Jesus casts his vision for the world as God would organize it. His rules of inclusion and hospitality are very different from first century standards and twenty first century standards as well.
It is a rarity to attend any formal dinner that does not have a dais. Last week, Michael Nailor told me a story of the annual meeting of a service organization for which he insisted that there would be no head table. His rationale was that, as a service organization, the physical presence of a head table undermined their message. Chaos ensued. Oh well. Even in the churches, or perhaps especially in our churches, it is customary that the leadership have a special place to sit. And we all know that it is important in business to network with the influential and powerful in order to expand our connections.
And what does Jesus tell his followers? As he notices people taking their place at the table, he shares some wisdom about choosing the lower place instead of the higher. Then, we won’t be embarrassed being sent lower, or we will be praised for being offered a better seat. Then, he goes on to suggest that we ought to invite people who can’t pay us back with a meal in return – to show compassion to the poor and the lame and the sick. Jesus will go on to tell a parable about a wedding feast.
Context is everything, of course. The Pharisees believed in a resurrection at the end of time, and they believed that the righteous would be rewarded while the wicked would not. We can imagine they considered themselves as righteous. They often looked down on the poor and the sick, as their plight was thought to be a punishment for bad behavior. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus often began a healing by saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” We might think poorly about ancient Pharisees, yet in our time, we often judge the poor and sick in a similar way. Many treat the poor as lazy or underserving. We are quick to assume poor personal habits when someone falls sick. We are quick to think well of ourselves and quick to judge anyone who seems to be failing. We don’t want to believe in a fallen world full of unfair systems and the power of evil or unjust people. And the random nature of poverty and illness are terrifying.
If we look deeply into the wisdom of Jesus at a dinner party, we see that the Holy One knows that the world which was created as good is often capricious and cruel. We continue to see many people living in places of violence who have no power to change their situation. We see the humble harmed and the exalted enriched. Besides matching violence with violence, what can we do about it?
The Gospel offers us a double lesson of spiritual discernment, in the context of both personal humility and the blessing of divine generosity.
The sin that leads to war and abuse is pride. When any one person looks down on another, both are diminished. When any society treats a group of people as inferior or less important, then there is the beginning of abuse and exploitation. If we are sisters and brothers to our neighbors, this is intolerable. How does Jesus respond to sinners? He heals invites them into relationship with God.
The sin that leads to separating ourselves from those who suffer is fear. When we do not know what to do or say, we try to step away, avoid eye contact. If we are sisters and brothers to our neighbors, this is impossible. How does Jesus respond to the poor and the sick? He cares for them.
Jesus offers us a different paradigm.
Jesus invites all his hearers to imagine a transformative web of relations woven in mercy and strengthened not through patronage or obligation but through joyous connection across lines of difference. We must look more deeply than superficial markers of social status – and see others as God sees them.
To be included is not a reward for a good life. Inclusion and justice are a way of life. This is the banquet to which God invites us. We are meant to be one people with many differences.
This is not a universal vision, even among those who say they follow the way of Jesus. Yet if we actually read the gospels, this is the path to which Jesus calls us: peace, inclusion, justice, love. Always LOVE.
Let us commit to working creatively and persistently for the way of Jesus.: peace, inclusion, justice, love. Jesus imagined this work as preparation for a magnificent feast for those whose economic fragility, health challenges, or social isolation leave them in acute need of loving community. The banquet has already begun – we participate in it each week. The reign of God begins now. Let’s not miss out by clinging to our fears and pride. The God who has mercifully welcomed us into love needs us to pay it forward.