A Strange Feast

Rev. Sarah Buteux                                                                                   

September 1, 2013

Luke 14:1-14



You can watch the sermon on our webpage or on on our Youtube page.


Have you ever been to a dinner party where you were feeling pretty good about yourself -you looked good, you felt good, you’d made a few people laugh – and then you sat down at the table and realized with one glance at your place setting that you were way out of your league?


I’m not talking about the guests to your right or to your left, I’m talking about your silverware. I’m talking about one of those dinners where you have not one, not two, but three forks to your left, more than one knife on your right, and a butler eyeing you from across the room with just the slightest hint of a smirk.


Anybody ever been there? OK maybe the detail about the butler puts it over the top, but do you know what I’m talking about?  Ever had that feeling?


I didn’t grow up eating off of linen table cloths or even using cloth napkins for that matter, so formal dining affairs tend to make me some what self-conscious. But I play it cool.


I may not have vacationed at the Breakers or been a member of an eating club at Princeton, but I did see Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman,” so I at least know enough to start from the outside and work my way in.


And nowadays I suppose if I were really in a quandary, I could google Emily Post on my smart phone under the table.


But I find that my best bet in these situations has always been to keep my eyes on the host and not do, touch, or -God forbid – eat anything, before she has. This is my golden rule and it has served me well, by which I mean it has saved me more than once from using my fish fork on the salad.


No one wants to look like a fool, especially not in situations where everyone is doing their darndest to look as posh as possible. So when we find ourselves in these sorts of situations, we do our best - to wear the right clothes, drop the right names, use the right cutlery.  And we do this not just for the sake of our mothers, but because most of us care. We just do. We care what people think. We care about our reputation. We care about getting ahead.


So I think it’s good to be reminded every now and again, that Jesus didn’t.


Take a look at him in today’s story.  If there was a “worst guest ever” award in first century Palestine, Jesus was totally vying for it.  Everything he does and everything he says in today’s reading is calculated to offend.  I mean here he is. He’s finally getting somewhere. In spite of all the upset he has caused he’s actually scored an invitation to dinner - and not just any dinner but a Sabbath dinner at the home of a Pharisee, and not just any Pharisee, but a leader of the Pharisees. And what does he do? He basically goes out of his way to insult everyone.


In case you didn’t pick up on it, the Pharisees have planted a man with dropsy at this dinner, no doubt hoping to catch Jesus in the act of breaking the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath and Jesus happily obliges.  Unfortunately for them, however, he doesn’t oblige quietly. I think they were hoping he’d do it surreptitiously off in a corner somewhere so they could shout, “AHA!” and catch him in the act. But before they can turn the spotlight on him, Jesus turns the tables on them.


He speaks up, no doubt loud enough for everyone at the party to hear, and asks them all, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?”  And in response, everyone is silent. And just so we’re clear, this wasn’t one of those good periods of silence where people are reflecting thoughtfully on the question.  No…this was one of those decidedly awkward silences where the musicians cease their playing, the wait staff stop serving, people’s eyes start shifting, and everyone wishes they were anywhere but there.


In the midst of all that silence, Jesus heals the man and sends him on his way, but he’s not done yet. “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well,” he asks, “will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?”


And nobody speaks up this time either, because the truth is, of course they would. They had hoped to peg Jesus as a Sabbath breaker but instead he’s just pegged them all as hypocrites. 


He knows as well as they do that any one of them would reach out to save someone they loved or something they valued Sabbath or not. That is, given a good enough reason, any one of them would break the Sabbath in much the same way Jesus just did.


The really sad thing, however, his deeper point, if you will, is that they didn’t see the man Jesus had just healed as a good enough reason because they’d gotten so used to not seeing people like him at all.  So with one act and two simple questions, Jesus reveals not just the coldness of their hearts but the duplicity in their souls.


Not exactly a great way to kick off a party, but hey, Jesus was just getting warmed up. I would imagine that as the guests began to take their places for dinner that people were not only looking for the best seats, they were now looking for the ones furthest from him. But unfortunately for them all, no place was far enough away to escape the stinging words of his next parable.


“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”


Again with the awkward. Jesus’ little parable would have made perfect sense to everyone because it comes straight from Proverbs, but it would also have had the disturbing effect of causing everyone in the room to second guess where they had just placed themselves. 


If they didn’t get up and move to a lower seat right away, they would appear self-important. But if they did move down they’d not only be seen as capitulating to the advice of this messianic madman, but also as angling for an even better seat in the near future; that is feigning humility in the short term for the sake of advancement in the long term, which isn’t really humble at all. 


They’d be employing a strategy that would only work if people didn’t know there was a strategy to begin with, but everyone already does, because Jesus just said it out loud.


So what’s he doing here.  I think he’s showing them and us how obsessed we all are with our social position. How calculating we can be whether we realize it or not. How hard we work all the time –not so much to be good as to seem good, not so much to be right as to seem right, not to be humble but to seem humble, which doesn’t make any of us truly good or right or humble at all.


You have got to feel for these people. At this point they were probably all backing away from the table having no idea where to sit at all, hoping against hope that their esteemed host would step in and make things right; maybe toss out a few place cards.


But before he can say a word, Jesus calls him out on the carpet and says: “you know when you throw one of these shindigs (I’m paraphrasing here) and you invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, your rich neighbors,” (basically everyone who was there) “you might think you’re behaving nobly and generously, but the truth is, you’re just hoping to get as good as you’ve given.  You’re not really noble or generous at all, nor are you better than anyone here. You’re just trying to get ahead like everyone else.


So dude, (like I said, it’s a paraphrase) if you want people to know what a great guy you really are then you should get rid of this lot and invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”


Now I know we’re used to Jesus talking this way, but you have to understand that the people on Jesus’ preferred guest list – the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind -were the sort of people a leader of the Pharisees could never invite into his house precisely because they were poor, crippled, lame, and blind.


Such people were considered unclean, untouchable, cursed by God. In fact, these were precisely the sorts of people a holy man was supposed to avoid if he wanted to remain holy. It would be absurd to invite riff raff like that to one’s house for the Sabbath .


And yet the irony here is that for once this Pharisee already had. He’d invited the man with dropsy. He’d done it in the hopes of framing Jesus, but he’d done it all the same and now with the man healed and long gone he stands speechless before his guests having framed himself and all of his acquaintances as callous, pompous, hypocrites.


So, I’m thinking this has to be one of the most uncomfortable dinner parties ever, but I have a hard time believing that Jesus was going after them out of pure spite.


He was rude, no doubt about it, but sometimes a little rudeness is what it takes to get people to pull their heads up out of the sand -or whatever other dark places they have put them - and see the light. I think Jesus was trying to break through the genteel façade of his hosts and the social niceties of the other guests in order to get them to see the bigger picture.


You see they were so consumed with getting ahead in their own little lives down here that they’d lost sight of their lives as something expansive and eternal that would last forever up there. They were so focused on getting ahead, making a name for themselves, using every moment as a means of self advancement that they thought a dinner party – a dinner party! - was pretty darn important in the scheme of things.  So important that they were not above using, scorning, hurting, and humiliating other people in order to get ahead.


Now I’d hate to think that any of us would ever behave this way, and yet, if we’re honest, I think there are some of us – myself included - who keep pretty darn busy doing our best to impress one another too, what with our homes and our cars, our clothes and our tools, our educations and our social connections.


Like the men and women at that dinner party we expend a ridiculous amount of energy trying to look a little bit better, brighter, richer, thinner, smarter, and more connected than we really are, regardless of the cost (and there is always a cost), because we all want a place at the table, and deep down we’re afraid there aren’t enough good seats to go around. And then here comes Jesus telling us that those chairs we’ve been fighting over, those chairs that are the cause of so much misery in the world- are small potatoes. 


In the cosmic scheme of things, those chairs are the little ones, at the kid’s table. And we all look like fools as we try to rip them from each other’s hands, because there is a much bigger table waiting for us and at that table every seat is a good seat and there are more than enough chairs to go around. 


There’s a bigger party going on, and thanks be to God, in spite of all our petty behavior, we’re all still invited. There’s a bigger party with a much bigger host – it’s called the resurrection of the righteous - and if you want a good seat at that occasion than you might want to take your eyes off the little hosts, men like the leader of the Pharisees and fix your gaze on the ultimate host who is the Lord our God.  Forget what it takes to get ahead down here and start thinking about what really matters up there.


Look, not just at the way God treats his guests, but at who he invites in the first place, because it’s never who you’d expect. In the case of the Pharisees, they were shocked to see how lovingly and inclusively Jesus reached out to those they thought of as scorned: the blind, the lame, the crippled and the poor, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the Gentiles and the Samaritans.


You know the list as well as I do so you might be thinking, score: I’m cool with a big handicapped ramp at the gates of heaven. I’ve got no problem with Gentiles. Some of my best friends are Gentiles. I’m totally okay welcoming all those people with whom the Pharisees had a problem.


But something tells me that if you’re human, and I know I am, you probably do have a problem with someone.  And I’m going to give you a moment to think about who that someone or someones might be. Somebody - in your past or your present - that you’d just as soon avoid.  You wouldn’t eat dinner with them if it was the last dinner offered on earth.


Only here is the thing, there will come a point when you do eat your last dinner on earth, a point where you will come to that great heavenly table in the sky, that giant banquet at the end of time, and realize that the cost of a seat is nothing more and nothing less than the price of forgiveness, humility, reconciliation, acceptance, love… all for that person.


Friends, if we really understood that everyone’s invited up there, how would that change the way we treat one another now, down here?

If we really understood that everyone is accorded a place at God’s table, not just the untouchables from 2000 years ago, but the people you’d rather not touch right now, where does that leave you?
Is there someone out there you need to work on forgiving?  Are there people out there you need to learn how to love?
I know I’ve got some work to do around this and I know it’s going to be hard. But I also believe it’s worth considering because although we may be able to avoid certain people down here for a time, we can’t avoid them forever. 
At some point we’ll have to come to terms with what it means, not just to love the ones who love us back, but love the ones who have never borne us any love at all.
It is a strange feast we are invited to, as strange a feast as this one in Luke, but trust me when I say it’s not one you want to miss. Our host is full of surprises and he will no doubt ask more of us than we want to give. Things could get a little awkward.
But he’s the host to be imitating if we want to join the party; the one holding out a chair for us and saying “friend, come, sit up here,” whether we deserve that chair or not.
Let us pray: O Lord, grants us the grace to welcome one another as you have welcomed us, the strength to love as you love, to forgive as you forgive, the better that we might not just make room for the other at your table, but room for ourselves as well.  Amen