Sunday 28 August 2022: Trinity 11, Twenty-second in Ordinary time, Proper 17
A seat at the table
Luke 14:1, 7-14
Context: a medium sized multicultural congregation in inner city London
Aim: to encourage people at a time of change and uncertainty
Earlier in the summer I was at a family wedding and had a little moment of panic when I had to look at the seating plan. Fortunately, I was with people who were good company.
In our Gospel reading we find Jesus responding to an invitation to a Sabbath meal. The Shabbat meal is very important even today in Judaism, for it marks the beginning of the special day. It is the most hallowed time of the week and families often invite other people to share the meal with them.
The Pharisee who invited Jesus may have done so because he respected him, or he wanted this rabbi who was making a name for himself at his dinner party. But Jesus noticed that as all the guests were arriving, they were doing what was customary – they were taking pleasure in being noticed at the home of this important religious leader.
Jesus’ times were no different to ours. Social invitations were influenced by a range of social norms, expectations, relationships that needed to be oiled, and others that needed to be caressed with favours and honours. And in first century Palestine your rank was reinforced by your place at the table. People did not sit for a meal, they lay, Roman style, resting on their left elbow and eating with their right hand. Your position in relation to your host signified your importance to him and so everyone around the table knew exactly where they were in the pecking order.
Jesus, though, is not happy with this and he urges people, when invited to a wedding or a feast, to take a humble seat so that they will not be humiliated when the host asks them to make way for someone more important. Jesus urges the host not, in future, to invite his friends and rich neighbours to his Shabbat meal, but rather to invite the poor and the disabled and those unable to earn a living for themselves.
Jesus, of course, is not really talking about meals and banquets and weddings. He is actually talking about the Kingdom of God. He is telling his dinner companions that when God is the host, he does things differently.
Jesus says to the Pharisee that if God were to invite him to dinner he had better sit in the lowest seat because otherwise God might humiliate him by asking him to make way for a beggar or a poor person who has nothing.
Jesus says to the Pharisee’s rich friends that when God is the host, he might not have them on his invitation list at all.
Jesus says to his dinner companions that they think of themselves as the cream of Jewish society, but God thinks that the disabled, the uneducated, the homeless and the poor are far more interesting company.
We like to think that God is fair and unbiased, and that God’s Kingdom is built on justice and equality. But again and again in this, and other, stories Jesus makes the shocking point that God has favourites. God does not treat everyone the same. God will not treat you the same as your neighbour. For God prefers those who find themselves at the bottom of society. God prefers those who are last, not those who are first, privileged, religious, and law abiding.
God might well invite you and me to the banquet, but beware – he might ask you to give up your seat to one of those beggars you see so often on the Tube. Or God might ask you to move so that a refugee who has just landed on a Kent beach in a flimsy dinghy might sit down and eat before you. Or God might want you to give up your place at the table for a young woman who has been trafficked.
When we start to imagine ourselves in this way, we begin to grasp that everything then depends upon grace. It is only by God’s grace that we are invited to the feast. It is only by God’s grace that we are given a seat at the table. It is only by God’s grace that we are made worthy to be in his company.
It doesn’t matter what we are actually worth. You might be a millionaire, or you might have nothing, but when we open ourselves to God’s grace, we see that we are all in the same boat. We are all in need of his love and care, and he will receive us all and make us whole again.
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