Invitations and seating arrangements! If you are organizing a wedding or another formal social gathering these things are probably on your ‘to do list’ and just maybe they have been on your ‘what to do!’ List or ‘your much a do’ list. Who do you invite and who gets left out? Planning where people sit may be a matter of navigating the minefield of family squabbles and feuds, friends of yours that don’t get along with each other, and what to do with old eccentric Uncle Bob and grumpy Auntie May. Of course you need to give certain people sufficient recognition not just squeeze them in down the back between the emergency exit and the door to the toilets. And maybe in that situation Jesus teaching in the passage we had read out to us might not be that helpful and practical. It’s as probably as welcome as it was to his first hearers. But when we see its more than just some sound and profound social advise, that it is a parable it opens it up to be liberating and encouraging and hope filled and yet still challenging as it turns social convention on its head. Jesus uses ‘Invitations and seating arrangements’ to a dinner party to teach about the kingdom of God.
And we are walking with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel…A journey that takes up the central third of the gospel narrative… it’s a journey narrative that focuses on Jesus teaching. We’ve had a break for the past two months as we’ve focused on Genesis 1 the season of creation and nuts n bolts of prayer in aseason of prayer, and we’ll have another one over Christmas and New Year, but we will stay on this journey with Jesus until Easter next year because this journey and this narrative lead Jesus and us to the cross.
We had left the narrative with Jesus being warned that he should go somewhere else as Herod was trying to kill him, and Jesus reaffirming that it was God’s plan that he go to Jerusalem, and yes he would die there. We re-enter the narrative on a Sabbath with Jesus being invited to the house of a prominent Pharisee for a meal. It’s good for us to remind ourselves about Jesus Sabbath observance. It was his custom even on this journey to go to public worship at a synagogue. IN Luke 13:10 we are told it was his habit also to teach at these occasions which may explain why he receives an invitation to this rather exclusive meal with the Pharisees and the experts of the law. It’s good for us to be reminded that public worship and hospitality were important to Jesus because it’s easy for them to become lost or relegated in our priority lists in the face on growing demands on and options for our time. Opening homes for hospitality was a hallmark of the early church sadly it struggles amidst our tight and full calendars and our suburban lifestyle with its focus on individuality and privacy.
One of the reoccurring themes is Luke’s gospel is the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. Here we see that Jesus wasn’t so much welcomed with open arms but the Pharisees and experts of the law may have been forced by social edict to invite this visiting preacher, but they were using the situation to keep an eye on Jesus just in case he did something that allowed them to dismiss or condemn him.
Of course Jesus gives them something right away that challenges their worldview. In the midst of being on the way to a meal with the right people in the Pharisees eyes Jesus encounters the wrong kind of people. We are not told how it happens but there in front of him was a man who was suffering from Dropsy, a disease which meant he was retaining fluid. It was viewed by the religious people as being a sign of God’s judgment, needless to say this man was not on the guest list, but he was on the God list. Jesus sees his need, asks the Pharisees if it is legal to heal him on the Sabbath and when they don’t reply, he heals him and sends him on his way. Here is the grace and love and power of God shown in Jesus. A grace that goes beyond what NT wright calls our narrow mindedness of who is worthy or not worthy of such love.
Jesus asks the Pharisees if anyone had a child or even an animal that had fallen into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’ there may well be a connection between drowning in a well and the impact on the body of fluid retention. If this question and whole scenario sounds familiar to you it is. Because in Luke’s gospel we have a repetition of these minor miracles on the Sabbath where Jesus again and again uses this Old Testament illustration of exceptions to the no work on the Sabbath rule to talk of God’s compassion and the spirit and true intent of God’s law rather than the rigid and cold letter of the law approach the Pharisees had. It shows us that Jesus was giving the religious leaders every opportunity to see what God was doing through Him. God’s grace not only to the sick and poor but giving them opportunity after opportunity. Sadly this time it is only meet with silence. Sometimes the more religious we are the more we have been enculturated in to the Christian faith the harder it is for Jesus to show us the breadth and depth of his love and grace. We can be deaf and blind to what Christ is doing or wanting to do in the world around us. But Jesus Keeps speaking, God’s grace keeps showing itself to us. How will we respond?
When they finally get to the party Jesus observes a social game kind of like musical chairs happening. At a dinner party like this the table would be set up in a horse shoe shape and the more status a person had would mean that they would be closer to the centre where the host sat. It seems that like today, key guests like to turn up fashionably late and this could cause the host to have to rearrange the seating and ask guests to take a lesser place at the table. This in the Ancient near east and like in other honour/ shame cultures would mean a great loss of face, a social embarrassment. When I read this passage I couldn’t help but think of a time when I was the youth coordinator for the old Auckland Presbytery way back in the 1990’s. I was invited along to a youth service at a PIC church (that a pacific Island Church), after the service there was the normal cuppa tea, it was a banquet really. The youth leaders from each of the different Island groups were being honoured and given a seat at the top table along with the Minister. Kris and I felt happy just being with everyone else. We were rather hard to miss as we were the only Palangi folk at this gathering, but the Minister recognized me as being the youth coordinator, so he came and got me and took me up to the top table. Now I understood that it was a way of acknowledging the presbytery’s support for the youth work and youth service in that Church. But it was rather hard when the Niuen Youth leader was asked to give up his spot for me. He had put in all the work during the year and had put the effort into the youth service and was now being asked to step aside.
Jesus uses that kind of looking to get the best seats and to show their status as a chance to teach. It may seem that he just gave them a good bit of social advice and wisdom, like our reading from proverbs, but Luke tells us it was a parable, that on the outside it was a simple story but we should expect that it has a hidden meaning. He challenges them about their pride and calls them to rather embrace humility. It becomes more than a social seating thing as Jesus connects it into our relationship with God. It is we are prepared to humble ourselves that God will exalt us, and lift us up. We often use a verse from 1 john 1:10 in our prayers of confession and thanksgiving to acknowledge that God forgives sin. It says if we confess our sins God is faithful and just and forgives us our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Before that John has said if we say we are without sin we have called God a liar and the truth is not in us. Humility is knowing ourselves and our need for God. The man with Dropsy had humbly come to Jesus for help…here the religious leaders are more concerned with their own status. Paul will later point to Jesus as the primary example of this Humility when he says that in our relationships with one another we should have the mind of Christ… as it says in the message version...
“He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honour of God the Father.”
So in the kingdom of God there we see the least are valued the poor are considered blessed, service is rewarded not show and status.
Then Jesus turns to the Host and equally challenges him about his guest list. In the ancient near east social order was all about reciprocity, that I would invite you to something or do something for you and there would be the social expectation that you would repay that. It was a way of getting and developing patronage and acquiring social status. It might be like having A-listers attend your event or your party, and the kudos you get when it makes the social pages. The recognition a brand gets when that special person wears your gear… so much so that certain people are paid outrageous amounts to wear certain clothes. But Jesus flips that on the head and challenges his host to invite the poor and the blind and the lame. Those who cannot repay. Again here is an image of the kingdom of God where all are welcome and invited and also for us to show the generosity and grace that God has shown us in the way we give hospitality.
We are going to share communion in a minute and it is a good example of the things that Jesus is talking about. The offer is for all to come to the table, it’s an invitation Given not by the church or he preceding minister but by Jesus to come and to experience his costly grace and love and forgiveness and presence and peace freely given. We are all invited none come because of who we are we all come because of what Christ has done for his, his servant nature, his death and resurrection and as a meal it invites us to be willing to share what we have received with each other and with everyone because of the generous nature of God’s grace.
In our tradition we are seated to receive this meal. It shows that we are guests and we share this table fellowship with Christ. In our tradition the elders and minister come to the front, not because it is a top table, a lace of honour but because we are here to serve you. Leadership in the Christian faith is servanthood a reflection of Christ himself, who came not to be served but to serve. We are here so we can serve you and it is appropriate that servants eat last.
But it’s more that just how we do communion as NT wright concludes his commentary by saying…” The small mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind is confronted with the large hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love and the same generosity in sharing it with all those in need.”