This is the text I preached on this past Sunday.
“When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told 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.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.””(Luke 14:7–14)
Here is some helpful background for the story summarized from Joel Green’s Commentary on Luke.
Proximity matters: During meals it mattered where you sat in proximity to the host. The more honored positions around the table was a public display of your honor (i.e. Facebook). You might even try to slip into a better seat in hopes that the host would let you stay there, thus granting you a higher status.
Who your invitations went out to was another important feature of this period. It was important that you only invite people who were a part of your inner circle and people who would either make you look better — enhance your status — or at the very least, not bring it down.
Gifts were never free. When you accepted an invitation to a dinner like this, you were then obligated to return the favor. This kind of “ethics of reciprocity” was central to the stability of the Roman empire (J.Green 550). This gifts-and-obligation system tied everyone together in a complex social structure. There were always strings attached to the gifts given in this context.
So Jesus’ story isn’t just about good manners or how to avoid punishment, it is actually calling into question the very structure of society’s hierarchy. He completely reverses these things in his parable.
In the kingdom of God – the dinning table of our Lord – the humbled are the ones who sit at the head of the table.
Jesus gives a new guest list that challenges honor/shame. Who else?
Gifts are always free, this is what grace is. In fact, live with no strings attached, invite people who cannot repay you.
That Experiential Path of Unlearning
This passage seems to really be about two things: humility and hospitality, about having enough humility that you can truly be hospitable to the Jesus’ guest list.
One of the main points of this passage is experiential.
Until we experience a true turning of the tables, until we find ourselves, just like the person in Jesus’ parable, making the long, sometimes embarrassing walk from the head of the table to the foot of the table, I don’t know if we can truly understand what this parable is getting at.
Imagine for a moment:
The host comes to you, maybe the dinner has already started, and the host asks you to get up from your spot, and to move to a different seat, but not just any seat. A seat that clearly says you’re not a part of the important people, you’re not on the inside. You get up, you grab you cup, plate but the host says, leave it here, they have different dishes down there. You set these things down and you begin walking, in full view of everyone past people you’d hoped to impress, people you aspire to be like – because they “belong” where they are sitting (or so it appears to you). When you finally find your way down to the foot of the table you have personally avoided, gossiped about, or passed judgement on them because of their actions, clothing, preferences, etc. Now they are your neighbors at this feast. Your being there isn’t meant to bless them, in fact, they are as uncomfortable (maybe repulsed) as you are. This is about you unlearning and being opened up to the plight of those at the other end of the table. It You end up wishing you’d never come to this stupid dinner party to begin with.
I think Jesus invited his hearers to imagine this downward journey, this “journey of unlearning,” because he knew the pride and our desire to “keep up appearances” will keep us from ever understanding grace. And it will keep us from ever truly participating in his mission – which I believe is to welcome all to the table.
Richard Rohr says:
“Certain People come to hear what they already know.” – Rohr
Certain people come to dinner parties, or social circles, or even church, to keep up appearances, to masquerade, to have our positions our roles reinforced, to have what we already know justified by the host, the preacher, the newscaster or the politician.
Jesus’ story reveals that this is all wrong. That this is completely backwards and is a reversal of what God really honors and wants for us.
Jesus is not interested in us keeping our masks on, or helping us continue to live in our little illusions. He wants us to be free and humble enough that we are able to open the table up for others.
Jesus is not interested in us hearing what we already know, or reinforcing our privilege and roles in our families, in church or society. He wants us to hear and experience something new (something new about God, something new about ourselves, and something new about one another).
Q: What does this experiential path of unlearning, of letting go, look like for you?
If we stay at the head of the table then we protect our blindness, we keep our masks on, and we stay asleep.
The person who moves down to the foot of the table feels this insecurity, this walking away from the protection of ego, of our illusions, and stereotypes.
This person on the path to unlearning experiences the actual stories, the true humanity, the injustice that they are surrounded by. They begin to wake up.
Jesus is hoping that the persons who moves down to the foot of the table will sees and feels the tension of a community that does not yet exist.
A Community that does not yet exist
This parable and our opening image of the march on Washington both paint a picture of what Jesus is up to in the world: He is bringing the humbled into exalted places.
I really like what Vincent Harding, a gentleman who marched in the March and has been very active in Civil Rights ever since, recently said to a group of Quakers:
I have been personally moved over the years by a statement of a poet who was being interviewed on the radio back in the 1960s. As many of you know that was a period of great ferment in this country, but also in many other parts of the world including Africa. This man was from West Africa. What he said I always keep within my heart: “I’m a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.”
I take that as a challenge and I share it with my friends struggling with immigration. I tell them, “Don’t fight yourself into a country that does exist, but struggle into a country that does not yet exist.” America is waiting to be born.
Can you imagine that those called founders of our country, those slaveholders and slave owners, were really talking about building a democracy? But we do imagine that’s what they intended. And every generation has to carry on the work that those so called founders couldn’t do.
You know something about building a Quaker community, you can see it. The vision that you have is not meant to be kept to yourself, it’s meant to be expressed, to trouble some people, to push some people, to embrace some people, but for you to keep saying, “I see a Quaker community that does not yet exist and I am absolutely committed to its coming into being.”
The easiest way is to say, because it doesn’t exist, “I am getting out of here.” People will come around and rub your head and say, “What’s wrong?”
What you are doing is opening the breath of God and offering to others to see the Quaker community that does not yet exist. What is considered in one generation becomes possible because of the seers.
Harding puts his finger on the very fiber of Jesus’ parable. Until we experience and become seers through our own unlearning, we will not be able to see something different, something new that God is trying to birth among us.
This “living into a community that does not yet exist” is the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about that day.
It is also what we as Quakers when we are at our most open place of listening and surrender to God. In order to be a church that encourages and works for this like abolition, equal rights, reform, workers rights, and peace, we have to first be able to accept and experience the humble place.
This is image is not just a picture of the march on washington, it does not just represent freedom, and justice for countless people, it is an image of a very large table. A wedding banquet where up to 300,000 people gathered – people who were poor, crippled, and lame. People who were – white and black, rich and poor, gay and straight, from the north and the south. People who were exhilarated and scared. It was a table surrounded by every kind of people and there and even the honored place at the head of the table was itself a humble place to stand.
And Camas Friends is invited to this table. Will we show up?