August 28, 2022
Scripture: Luke 14:1, 7-14
It so happened one day that Jesus was invited to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees to share a Sabbath meal. Jesus was ostensibly invited as the guest of honor, however he surely knew before he went that he was also going there to be watched and carefully evaluated. For many had heard of this young upstart rabbi from the region of Galilee and of the quite radical teachings he had been preaching and they probably wanted to see for themselves just who this Jesus was and how much trouble he might pose for them…and for their faith.
Surely aware of their intent, Jesus went at the appointed hour along with his disciples. As they entered the house of his host Jesus looked around and saw that as expected, all those who were there were watching him like a hawk, waiting to see if he would behave in a socially proper and religiously acceptable way…or…if on the other hand the rumors of his callous disregard for much of what they believed in were in fact true.
For their part, the disciples were largely unaware of this background drama going on around them and upon entering the house they began, along with all the other guests, to self-sort into places of descending rank and status as was the custom…those of greater social standing or authority taking their places at the table closest to the host or to Jesus, the honored guest. I imagine there was some degree of jostling for position as the disciples were not terribly high on the social status ladder compared to the other guests, their only claim to fame being that they were followers of this strange young rabbi. Meals such as this were complex social occasions of critical importance as people either affirmed or challenged the prevailing social structure and hierarchy for greater personal position or reputation. People tended to do as much watching as eating at these events, their meal time spent not in fellowship so much as in the seeking after or cementing of social status and position.
Jesus, for his part, looked on at the subtle but intentioned scramble for position being played out in front of him and chose this occasion to share a story, a parable intended to teach and to remind them all that there was much more to righteousness than inherited or self-appointed positions of importance.
As Jesus began his story all eyes were fixed upon him…the guests as much watching his every move as half listening to what he was telling them. He began by saying, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not automatically sit down in the place of highest honor, just in case someone more important than you has been invited…in which case the host of the banquet would have to come to you and say, ‘Give this person your place’, after which in disgrace, and in front of everyone else you would get up and be forced to take the lowest place.”
I can imagine that as he spoke these words there were glances around the room as so many had been exposed and were now embarrassed at their recent scrambling for position. Jesus continued on saying, “Instead, when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place to begin with, so that the host might come up to you and, again in the presence of all, say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’, thereby honoring you in front of all who are sitting at table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be brought low and humbled, and those who humble themselves will be honored and glorified.”
Of course this was not at all what the guests were expecting to hear from Jesus for they had been brought up within a very rigid and well-understood social context and tradition that spelled out the rules and codes of social conduct very clearly and directly. Each one who was there knew his own place and was accustomed to taking his rightful position of honor to whatever degree it had been accorded to him. This was a system of well-understood and well-earned social reputation and privilege…not so unlike for some today I imagine…
So, to have come there, and to hear Jesus inform them that their long-standing and complex system of social etiquette and behavior was somehow wrong, must have bothered many of them deeply. But he was far from being finished with his critique of this particular dinner party…he was far from finished sharing his new message of radical social justice, and his call to love one another without any conditions.
Turning his attention to the host who had invited him to dinner Jesus continued, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, just in case they may invite you in return in which case you would be repaid for your kindness. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. In this way you will gain a blessing for they are unable to repay your kindness and instead you will be paid back at the resurrection of all those who are righteous.’
Our reading for today ends here, but surely it did not end there that day for all those who had gathered for a far different reason than what they came away with. For Jesus had very deeply insulted not only his host, but all of those at the dinner by suggesting to them that their way of interacting socially was different than what God was asking for and different from what God would be pleased with. ‘Why, this young rabbi had some nerve to suggest to them that they should actually invite low-life and riff-raff in place of family and friends’ they must have thought… ‘Who did he think he was?’, they wondered. ‘What was he trying to prove in totally upsetting the apple cart of our rules of social interaction and status? How could he be so critical of a system that had worked just fine from…well it seemed, for forever? Perhaps all of his reported talk of some ‘new day dawning’, was just so much whining and perverse complaining because he himself had never really made it into the inner circle…he, along with his ragtag band of coarse and dirty ragamuffins…I mean, really?’
Here ends our story of the faith for this day…this is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God!
I have spoken before of Ada Maria Isasi-Dias, a 20th Century dissident Catholic theologian who wrote about and developed Womanist and Hispanic Liberation Theology. I came across her work in seminary and was particularly struck by her treatment of the word Kingdom, and in fact of her take on royalist, patriarchal language and understanding in general. It was she who coined the term ‘The ‘kindom’ of God’ which I used for the title of today’s message. She came up with that term in response to what she felt was the overbearing and oppressive baggage that is usually associated with patriarchy and royalism. Language and terminology that is filled with Kings and Princes, Kingdoms, Crusades, and all that is associated with them. She was uncomfortable with the whole history of male-domination and power that is interwoven so deeply into and throughout our faith understanding and expression. Even the word ‘Kingdom’ itself, which is really quite inaccessible to any of us in terms of relating to our own life and experience is problematic in that it implies power, strength, and quite frankly male domination, all of which are in such stark contrast to what Jesus was trying to share on that Sabbath day in the home of his dinner host.
Conversely, the word ‘Kindom’ implies a whole different set of understandings and relationships which I feel more accurately capture the essence of what Jesus was seeking to share that day. To pray, ‘Thy kindom come’ seems in some way to be asking for the advent of a new order or a new way of being together…a way of living together that no longer takes notice of social status or position but rather focuses on the brother and sisterhood that is common to all humanity…a new way of seeing and living with and among our ‘kin’ in the eyes of our God.
And while that in itself may be enough of a take-away from this passage, I feel there is more here for us to think about. For it is all well and good to suggest that we go out and invite in those who are outside of our normal circle of friends and acquaintances, but does it really have to be at the complete expense of those we know and love…of our current friends and family? Are we really called to ignore our family in deference to outcasts and otherwise ‘less than socially desirable’ in structuring our get-togethers and social functions? That seems rather extreme and somehow quite less than loving in its own way.
I think the answer to that question is no. I don’t think Jesus was advocating the shunning family or friends. Rather, I think he was trying to expose the motivations which may be behind our actions, and our invitations. Trying to bring them out into the light in order to allow us to see clearly if we are motivated by his call to love every ‘one another’, or if we may be used to and more comfortable sometimes, acting out of a somewhat selfish desire for personal gain, or at the very least a 50-50 give and receive back balance.
Our Lord’s call to love those who may seem ‘less than lovable’, was not given at the expense of loving those closest to us. But, it was not presented as an option either. Rather, I think that Jesus was sharing the proper behavior befitting and required of all who profess to be his followers. He spent his whole ministry here on earth teaching that a new order was indeed at hand, that with his arrival, a new way of living into human and divine relationship was possible, that a new ‘kindom’ could in fact somehow be created simply through our care and authentic compassion one for another.
He spoke out against the established religious order of his day that was so deeply hierarchical in its structure, with privilege and status at the top, and misery and oppression at the bottom, calling instead for a profound leveling of social rank and order, and an end to the sinful oppression and exploitation of those on the bottom that was required to maintain those at the higher levels of society. Jesus was saying that a new day was in fact here…even though we might not believe it or be able to see it yet, that a new day and a new way of being ‘kinfolk’ was present and available when and if we choose to make it so through our actions and by our words. Jesus was desperately trying to show us that the kindom of God’s love was an as-yet-unfulfilled promise, unfulfilled because it requires all of us believers to participate in its creation and subsequent revelation.
‘Do not seek the place of honor but rather make yourself lower’, Jesus instructed. Not trying to elevate those who are far worse off through gifts and empty promises, but rather going to them, where they are, finding and joining in with those who are now at the bottom, showing love and witnessing compassion there…in order to learn anew what it means to follow after the one we all call ‘Lord’
‘A new day is indeed possible’, Jesus was saying, a day fully reflective of the will and desire of our God, a day when the ‘mountains’ of privilege and self-importance finally give way and are humbled and brought low, down to a plain of common humanity. And a day as well when the ‘valleys’ of oppression and misery might be lifted up and brought into that same common plain of humanity, such that all of God‘s children might live in common fellowship around a common table, devoid of false pretense and hidden agendas, truly witnessing and truly becoming kinfolk in blessed human community.
That day my friends is one that is most surely coming. Even though of late it seems so often to stutter-start, our Lord Jesus just will not be denied…and our Lord’s will, will not be denied either. A day of profound justice and true peace is not just a wished-for-vision on the part of a few, but rather the reality and essence of God’s good and righteous plan as revealed in the writings of the Prophets and the teachings and lived-out example of Jesus himself..
And that plan, that eventual day, will come upon us whether we are ready for it or not. Indeed, voices calling for peace and justice daily wend their way towards heaven and surely our God hears every plea. Our challenge, as followers of our Lord, is to get in the flow, to learn of these new ways of God’s kindom. To do and to act not out of some need to be repaid and evenly compensated, but rather simply out of love and gratitude to a God who first, and still loves us. It often strikes me as strange that we so often insist on keeping score and being paid back in full, when if we are being honest with ourselves, there is no way any of us could ever even begin to repay the debt incurred on our behalf on a lonely cross so many years ago.
Truly, there is good news to be heard, and shared. Our Lord and God is calling for all humanity to become the family of his intent, and is prepared to love that family into reality through the Spirit of love and grace within each one of us. That Spirit which speaks into our heart of hearts with an inner voice beckoning us to live in ways that promote love and not strife, sharing and not selfish grabbing, peaceful action rather than warring ways, and hope in places of hopelessness and deepest darkness.
Reach out to those in front of you…to all of those around you, for they are surely there. Open eyes that may be unused to seeing the poor, the crippled, the lame and blind. Open your eyes and open your hearts that the blessings that have been poured out in such abundance upon you, might find their appointed resting place on the soul and in the life of another. On the soul and in the life of one of these most sorely afflicted and oppressed. And then, walk as though you believe that God will provide all you need to accomplish the miracle of kinship in human community, for surely you will lack nothing in your quest.
The promised ‘kindom’ of our Lord awaits only our willingness to create it…
…May our God add his blessing to this, his holy word and our steadfast guide…