September 1, 2019
12th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Proverbs 25:6-7; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
In my final year of seminary, I took part in an etiquette workshop offered to graduating students. As we prepared to leave school and begin interviewing with call committees, or applying for doctoral programs, or looking for whatever opportunity was next, the administration thought it was important for students to be well-versed in formal etiquette. The workshop was offered by our beloved Dean of Students, Dale Peterson. He had grown up in the deep south, where southern hospitality was a way of life and all good children learned proper etiquette from an early age. He was basically the Divinity School’s very own Emily Post.
At the very beginning of the workshop, Dale told us—and I’m sure many of you have heard this said before—that good etiquette is about making others feel comfortable. It’s about understanding social convention and acting accordingly, never doing anything that would make others feel awkward or uneasy. I remember one important piece of advice Dale gave us was that if a search committee ever invited you to dinner, you should absolutely not order spaghetti or French onion soup, because you were certain to end up with pasta sauce on your clothes or stringy, melted cheese all over your face. That would be awkward not just for you but for all the others who had to decide whether to say something to you about it. That was one of the rules. In order to keep any potential awkwardness to a minimum, spaghetti and French onion soup are out. Etiquette is about knowing the rules and following them so that nobody feels uncomfortable.
I suppose making people feel comfortable isn’t really a bad thing. We could think of practicing good etiquette as an act of hospitality. It’s a way of making others feel welcome and at home. And certainly in an interview setting it is in our best interest to practice good etiquette and make sure that our prospective employers do feel comfortable around us at all times. But etiquette can also be a way of reinforcing the pecking order. If you think about it, the rules of etiquette are designed to keep people in their proper places, to maintain the social hierarchy we’ve created. When we observe the rules of etiquette, we ensure that those who are higher on the social ladder get treated with the respect we’ve decided they deserve.
This is precisely what etiquette was about in Jesus’ time. In his world, one’s social status was apparent in every moment, in every interaction—in how you dressed, in where you lived, in how food and resources were distributed. (Actually, when you think about it, it’s not so different today.) In Jesus’ time, banquets were an occasion when one’s social position was made especially clear. People noticed whose house you were invited to, who you ate with, whether you washed before eating, and where you sat at the dinner table. All of these things made clear one’s social position.
Jesus is constantly going out of his way to show that he doesn’t much care for our human preoccupation with social position. He doesn’t like the way our society rewards those with power and influence and tramples on those at the bottom of the social ladder. Actually, this starts before Jesus is even born. When Mary finds out that she will give birth to Jesus, she praises God, singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord… You have brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This radical reversal of the prevailing power structures that Mary announces at the beginning of her pregnancy becomes a major theme in Jesus’ ministry.
And so in today’s gospel lesson we find Jesus at a banquet giving what sounds like good, practical advice—tips for appropriate dinner party etiquette. “When you’re at a banquet, don’t always head for the best seat. What if someone more respected than you has also been invited and the host asks you to move? Then you will be embarrassed in front of everyone else.” Jesus says, “Do this instead—sit at the foot of the table. Then when your host sees you, maybe you will be invited to take a better seat. Then you will be honored in front of all the other guests.” On the surface, it sounds like Jesus is encouraging false humility. He seems to be saying, “When you arrive at a banquet, take the worst seat in the house so you’ll look important when the host asks you to take a better one.”
But then Jesus turns to the host and offers some more advice: “When you host a dinner,” he says, “don’t invite your friends, relatives, and rich neighbors; they can repay you by inviting you over to their place. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.” Now that advice is a little more radical. This isn’t practical advice for getting ahead or making yourself look good. This is advice that defies common sense.
I think Jesus isn’t so much giving tips for good etiquette but intentionally turning convention on its head, disrupting the systems that good etiquette is designed to serve. He’s undermining the systems we’ve created to assign people to certain social positions and keep them in their places. He is putting forth a new vision of life together, based not on hierarchy but on equality, where there’s a level playing field and nobody is above or below anyone else. In his vision of life together, there are no distinctions between those at the top of society and those at the bottom. In the kingdom of God, there are no distinctions between haves and have-nots. And in a world where none of these distinctions matter, there would be no need to seek positions of power or to elevate ourselves over others. So Jesus challenges his listeners to be humble. Honor those who never seem to catch a break. Throw a party for people who never get invited to dinner. And when you go to a party, save the best seats for those who never get those spots. To do that is to buy in to Jesus’ vision. It’s to really believe that the hierarchies we’ve created don’t actually matter.
I suspect living into that vision is harder than we might expect. Pastor David Lose of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis suggests that a world free of social distinctions would force us into “radical dependence on God’s grace and God’s grace alone.” Living in this kind of a world would mean that “we [couldn’t] stand… on our accomplishments, or our wealth, or positive attributes, or good looks, or strengths, or IQ, or our movement up or down the reigning pecking order. There [would be]… nothing we [could] do to establish ourselves before God and the world except rely upon God’s desire to be in relationship with us and with all people.” And that’s a scary thing, to imagine losing our ability to establish ourselves and make a name for ourselves. We crave order and certainty, and we want to be in control. We want to know where we stand, how we measure up, and what we can do to improve our standing. I suspect we are all deeply invested in the social pecking orders we’ve created.
The problem is that Jesus tosses all of that out. Maybe in this world we can somehow earn the respect of others or merit the most important seat at the banquet table, but that’s not how it works with God. We cannot earn God’s favor but can only receive it as a gift of grace. God’s favor is given equally to everyone without regard for our petty human distinctions.
In a few minutes we will be taking part in a banquet. Even though Pastor Lois will be the one to extend the invitation, Christ will be the host. We will gather alongside some who are higher than we are on the social ladder and others who are lower. But there will be no squabbling or bickering about seats. Around this table there are no better or worse seats. There’s no special entrée or more expensive wine for the more distinguished guests (though we do have gluten free bread and grape juice for those who need it). At this table everyone is offered the same meal and all receive the same amount.
As we gather around the table, we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God and participate in God’s counter-cultural vision for humanity. We have this meal every Sunday so we won’t lose sight of that vision. Every single day, the world insists on telling us where we stand and keeping us in our proper place, so we come here once a week so God can tell us a different story. We share this banquet so that the Christian ideals of community and solidarity with the oppressed won’t be perverted by the prevailing forces in our society that tell us that life is all about knowing your place.
So come to the table. No matter who you are, come to the table. Whatever your place in the hierarchy that elevates some above others, come to the table. Whether you come every single week or have been made to believe you should stay away, come to the table. Our host has saved good seats for each of us. Come to the table.
David J. Lose, “More Than Good Advice [or] Why Jesus Gets Killed, Pt. 2” on WorkingPreacher.org, 2010, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1553.