"A Place at the Table"

Proper 17.C.2019
Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

A good many movies have been made about Jesus. In general, I dislike them. Jesus has a tendency to come across as one dimensional—a caricature of placidity, peace and holiness. In other words, one-dimensional and—dare I say it—boring. In my mind, Jesus was a whole lot more interesting. This brings us to this morning’s gospel, where our Lord has been invited to a dinner party. Now, for many folks, Jesus seems just the type of person you’d want to have grace your table for dinner. If we take a cue from the movies, there’s no doubt, he’d be pleasant, charming and peaceful—and probably offer one of the most impressive table graces you’ve ever witnessed. Or not.

Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel lesson for today. In the fourteenth chapter of Luke we are told that Jesus had been invited to a dinner party at the house of a “prominent” Pharisee. As for the question “Why Jesus was invited?”, well, we aren’t given a clear answer; however, based on the text I suspect he did not receive that invitation out of admiration and love. Luke tells us “they were watching him closely.” A phrase that overtly hints at malignant intent. There are, in fact, several possibilities. Perhaps the host didn’t want to snub this new rabbi? Maybe there was an element of vanity in the invitation. After all, Jesus’ star seemed to be rising, and having him at the dinner table would be yet another feather in the Pharisee’s social cap. More darkly, however, is the possibility that they were simply setting Jesus up. At any rate, the invitation is issued, and our Savior accepts.

Now, about this particular party. This is no “come as you are” shindig where everyone’s hands are in the chip bowl and you’re casually settling down for a nice evening of conversation, chili dogs and reruns of Rosanne on the telly. No, this is a high class soiree where people have come to “see and be seen”. This is one of those events where using the correct fork would be de riguer. And just who you conversed with—and, more importantly, who you sat next to at the dinner table, would be the talk of the town come the next morning. So, when it came to being seated, where you managed to maneuver yourself meant a great deal. So, imagine…the dinner bell rings. And here there is a swift jab of the elbow, and there, a forceful placement of one’s body in the doorway of the dining room to forestall others making a bid for a place of honor as the rather tasteful rush to the table ensued.

And, don’t kid yourself, these things mattered in the time of Jesus, and they matter today as well. Placement was important. There’s a reason why the most prominent executives are ensconced on the top floor of the high rise, why corner offices are coveted, why we seat people at the “head of the table”, and why no one wants to be shunted off to the corner seat where the door to the servant’s entrance constantly swings open and shut.

Into this well-choreographed melee we are told that Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, and he tells 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It’s not hard to imagine the silence that must have descended upon the party and the embarrassed giggles that ensued. More than likely more than a few of the guests wanted to crawl under the table. But consider this, Jesus wasn’t being rude, so much as being poignant. They, after all, invited him. Presumably, they wanted to know what this rabbi thought and was all about—and they were beginning to find out. Jesus was not impressed.

In my mind, it’s not because of their wealth that Jesus was unimpressed—but on account of their myopathy, their focus upon themselves in the heady business of self-aggrandizement that caused them to be blind to others who were in need. And he points this out to the host in no uncertain terms when he says: “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…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.” At which point we may all agree that at this particular moment the host in question was heartily regretting his decision to invite this rabbi named Jesus to his home.

But what does any of this have to do with us? In short, it is a reminder that true hospitality isn’t a measure of how beautifully the food is presented, how artfully the flowers are arranged, or how skillfully the servers bus the table. True hospitality—holy hospitality, is, instead, a reflection of one’s heart.

This morning we have the joy of welcoming into the Christian faith and life two new Christians: Thandie and Avery. Among the promises to which they will pledge are these: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” The Christian faith is broad and inclusive, it is not based on social standing, wealth or any mark of societal success. It is based solely on a desire to follow Christ, and belong to the family and people of God. Into our family Thandie and Avery are welcomed this morning and, in turn, they receive the same call as ourselves—which is to welcome others to the saving grace of the Kingdom of God and invite them to the banqueting table of the Lord, as they, themselves, have been invited.

And so, it’s worth taking a look at our table. Everyone is welcome here. There is no place here at St. Paul’s in which you stand or kneel that is more or less important than another. And here, at this table, there is bread for all—and a common cup to be shared among us. Here there is room for everyone—a metaphor, certainly, for the Kingdom of Heaven, where we are all invited to sit at the banquet table of our King.

As Thandie and Avery grow in the knowledge and love of their Lord, may they, like ourselves, learn to throw open wide the doors of welcome, ensuring that everyone is bestowed a place of honor at the table of our God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.