This sermon was delivered on September 1, 2013, at Lufkin First UMC.
Luke 14:1, 7-14
14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely. 7 When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable.8 “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. 9 The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”
I have a dangerous confession to make with you all: I love wearing flip flops. I love them. If I had my way I’d wear them year round, and often, I do—this is Texas after all, and you can get away with it, what with our mild winters and skin-scorching summers. If you look at my feet, you can make out flip flop tan lines—that’s how much I wear them. True, you will rarely see them on me around here, but if you catch me at HEB, you will more than likely see me in them.
Why would this be dangerous? Well, for one, it’s not really the most “professional” kind of thing to wear, nor is it the most elegant thing to wear either. It’s a casual piece of clothing, and so by nature, it should be worn at times when you aren’t anywhere in a highly professional capacity, or so conventional wisdom goes. Usually they are worn to the beach, or on your day off. Honestly, personally, I think this is ridiculous—it’s the most comfortable kind of shoes to wear! Seriously! I’m never more comfortable when I’m wearing flip flops. I mean, your feet breathe, they don’t get sweaty, AND you don’t have to tie them! It’s the perfect shoe! But I digress.
Despite my own personal feelings on the matter, the truth is you can’t go some places wearing flip flops. Most kids can’t wear them to school. You can’t do a job interview wearing flip flops. You can’t go to see your grandparents wearing flip flops—at least I can’t, because they judge me constantly if I do. And, probably most importantly, you can’t go to a high end restaurant wearing flip flops. Here’s the rule: If you’re going someplace that sells foie gras, more than likely you shouldn’t wear flip flops.
Foie gras, for anyone who doesn’t watch the food network, is one of the most expensive kinds of meat one can buy. Essentially, it’s fatted goose liver. I know, sounds disgusting, but it’s a French delicacy, so what do I know? I’ve actually tried escargot, and that’s actually pretty delicious (kind of like oysters, honestly), so maybe the French know something I don’t. Anyways, Foie gras, at its cheapest goes for about $50 bucks a pound. You can buy some from Sur la Table online for $150. Because I’ve never been inclined to buy a pound of goose liver for 150 dollars, I’ve never eaten it. But it’s classy food, apparently. Because it’s so classy, you probably couldn’t get into a place that sells it wearing flip flops; they’d turn you away, insisting on a dress code. No foie gras for you!
So imagine this: You are a fairly rich person, respected and well known. You throw a fancy dress dinner party, and you invite all the big wigs in town: the mayor, the city council, school administrators, several people from the chamber of commerce, and a few pastors mixed in for good measure. You serve the finest food money can buy: caviar, rare cheese, prime rib, the finest wine, delicacies from all over the world, and of course, foie gras. As you greet your guests one by one, you invite them to take a seat anywhere they wish at the table—all except for the head, where you strategically placed your full wine glass, just to make sure your seat doesn’t get taken. As they get seated, each of them almost by instinct starts choosing seats nearest the head of the table, and on down, as usual. The new pastor in town, while following suit, seems to look a bit uneasy. He was a younger fellow, and obviously didn’t read the entirety of the invitation, which specified that guests were required to wear formal clothing, and instead, he wore a t-shirt from the latest church mission trip, cargo shorts, and a pair of worn down flip flops. He was new; this was his first time to this kind of party, so you decide to let it slide. However, the look on his face betrays the wheels in his head are turning. You put it out of your head; you have hosting duties to attend to.
As the meal progresses, business as usual commences. The mayor and the city council members forge their platforms for the upcoming meeting, the chamber of commerce people discuss upcoming investments, and the pastors were discussing their fantasy football league. All save for one. All save for the new guy. He was silent, observing the goings-on. He played with his food a little bit, as if deep in thought, pushing around lentils and cous cous to form letters, and then mixing it all up again. At a lull in the conversation, the new pastor opened his mouth, and out fell the most insane and inappropriate nonsense you have ever heard. Here you invite him into your house, and he starts off on a rant about seating order, of all things?! And then, he straight up tells you that he should never have invited him, or any of the other people, but rather, to invite homeless people? Sick people? You don’t know what kind of town he came from before, but that’s not how we do things around here, no sir! You spared no expense on this meal, so only the best in town should get to come. Rest assured, you aren’t going to invite that pastor back for dinner.
This little scenario I just described would be close to what would have happened in the scripture. Needless to say, it’s a bit of an odd scripture, at least to our western eyes. On the surface it appears to be a Jesus’s edition of an etiquette column. However, put in context, this is a fairly radical thing to say to a group of well-to-do Pharisees.
You see, Middle Eastern society in Jesus time has what is known as a shame-based social code. Everything you do in that society is based on the concept of shame, honor, and etiquette, and the kind of etiquette that Jesus was proposing in this little parable was a fairly radical way of thinking at the time. You see, the way that the people sat down was incredibly crucial to establishing pecking order. The closer you were to the head of the table, especially at the right hand of the person at the head of the table, the higher honor and esteem you had. Essentially, where you sit denotes how much power you have.
For Jesus to tell people to intentionally choose a seat that does not match their own perceived social status… well, it’s just not done that way. It’s a break in etiquette. It’s like not stopping at a red light. It’s like throwing a shoe at the president. It’s like wearing flip flops to a French restaurant. It’s like all these, but even more nonsensical, because there are real political consequences when choosing a seat, because the lower you sit, the more shame is put on you. Jesus is telling them to choose shame over fame. Now who in their right mind would do that?
While we don’t usually fight over sitting at the right spot in a dinner situation, there’s plenty of other things we fight over, things that equal esteem, fame, and honor in our society. Think about it this way: 35, 023 people applied for college at Harvard University this year, and only 2,029 people were accepted. How’s that for sitting at the head of the table? That’s just a slice of the picture. People sabotage each other to get ahead in jobs. Politicians put attack ads on tv to scare people into voting for them, or at least scare them out of voting for the other guy. Is it scummy? Yes. Is it morally questionable? Of course. Is our society in some way based on this kind of have and have-not system of fighting for seats at the table? Absolutely. Which is why Jesus telling us to rethink our constant struggle to get ahead in favor of something else. Shame before fame. Humility before pride.
The second part of this parable is far more blatant, but all the more baffling. Quick show of hands: how many of you have recently thrown a dinner party for sick homeless people? Anyone? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Oh, of course we help out at church—we have plenty of ministries that care for the poor, the sick, and the needy. That’s not the point that Jesus is getting at. What Jesus is getting at is this: do you have skin in the game? Jesus makes the act of giving to the poor, of feeding the hungry, of curing the sick, a thoroughly personal act. He’s getting in our face to say, in a way, don’t be satisfied with just giving your 10 percent in the collection plate. Tithing is important, absolutely! But it’s far from the only aspect of stewardship. Stewardship is taking care of the things God gave us to take care of. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, no matter what they look like, how they dress, what they do, or how much social standing they have. I think that’s the highest form of stewardship one can aspire to.
Jesus often compares the Kingdom of God to a wedding feast, especially in Luke (Luke has a lot of food involved.) Imagine, then, the kind of feast that Jesus describes here. It’s a feast where people aren’t trampling over each other just to get ahead. It’s a feast where people take care of each other, provide for each other, and eat with one another despite social class, race, age, gender, occupation, and anything else. It’s a feast of abundance, not scarcity. It’s a feast of love, a feast of hope. It’s a feast worthy of the Kingdom of God.
This is the feast we seek to replicate here, at the table, when we share in communion. In communion, we recognize that we are all equal and full members of the family of God. The food and drink we share are an offering given by God almighty to us, the beloved children. Christ suffered the ultimate shame, the ultimate humiliation, in being hung on the cross—far worse than any bad seat at a table. Jesus, in his broken body, in his shed blood, offers to us a feast fit for kings, far richer and far more satisfying than any foie gras. In this moment, heaven and earth meet in the bread and the cup. This is a holy place, and when we gather in communion, we feast in fellowship with God the Father Almighty, the Son of God, and Holy Spirit. We share food with the king of al kings, and there is no discrimination, whether you wear an Armani suit or something off the rack of good will. This is a time of celebration, of rememberance, of prayer, and of holiness. This is the feast of the Kingdom of God.
You might never get to eat the fanciest dining in the world, nor hobnob with presidents or captains of industry. At this moment, at this time, we share something far greater than any fancy dress party. In this moment, we encounter the divine. Thanks be to God.