Jesus isn't really remembered for offering good practical advice. Instead, his teachings that reject societal expectations are the ones that get remembered: turn the other cheek, let the weeds grow along with the wheat, carry no change of clothes. This Sunday, though, as we hear part of Luke 14, we get to hear some basic, reasonable, practical advice with a deeper spiritual meaning.
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.Good advice, right? You don't want to sit down at the head table and be asked to move. How much better for you that you would take a spot in the back of the room and have your host come and ask you to move to a better seat? When you get on an airplane or sit down at a game, it's embarrassing to find that you've misread your ticket and have accidentally sat in a someone else's seat. Thanks, Jesus, for giving us some good advice about how not to embarrass ourselves.
But, of course, Jesus isn't really known for giving practical advice, so what's the catch?
Religion in one of many areas of life in which we seem to ignore the practical considerations and set ourselves up for a surprise that shouldn't actually surprise us. How many preachers who have made a living calling out notorious sinners end up with their pictures in the paper for being lecherous sinners themselves? How many politicians who have campaigned on promises of cleaning up Washington or the state capital have ended up in jail on corruption charges? How many of us live external lives of moral accomplishment yet cringe at the thought of our lurid gossip, our internet history, our private thoughts getting out in public?
Jesus doesn't stop with advice on where to sit. He goes on with advice on how to throw a party: "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." There's the bad practical advice but good spiritual advice that we've been looking for. And, of course, in neither case is Jesus simply talking about a dinner party.
In every generation, God reminds us of God's preference for the poor, the destitute, and the outcast. In every generation, God reminds us that those who take advantage of the vulnerable are the recipients of God's wrath. In every generation, God reminds us that how we treat them is how we treat God. As followers of Jesus, we humble ourselves not because we want to receive surprising honor in this life but because the only way we can reflect God's love for the world is by becoming the poor, the week, and the oppressed. We humble ourselves not to obtain a reward but because the humble are the rewarded. In a world that values cash, strength, and superficial beauty, that's terrible advice. In the kingdom of God, however, that just makes sense.