Fifteenth after Pentecost – Year C
Sunday, September 1, 2013
Let us pray: We seek you O God, so that we might know your purpose for us as your people. We listen for your word among the many words that surround us. May these words be ones which serve to know our purpose and echo your word. Amen.
“Who is important?” is the question that was asked in the story this morning as it paraphrases a passage from the gospel of Luke in which Jesus tells a story about being guests and hosts at company meal. As you heard, and as usual, Jesus has some important insights into human nature and into God’s economy, which measures things differently than the expected.
My current favourite among versions of the Bible is another paraphrase by biblical scholar Eugene Peterson called The Message. I’m sure you’ve heard me speak of it before, and often the readings come from that particular version. It’s a very readable and understandable rendering, with a down to earth style and metaphors that are both catchy and comprehensible.
As you heard, the gospel passage for today revolves around a sort of aside offered by Jesus as people jostled for position around him, hoping to get a favoured place among his gathered listeners. If you read the verses carefully, you will note that he tells his stories as an admonition and prescription for those who were looking for the best seat around him.
First of all he addresses the invitees. Don’t go and sit at the favoured seat. Sit near the back.
Then he addresses the host. Don’t invite just the important people, the people with status. Invite people who don’t get invited to such dinners.
The point of the story may seem quite easy to grasp, and I’m sure that there were people in the crowd gathered around him that day that felt like they had been properly put in their place by Jesus’ analysis. So at first glance it is an object lesson in hubris. Don’t get to feeling too high and mighty because there may be nothing worse than being embarrassed in front of others. And of course, if it was a simple case of calling out a group of listeners on that particular day we likely would know nothing of it, but it is a story that has survived the centuries and therefore speaks to us as much as it does to those who sat with Jesus that day.
But as we heard, Jesus doesn’t stop at calling out the guests, he offers a surprising etiquette for would-be hosts. Don’t puff up yourself by inviting all the high society people to come and dine with your friends and family. Instead, invite people who wouldn’t expect to be invited to dinner.
So, we might say that this is a pair of stories about humility and pride. Don’t be too proud in case you are subject to a public humiliation and don’t use dinner parties as a way of increasing your self-importance but rather as a way of helping to bring some justice to the community – as food and hospitality are shared with everyone, especially people least likely to expect it.
We could stop there and be relatively satisfied that the point has been made. We’ve learned something and the next time such occasions arise we might respond differently and more faithfully.
But there is another issue lying just below the surface of these transparent and enigmatic stories. I’ve just described the transparent aspect – the one that has us shaking our heads in agreement with the point that Jesus is making, even as we make our own resolutions to do better when we are confronted by similar situations.
The enigmatic aspect of the story is not quite as graspable, although it is also not hidden all that deeply. There are easily identifiable pointers.
This aspect is about motivation. The question that lingers close to the surface of this story is one about what drives us to act in the way that Jesus suggests.
In the first part, the suggestion is that the motivation for sitting in the lowly place at a dinner party is to avoid the embarrassment of public humiliation. Despite the surface message of altruism and humility, closer analysis of Jesus’ words tells us that it is still about self-importance. Avoid embarrassment, but make yourself special by being ordinary. You just might get called up to a place of honour and then imagine how important and proud you will be when that happens. And my how the people will talk. That’s the way I read Jesus’ advice to those who would be guests. It’s a curious little ploy that Jesus uses, and somehow seems a bit of character for him.
It is especially interesting when it is compared with the next part of the story. As host, take action that will have no earthly consequence. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. And what does Jesus have to offer as a motivation for this action? Here’s the way it reads in The Message: “You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favour, but the favour will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.” So, according to Jesus in this passage, the motivation is to experience a blessing, but not a “this worldly” blessing, a “next worldly” blessing – as the passage put it “at the resurrection of God’s people”.
This is the thing that vexed and intrigued me this week. Does there always have to be something in it for us? Even if it is not something to be attained in this life? And what does it mean to be blessed at the resurrection of God’s people? Is this about a kind of “brownie point” view of salvation – where if you do the right things, invite the right kind of guests, sit at the right place at dinner parties to which you’ve been invited, you’ll be blessed in the next life, you’ll make it to heaven, or your heaven will be just a bit better than someone else’s heaven?
What about a motivation that relies on doing the right thing. What if the only reason for doing as Jesus suggests is because it is the right thing to do. It is Godly action. It is something imbued with divine presence – a presence which has a spiritual element to it.
I think of all us, if we think deeply enough about our experiences in life, could come up with situations similar to the one described by Jesus at which we have been in the hosting role and when we have invited or welcomed unexpected guests. It certainly has happened for me. And I doubt my experience is so unique that you have not had the same thing happen. And when I think of those situations, I can quite easily say that Jesus was absolutely right with that phrase, as Eugene Peterson translated it: “You’ll be – and experience – a blessing.” Full stop – no need to go any further in explanation. If blessing is defined as a moment when we especially recognise the presence of God, then this has happened many times, and I would be well instructed to remember it in some moments of my life when I might be tempted to forget it. I don’t need to worry about being blessed at some later event. I know that indeed those moments have been ones of blessing in and of themselves. God is ready to show up in every encounter we have in life – and God is most readily apparent at times when we might least expect the situation to be one that has a spiritual aspect to it, a sense of the divine, and the transcendent.
Jesus told stories that help us to understand what it means to live as God’s people, to be dwellers in the kin-dom. They are stories that upset traditional interpretations, that invite us to consider situations from very different perspectives, that remind us that there are moments of blessing to be found in the most unexpected places. They are stories that encourage us to adjust our actions in ways that are motivated by a concern for the common good, for the building up of community above self, for a society in which the misfits are hard to find because everyone is welcomed, included and valued. And all without concern for what we’ll get out of it, in this world or the next.
You’ll be – and experience – a blessing! Yes you will. Amen.