demonstrated his authority as one who could apply the ancient teachings of God’s people in ways that impacted their contemporary lives, he turned his gaze back upon those around him. It was his turn to scrutinize their actions—those of his host and the other guests. When Jesus noticed how everyone found their place at the dinner table, he offered some practical-sounding advice: “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” he began, swapping their current setting for an encounter even more tightly governed by societal norms, “don’t sit in the place of honor, or else someone more important than you might come and the host would be forced to ask you to move down while everyone in the room looked on at your shame.” Instead, he offered, you should sit at the lowest place so that your host might come and invite you to move up higher, and you would then be held in high esteem by all the guests.
At first, this feels like good, reasonable party etiquette. If you went to the wedding of a family friend whom you hadn’t seen in years, would you choose the spot at the head table beside the wedding party? Of course not! We all know better than that. And so, too, did the people listening to Jesus. In fact, they knew those social conventions even better than 21st-century Episcopalians. In the ancient near-eastern world, a formal dinner was a highly prescribed exercise in honor culture. You wouldn’t need to find your place card at the table where your host wanted you to sit. You already knew before you walked in the door where you belonged. Rich, powerful, important people sat up front, close to the action, while less well-connected, less affluent people filled in further down. Knowing your place was as obvious and familiar as knowing your own name.
But a closer look makes this teaching feel less grounded in reality and more like a vision of something else. You might be bold enough to stretch from your station just a little bit, hoping that you might earn some status points in the eyes of your peers by moving a few places closer to the host, but no one was naïve enough to presume to take the place of honor, which surely belonged to someone else. And how often does a host, who is busy hobnobbing with people to the left and right, stop and notice that someone on the other side of the room should be brought up higher? Would someone really take the lowest place just to give the host a chance to show everyone how important they really were? It sounds to me like Jesus is beginning to mix earthly advice with heavenly instruction.
The second part of what Jesus says seems to confirm that: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your family, friends, or rich neighbors or else they might invite you over to their house in return. Then you won’t have any reward in heaven. But, when you throw a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—people who could never pay you back—and then you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.” In that culture, honor dictated that everyone return an invitation with a reciprocal invite. I may not invite you to my party just so you can invite me over to yours, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a circumstance in which you would not return the favor. That’s just what polite people did back then—unless you didn’t have the means to throw a party in the first place.
Normally, a host would never invite someone who couldn’t return the favor—not only because the host wouldn’t get the pleasure of the reciprocity but because the demand on reciprocation was so great that it was rude or shameful to place that social burden upon someone who couldn’t invite you back. To invite the poor and disabled was, in a real way, more callous and insensitive than leaving them off the guest list. Yet Jesus tells us that those are exactly people whom we must invite—those who could never pay us back. That’s because he knows something about God’s great banqueting table that doesn’t fit into the dinner party analogies that his contemporaries understood so well.
What if God’s great and final banquet with all of humanity is the sort of place where you don’t have to stretch to a higher station in order to receive the host’s honor? What if your place at God’s table doesn’t depend upon your status in the world’s eyes? And what if an invitation to God’s triumphant wedding feast is one you would never be expected to repay? What if God loves the world and everyone in it without expecting anything in return? How wonderful and magnificent are those truths about God, but, given how unfamiliar they are in this world, how are we ever supposed to know them?
Sometimes what we know about God shapes our lives in ways that reflect God’s reign. But other times we change the way we do ordinary things because doing them differently has the power to teach us something about who God is and what God sees in us. Why do we gather at this table every week, using the words of invitation we know and love? Why do we come to this Sunday banquet, where everyone is welcome and everyone is given a seat of honor regardless of what they have to give back?
This holy table is not only a reflection of what we believe about God—the one who welcomes us all and honors us all, never expecting anything in return. It is also the place where we learn how to believe those things. We need help learning those divine truths that sound too big, too amazing, too radical to be true. And that is why we practice in this place every week. This table can never become a place where only some of God’s people are welcome and where worldly status determines who is most important. Not only would this altar then fail to reflect the heavenly banquet that it must always represent, but then all who gather around it would lose the chance to learn just how much God loves them. Don’t we all need more of that?