Let’s talk a bit about the significance of meals, group meals or communal meals in the world that Jesus lived in.
A meal, such as this gospel describes, was an important community event. It was literally the vehicle for signaling identity. To sit at the same table with another person was to make a public statement of acceptance and allegiance with that other person. It wasn’t polite. It usually was political. Good people for conscience sake would refuse to sit at table with anyone whose lifestyle or theology was unacceptable to them.
Meals were significant – socially, politically, religiously, economically. The Christian movement would pick up on that later-on by making the Lord's Supper its central act of worship.
The seating order at community group meals was very important. It was socially critical to seat people correctly according to a hierarchical order of their value in the community. There was a place for the most important and the least important and everyone carefully graded in between. The Essene community conducted a formal annual performance review for correct placement. The ladder of seating from highest to lowest was a public declaration of one’s community standing. It was not a matter of individual achievement. Your value was established by the group. And for many, keeping or raising your place was a matter of survival. It was a fearsome thing to lose your place, to be embarrassed publicly, humiliated, having to take a lower place. In the east it is called losing face. It’s hard for an individualistic culture like ours to understand, but losing face was often worse than losing one’s life.
Now it’s a bit tricky to consider how we read this story of Jesus at the synagogue leader’s sabbath banquet. At first blush, Jesus’ words sound like some practical advice, something you might read from the book of Proverbs. Don’t risk demotion. Play it safe. Sit lower so you avoid the risks of embarrassment and increase your chances of being shifted up a notch. At that level of reading, this is just strategic advice to ambitious ladder-climbers. Act humble. It’ll get you far. Pure self-interest.
And then Jesus says something that might look like a piece of spiritual capitalism. If you’ll give your banquet for the poor and crippled, you’ll bank some big time dividend’s in God’s book of accounts. Kind of like covering your futures options by getting saved so you won’t go to hell. Maybe some of you heard a sermon like that when you were a vulnerable ten year old. That’ll get you down the aisle, won’t it?
I don’t think that’s what Jesus was up to. I think Jesus was having some subversive fun with the whole system. "Be careful where you sit. But this whole banquet is a scandal." It’s some more of his radical ‘try winning by losing" message. Try living by dying. He’s upsetting the whole hierarchical apple cart and replacing it with new values. Values about loving and serving for the sake of loving and serving. It’s okay to love yourself, no false humility necessary. Just love your neighbor as your self, no hierarchies at all. And everything grounded in loving and being loved by God.
Jesus tells the party guests, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
It’s a pretty counter-cultural message today, too. How do we do that? How can we make that happen? Who are the poor, crippled, blind or lame?
Think of someone you dislike--someone you general avoid because his/her presence generates negative feelings in you. Imagine yourself in this person’s presence now and watch the negative emotions arise . . . you are, quite conceivably, in the presence of someone who is poor, cripple, blind, or lame.
Now understand that if you invite this person, this beggar from the streets and alleys into your home, that is, into your presence, he/she will make you gift that none of your charming, pleasant friend can make you, rich as they are. He or she is going to reveal yourself to you and reveal human nature to you --a revelation as precious as any found in Scripture, for what will it profit you to know all the Scriptures if you do not know yourself and so live the life of a robot? The revelation that this beggar is going to bring will widen your heart till there is room in it for every living creature. Can there be a finer gift than that?
Now take a look at yourself reacting negatively and ask yourself the following question: “Am I in charge of this situation or is this situation in charge of me?” That is the first revelation. With it comes the second: The way to be in charge of this situation is to be in charge of yourself, which you are not. How does one achieve this mastery? All you have to do is understand that there are people in the world who, if they were in your place, would not be negatively affected by this person. They would be in charge of the situation, above it, not subject to it as you are. Therefore, your negative feelings are caused, not by this person, as you mistakenly think, but by your programming. Here is the third and major revelation. See what happens when you really understand this.
Having received these revelations about yourself, listen to this revelation concerning human nature. This behavior, this trait in the other person that causes you to react negatively--do you realize that he or she is not responsible for it? You can hold on to your negative feelings only when you mistakenly believe that he or she is free and aware and therefore responsible. But who ever did evil in awareness? The ability to to evil or to be evil is not freedom but a sickness for it implies a lack of consciousness and sensitivity. Those who are truly free cannot sin as God cannot sin. This poor person here in front of you is crippled, blind, lame, not stubborn and malicious as you so foolishly thought. Understand this truth; look at it steadfastly and deeply; and you will see your negative emotions turn into gentleness and compassion. Suddenly you have room in your heart for someone who was consigned to the streets and alleys by others and by you.
Now you will realize that this beggar came to your home with an alms for you--the widening of your heart in compassion and the release of your spirit in freedom. Where before you used to be controlled (these persons had the power to create negative emotions in you and you went out of your way to avoid them) now you have the gift of freedom to avoid no one, to go anywhere. When you see this you will notice how to the feeling of compassion in your heart has been added the feeling of gratitude to this beggar who is your benefactor. And another new, unaccustomed feeling: You actually feel a a desire to seek out the company of the growth-producing crippled, blind and lame people, the way someone who has learned to swim seeks water, because each time you are with them, where before you used to feel oppression and tyranny of negative feelings, you scan now actually feel an ever-expanding compassion and the freedom of the skies. And you can barely recognize yourself as you see yourself going out into the streets and alleys of the town, in obedience to the Master’s injunction, to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame.
Now, let's revisit the dinner table. The evening grows late. Etiquette lessons are over. Jesus stands up, and the one-eyed, crooked-legged, gap-toothed crowd stands with him. They are having a ball, the time of their lives, and they will follow him on because everywhere he is, there is a feast. And there is room for everybody at the table, nobody cares who sits where, and everybody shares in the abundance.
Here’s our banquet table. God has invited us, with all our blindness and brokenness and even elitism too. God has also invited the weary, the poor, and the outcast as well, and if they are under-represented, then we need to improve our invitation process. God has created a fabulous feast, filled with the abundant food that fills and heals, welcoming and accepting who we are, now. All are equal; we are one. Those in the front have the role of the servants, those who serve the honored guests of God. At this table, no one will be humiliated, no one hungry, no one hurt. But Christ’s friendship and hospitality is extended to everyone. Welcome to the banquet. Eat. Drink. Shalom! This is Jesus’ vision of life in God’s realm.
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~Adapted from a sermon by The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, AR with a story by Anthony de Mello.
Pastor Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on August 29, 2010.