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Sunday, August 28, 2016 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
The Rambunctious Party Guest
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 81:1, 10–16
Luke 14:1, 7–14
Real honor will come from what is given to us by another. We follow a new logic: everything is gift, everything is grace. . . . Everyone will be invited to participate and given a place of honor.
Throwing a party makes me nervous in the first place, but having Jesus show up at my party would send me right over the edge. He doesn’t play fair. He is not interested in keeping the peace if that peace is shallow or false. He is willing to say and do just about anything to get his point across—that in him, God’s reign is here and we can participate in it even now. Jesus is not afraid to get angry or to challenge those who could and would make his life difficult.
In summary, Jesus is not going to be the kind of party guest who will simply come into your home, smile and nod, and make sure to keep the conversation light by not mentioning religion or politics. More than likely, if what is going on around your party’s dinner table does not somehow embody or demonstrate God’s welcome table, then, as our 2016 parlance would put it, Jesus will shut it down.
Look at what happened in this dinner party described by Luke. First, let us set the scene and remember what a dinner party would have looked like and felt like in the time of Jesus. Unlike the small round tables we sometimes place out in the Commons gathering area, or the big round tables we use for Sunday Night Supper in Anderson Hall, the tables at the Pharisee’s home were rectangular and low to the ground. People did not sit up as they ate, but rather, they reclined. Furthermore, the tables were set up in a U-shape, and the host sat in the middle of the head table. Roman practice dictated that after the host took his (and it was always a “his”) proper place, the rest of the guests would then try to get the seats closet to the host because the closer you sat to the host, the higher your status and the greater your power.
Though we cannot tell from Luke if it happened on this night or not, it was not uncommon in Roman practice to hold these meals in public view. That way passersby could witness the disparities, publicly reinforcing the power arrangements. As if that were not enough, another important element at some of these dinner parties was the presence of persons of lesser honor and status. Though invited, those less powerful people would not be taken to sit around the U-shaped status tables and given the same high quality food and drink.
Rather, they would be seated in different spaces and served lesser-quality food. It was a public way of shaming them in order to accentuate the honor of those in the chief seats (Charles Campbell, The Word before the Powers, pp. 51–53). Many of the dinner parties in Jesus’ time primarily functioned to reinforce the social hierarchy and to make sure everyone—no matter who they were—knew his or her proper place and stayed in it. Jesus knew those rules. Everyone knew those rules. It was the way the system worked.
So imagine everyone’s surprise or shock or dismay when Jesus walked in that night and took over. From the way Luke tells the story, as soon as Jesus arrived that night, he began to behave as if he, not the Pharisee, was the host. Jesus took full hold of the dinner and the conversation. And because Jesus took charge, anyone who had gathered hoping for an easy, breezy, swanky party full of food, drink, and innocuous conversation was out of luck on that night.
First, Jesus decided it was past time to talk candidly and publicly about all the political and social maneuvering that was going on in that room. He had watched as everyone tried to get to the best seat they could without looking like that was what they were doing. So in order to call it out, he tells a parable. Here is how Eugene Peterson translates Jesus’ words:
“When someone invites you to dinner,” he told everyone, stopping them in their tracks, “don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left. So when you are invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about!” (Eugene Peterson, The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language)
Now, if we stop our reading there, it appears that Jesus simply wanted to give tips for how to behave at a party—some rules of etiquette (John Claypool, Day1.net). You could boil it down to “Don’t humiliate yourself by sitting in someone else’s reserved seat.” But in addition to that, if we just stop with Jesus’ initial critique and forget it’s a parable not a formula, we could interpret his words to be encouraging false humility. “You go and take that good seat up front. I’ll just sit way down here in the last seat. No really, I’ll be just fine,” the person insists, internally hoping like crazy someone important has noticed how kind and gracious he is being and will decide to pay him back for his “unselfishness.” False humility. We could easily come to that conclusion if we stop with these initial words from Jesus.
But Jesus was not done with his uninvited and unexpected speech. He finishes the parable by declaring that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who honestly humble themselves will be exalted. Yet he could have been singing the ABCs as far as the Pharisee host was concerned that night. I imagine the host did not hear one word Jesus said. He was too flabbergasted at the reality he had lost complete control of his party. Jesus had shut his dinner party down.
But Jesus’ party had just gotten started. Jesus switched conversational gears and moved from the seating chart to the invitation list. As we said earlier, these dinners were often events set up to intentionally enact and reinforce the social hierarchy. It mattered who was there. Then, like now, a host primarily invited those who ran in the same social circles as he did. Many of us have experience with that, don’t we? Like the Pharisee, it is normal for us to invite people to dinner with whom we have much in common. That is the way it worked back then, and that is the way it often works today. Furthermore, back then, and also today, it was expected that if you invited someone to a dinner, they owed you a reciprocal invitation. A little quid pro quo. You invite me to your great event and I will invite you the next time I have one. Many of us still experience this hope of reciprocity. The rules of etiquette have not changed all that much over a few thousand years. And yet Jesus condemns the practice, the expectation of hospitable reciprocity.
“The next time you put on a dinner,” Jesus said to the host, “don’t just invite these people. Don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who can and will return the favor. The kind of people who feel entitled to be there, whose presence will elevate your status and reputation—who will help get your name on Page 6 or in the Sun Times’ gossip column. Rather, bring in some people who never get invited out: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. They can’t pay you back. Offering that kind of hospitality—one that expects nothing in return, one that desires only to give—that kind of hospitality says something about whose you are. And God notices.”
Again, I am not sure how much of what Jesus said was actually heard by the host. The host just knew that he had done his very best to throw a good dinner party with people he knew and admired, along with this rabbi named Jesus, and the whole thing had gone terribly wrong. First, his guests did not know where to sit. Then they felt guilty for being there. And as if that were not embarrassing enough, the host heard the women and the servants in the other room snickering when Jesus talked about the humble being exalted and the mighty ones being humbled. The host’s party had become chaos. Pure and total chaos. Jesus had marched into that room and turned everything into a big mess.
And that kind of behavior by Jesus is precisely why I would not want him to come to one of my parties. He takes all the place cards so carefully arranged and tosses them up in the air. “Those of you who always sit in the good seats,” he says, “it’s your turn to sit at the folding card-table this time. Those of you who always find yourselves sitting at the folding card-table or, worse yet, outside the door, come on up and sit in the power places.”
Then Jesus just throws open the doors to the house, to the church, and says “y’all come!” At a party thrown by Jesus, the guest list is based on something other than equivalent social circles, similar race or class, or even shared religion. Rather, Jesus’ guest list is based only on the truth that God is creator of all and therefore each person is a precious child of God. That means each person is invited to be at the party, the table, where Jesus sits as host. You don’t get left out. Now, since God has a profound respect for human freedom, you can choose to walk out if you don’t like all the others who are there because you don’t think they belong at the same party as you.
Honestly I do hope the host was able to listen to at least a little of what Jesus was saying. He could have learned something about what it means to throw a welcome party, a feast that enacts and embodies the reign of God rather than the reign of Caesar. But even if that host was too stressed out to comprehend, we can learn from Jesus’ words. The way Jesus acts as host can help us to look honestly at our own hosting practices. When we are throwing a party, when the church is throwing a party, where do we have people sit? How do we make those decisions? Who decides who are the honorable ones and on what is that decision based? Do our seating charts have any resemblance to the ones that Jesus creates? The way Jesus sets up his seating chart reminds me of the promise illustrated in the Langston Hughes poem, “I, too.” It is something we might keep in mind as our guide.
“I, too, sing America,” Hughes wrote. “I am the darker brother. / They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes. . . . / Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table. . . . / They’ll see how beautiful I am” (Langston Hughes, “I, Too”). Hughes’ vision of the welcome table where all people are seen as beautiful is what Jesus is all about with his seating list. He purposefully arranges the seats so that those who’ve always felt left out are brought in, and those who have always felt brought in are given different seats, seats on the periphery, in the hopes that change of placement might give them a different vision, a new perspective as to who is beautiful and welcomed at God’s Table. Jesus’ seating chart is often so different from ours.
Jesus’ challenging words to the host on that night also prompt us to ask, whom do we invite? When we are throwing a party, when the church is throwing a party like we do every Sunday morning and afternoon, who is allowed to come? Who feels comfortable walking through the door? Who receives the invitation? It is a challenge for us, because when Jesus throws the party, when he acts as host, it is no-holds-barred. He throws open the door, walks out into the street, pays particular attention to those the world usually just passes right by for one reason or another, and then hands them a gold-embossed invitation. Jesus has no patience for the system of expected reciprocity. He has no patience for any system that excludes or denies.
The only thing Jesus is interested in is making the table bigger and bigger and bigger and letting the party grow louder and louder and louder. And serving everyone and anyone copious amounts of God’s nourishing presence and tasty grace, not pushing back from the table until all are stuffed full of God’s love, until all know they are worthy. It is a different kind of party, the parties that Jesus throws, from the ones we might usually attend. Topsy-turvy seating chart, guest list too long. It is a very different kind of party.
And yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” In other words, it just might be time for us to shut down the old ways of hosting, so that Jesus himself would feel welcomed at any party we or the church might throw. So that we, ourselves, would be glad that he was there. As we go out into the world this week, we might wonder, what kinds of quantitative changes in our hosting practices might need to transpire so that the Spirit can conspire for a qualitative change in our souls? Something to consider. Amen.