Jesus is a relentless teacher. Even the most ordinary set of circumstances contains something that he can use to illustrate the Kingdom of God.
Jesus tells parables about mustard seeds and fishermen’s nets and lost coins. Somehow these common things are like the Kingdom.
Today’s Gospel contains a different sort of teachable moment. (Luke 14:7-14) Jesus is watching how people behave at a dinner party to which he has been invited. He notices that some of their accepted practices have drifted far away from the ways of the Kingdom.
Using their own customs to illustrate the Kingdom, Jesus challenges his dinner host and his fellow guests to imagine an inverted world. Or more precisely, he challenges us to see that our world is an inversion of the Kingdom. He assures us that God will eventually turn things rightside up. And he invites us to act rightside up in an upside down world.
An Awkward Dinner Party
As I mentioned, Jesus was at a dinner party. Jesus often ate with outcasts and ragamuffins. The food was probably simple, the dishes were cracked, the glasses didn’t match, and most of the guests lacked proper manners. But joy and contentment filled the air. No one felt out of place or self-conscious.
This night’s supper was something else entirely. A leader among the Pharisees invited Jesus over on a Sabbath. The Pharisees already had it in for Jesus. They knew that he had just healed a woman on the Sabbath, and they were watching him very closely for even the slightest misstep.
The dining hall was arranged to highlight social position. The host sat at the highest table and received the finest food and wine. His most honored guests sat at table with him. Other tables stood successively farther from the host’s table, and the quality of the food and drink declined as the distance from the host increased. Where you sat indicated your place in the social pecking order.
Jesus noticed that the guests were elbowing each other to get the most prestigious spots and to avoid being stuck at the kiddie table. And their behavior gave Jesus his teachable moment.
He said, “Just look at yourselves! You’re shoving others aside to get a place of honor for yourself. Do you really think that’s how it is in the Kingdom of God?”
We all want to matter. The prospect of being a nobody, an also-ran, a bench-warmer terrifies us. The world teaches us that we will only matter if our achievements measure up.
Some people pursue academic or career or political achievements. Other people strive for moral or spiritual achievements. But the result is the same. We exhaust ourselves trying to secure a position of security and importance for ourselves. At the same time, we shove others aside in fear that they will take the place that we want and leave us with no worthwhile place to sit.
The world seems to have convinced us that life is a vicious game of musical chairs. We all want a place to sit, but there will never be enough chairs. So, get your elbows ready.
The Kingdom turns this crazy competition for status and position on its head.
Please Have a Seat
Here’s how Jesus puts it: “When you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.” (Luke 14:10)
Now, this does not mean that we should fight for the lowest seat. Jesus is not teaching us the best strategy for winning a false humility competition whose prize is the highest seat of all.
Instead, Jesus urges us to be concerned, not that we find a good seat for ourselves, but that we make sure that everyone has a good seat. In the Kingdom, we don’t rush into the dinning hall to save the best seats for ourselves and a few of our closest friends. That’s upside down.
To turn things rightside up, we say, “Please have a seat.”
The better place to which our host–our God–elevates us is not a place above others. The best, most honored place is being the beloved among all the other beloved children of God.
God’s love for us gives us a place that we cannot take for ourselves. Nothing we do or say or achieve or build or accumulate can secure God’s love. It is a gift, an infinite gift. And no matter what place someone else may occupy, it can never diminish the place that God has made for you or me. Both are the honored seat of God’s beloved. God’s cherished.
Strictly speaking, each seat has been paid for by God. Each seat is free to us, but these seats come at a dear price to God. His love for us is a suffering love. A love we see in perfect relief on the cross of Jesus.
The suffering love of Jesus Christ has given you and me a place in the Kingdom of God that will never be second best. And our place in this Kingdom gives us a mission in this upside down world.
Walking on Our Hands
Secure in the knowledge that God’s grace and mercy give us an unmerited place in the Kingdom, Jesus urges us to walk on our hands through this upside down world. In other words, Jesus teaches us to live according to the ways of the Kingdom even while we inhabit a world that inverts the Kingdom’s logic.
That’s why Jesus turns from telling his fellow guests how to act like guests to giving his host some instructions about hospitality. Jesus tells his host to invite people who cannot possibly return his hospitality. He says, “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” (Luke 14:13)
Instead of spending so much energy telling this group how they don’t measure up, that group what a disappointment they are, and yet another group why they have it all wrong, try to remember that this description fits every one of us.
God has made a place for us in his mercy. He didn’t make a place for you and me so that we could then in turn displace others. He made a place for us so that we could spread the Good News of the Kingdom that has a place for everyone through that same mercy.
Jesus charges us to welcome all comers, to assume that they have received a personal invitation from God. We have not been given authority to put people in their place. And it is certainly above our pay grade to turn anyone away. Jesus is teaching us to be prodigal hosts, because God is a prodigal, extravagant God.
The more unlikely the guest, the more likely it is that we are entertaining Jesus himself.
This sermon was preached at St. David’s, Rayville.