John 14: 11 “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he
that humbleth himself shall be exalted”. 13 “…when thou makest a
feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind…”
Hebrews 13: 16 “… to do good and to communicate forget not: for with
such sacrifices God is well pleased”.
Welcome to the eleventh Sunday after Trinity on a balmy late summer
bank holiday, with a special welcome to William and his family as they
return from their summer break. Many are also welcoming the chance
to celebrate the Notting Hill Carnival for the first time in 3 years. My
household is welcoming a new kitten. With joy a bit thin on the ground,
anything happy-making is most welcome!
In today’s scripture we meet Jesus in the house of a high-ranking
Pharisee as one of the invited Sabbath supper guests, where he
decidedly upset his host’s event. Luke sets the scene, reporting that
his host and others in attendance were keeping a beady eye on the
troublesome new rabbi from the moment he crossed the threshold.
Jesus is literally dining with the enemy, whose counterfeit hospitality
cloaks Machiavellian intent: to entrap him in law-breaking in front of the
right sort of witnesses, so exposing him to prosecution with fatal
As we know, this very device was written into God’s plan for our
salvation. But it could only occur in His own time, and through His
Son’s fulfilment, not by their agency. Instead, their malicious invitation
made possible an outreach to the very people who wished to harm
Jesus, a chance to have their minds and hearts disrupted and
transformed by his words…as well as presenting an enduring object
lesson on how to live with each other, starting at the dinner table.
Our current moment of man-made upheaval, uncertainty, and adversity
cries out for such an antidote. Particularly as we are treated to an
extended, real-time demonstration of those who exult themselves…
whilst the poor become poorer, more desperate, more numerous…the
maimed, lame and blind increasingly untended, unfunded, unloved.
What the Judean Pharisees must stomach on this particular Sabbath is
a 3-course menu of spiritual instruction, starting with an appetiser of
“unlawful” healing on the Sabbath, the 7th such incidence in Luke’s
gospel. By asking their “permission” to do the manifestly right thing,
Jesus silences them, reveals their hypocrisy…and sends another
grateful, restored person on their way to tell everyone about it. Our
takeaway is a sharp exposition of the difference between man-made
law that puts rules and power before the needs of people, and God’s
word, which ever serves the greatest good for people. Here is the sole
source of all good things and the generator of endless good news.
Jesus then serves up the piquant parable on humility and the nature of
hospitality in today’s featured passage. This is our main gospel focus;
however, it whets our appetite for a third course parable concluding the
dinner party narrative.
Once again, the lord gathers us around the table, offering the sublime
nutrition of his word. Like the Pharisees that Sabbath, we are free to
accept it – or not. In “Mere Christianity”, C.S. Lewis observes that “God
never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses
material things like bread and wine to put new life into us. We may
think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented
eating.” We affirm his act of creation with every shared mouthful, every
family celebration, feast day and deal made over a meal.
Now Luke is good on parables, embedding 40 such spiritual teaching
aids in his book, 11 of them exclusive to his gospel, a sufficiency to
guide Christians through their spells in the wilderness of life on earth.
Some are drawn from prophets of the Old Testament as instruction
from God; when spoken by the Son of God, they become vivid
portrayals of people in strange and memorable stories that are
allegories of meaning. They point to the truth woven through each
one…so we can begin to see ourselves as God sees us…made still in
His image despite our soiled and muddled human state …and so turn
to Him for grace. Luke also choses parables that capture an historical
moment, a tipping point for the original people of God, clinging to an
occupied and divided country, perched at the edge of destruction and
exile. Their power structures struggle to deal with the appearance of
the incarnate son of God, whose appearance will divide and reorganise
geopolitics and human destiny for centuries to come.
Jesus had just silenced the Pharisees. Whether it was from shame at
being called out for failing to help or incredulity that Jesus dared to DO
IT AGAIN on the Sabbath! It could not have created the most convivial
of atmospheres. Nonetheless, Jesus observes that as they move into
the dining room, they jostle each other for position at the table. And he
speaks up again, calls out their pushy behaviour, warning they could
find themselves embarrassed. He takes them to a wedding feast (the
setting for his very first public miracle), then as now fraught with
protocols and rituals.
Guests who seize a top seat may find their host does not have as high
an opinion of them as they do of themselves and intended it for another,
more distinguished guest. This makes them vulnerable to being moved
along to a lower position in plain sight of their rivals…gaining the wrong
sort of attention instead of the recognition and prestige they seek.
Definitely not how real hospitality is given or received, because it carries
the weight of status and obligation.
Instead, he counsels assuming the lowest, most obscure place, then
awaiting the host’s genuine invitation to join the head table. In this
scenario, their rivals witness the promotion and are forced to commend
one so exalted. It turns out that putting others first is the Lord’s upsidedown
strategy for obtaining true recognition, as well as the priceless
bonus of God’s blessing.
Further, you can eschew fancy gatherings altogether and stop
socialising only with people who can benefit you in some way. Instead,
lavish your hospitality on the lowest, the poorest, the disabled and
afflicted. Not only is their need genuine, but your hospitality would be
free of expectation for repayment. In that way, the open-handed host
can be freed from the pride that limits relationship with God and his
own guests. For pride leads to worship of a false or imaginary god in
the image of our own ambition; tradition and self-interest can then
combine to guarantee privilege. Done the Christ-like way, hospitality
returns to “what you know” instead of “who you know”, no doubt a
better way to build confidence in your own abilities as well as to live
according to his teaching and example.
That is why putting others first does not diminish you. Archbishop
William Temple thought and wrote extensively on the all-important
relationship of Church and Nation in creating and sustaining social
justice and offered the following: “Humility does not mean thinking less
of yourself than of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion
of your own gifts. It means freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”
We hear the parable draw to a triumphant close, with its promise of
future blessings for those who do good works and charitable acts free
of desire for personal advantage. But this awkward dinner party
doesn’t end there – one of the guests rushes to fill the silence with a
pious cliché about eating bread in the kingdom. With the full
assumption that, of course, everyone present would be at THAT table!
Time for Jesus to serve the third course, a zinger of a great supper they
will never taste…though it is by their own choice they forgo the banquet
of salvation. Like a Judean “Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie” but
with eternal consequences, habits of self-interest, self-indulgence and
self-importance deprive them of any seat at the table although they
were among the first to receive a divine invitation.
After this performance, Jesus was not welcomed again to a Pharisee
table, even as a ‘frenemy’ of the status quo. Luke 15 tells us the next
dinner party Jesus attends is in the company of tax collectors and
sinners. Those despised by traditional society are the ones he specially
came for. In a world turned upside down, it’s the least, the last and the
lost who sit at the top table. Why? Because they can acknowledge
their short-comings and lowly status. They understand their ability to
earn God’s grace and healing through their own actions is non-existent.
And just like that, they are freed to act without thought of repayment or
benefit… able to turn to Christ…for the greater good of all.
Now if this twangs your inner skeptic, consider this: wouldn’t it be a
better way to proceed? If kingdom come isn’t in your pension plan, this
investment would still make the time shared here on earth so much
better. As we reel from long-term effects of imposed distance from our
shared table and bereavement, the ability of everyone to feed, warm
and water themselves and their families is now in doubt.
This is no time to exalt those who have pushed their way to the top
table. It isn’t leadership – it’s a land grab – and there is quite enough of
that going on elsewhere. Remember the call to brotherly love and
kindness to strangers, welcoming visitation by angels, caring for those
in adversity, guarding respect for the sanctity of marriage and the
power of our words. These are not rules or legal requirements or
commandments; they are the love song of God with his people. “Jesus
Christ, the same yesterday and today, and forever”. Amen.