Pentecost 14 Proper 17C Luke 14:1, 7-14 Aug. 29, 2010 Fr. Benton Quest
Try as I might, I cannot figure out those people who wait in line, sometimes for days, to buy things. I am thinking about that group of people who waited in line for a week in order to be one of the first people to own an iPhone.
This is five days these people waited and five days they will never get back. Five days of doing nothing but answering reporters’ questions and sitting. Five days -- and what do they have to show for it? A phone. A phone that eventually will break, malfunction, or become obsolete.
We might rationalize the whole situation by saying this is the price some people pay for a certain gadget. I, myself, am a gadget geek and would love to have one of these things, but I think there is something more going on. These people didn’t just want the gadget, they could have probably gotten one later that day or even the next week. No, these people wanted more. They wanted the “honor” to be one of the first people to have an iPhone. In gadget geek world, these people wanted to be the one that others looked to in awe and wonder. In the world of gadget geeks, these folks wanted to have the seat of honor.
So these people were willing to give up five days of their lives; five days they will never, ever, get back. And they were willing to give up five days of their lives not for some good cause like helping the homeless or healing the sick. They gave up five days of their lives just so others would think they were cool.
Jesus was invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s home. Now, in Biblical times, being invited to dinner was a kind of mutual admiration society. You would only invite people to dinner who were of high enough status so you could be sure they would invite you to dinner later. In this way the upper class of Biblical times would continue to reinforce just how special they were. And all the people of the village would see this group eating and drinking and would also be duly impressed. (In some ways, dinner parties were the TV of the time. People would sit around and look in the windows. It was a big show.)
But there is a problem with this system: How are all the Pharisees supposed to know who is the most important of all? Thanks to their mutual admiration society, they know they are special in society, but there is still the problem of how to figure out who is the most important of all.
That is where the position at the table comes into play. The closer you sat to the host, the higher status you had. So at a dinner, all the people would try to sit as close to the host as possible. Those who sat nearer the host tended to get the better food and the better wine. So by trying to get the best places at the table, the people were not only trying to establish themselves as the most special of the special people, they were also trying to get what was best for themselves.
These people jockeying for the best seat were looking for honor. But this is not something just for Biblical times; then as now, people want to be honored. But what we forget is that honor is not something that can be grabbed, honor is something that must be given. The Pharisees at the dinner were trying to grab honor by sitting at the honored place at the table. The gadget geeks were trying to grab honor by having one of the first iPhones. These people were not content to have an honor bestowed upon them; they were ready to do whatever it would take to grab that honor for themselves. But often, when we try so hard to grab honor, we just end up looking silly.
I can just imagine Jesus standing back watching these grown men playing their little games, each trying to get the best seat. I can see him just standing there shaking his head in disbelief. He may even have been chuckling a little.
But why would Jesus be chuckling?
My guess is that the whole show of jockeying for position demonstrates just how out of touch with reality the Pharisees really were. They were at a dinner party and we can assume that it is probably a pretty lavish dinner party. And right outside of the house we can probably also assume that there were people who were poor, hungry, and begging. So while there are people within sight of the dinner guests who would be pleased to just have the scraps from the table, the dinner guests themselves will not be pleased unless they get the best of the dinner. The people who should be happy just to be at the feast are not happy unless they get the best of the feast. And I would be willing to bet that the worst of the dinner would be better than what most of the people in the street would have eaten all day.
So it is, while looking at this somewhat absurd situation, that Jesus decides to tell a parable.
Now the parable Jesus tells doesn’t appear to be anything really earthshaking. Actually, it looks like a bit of social manipulation. Don’t sit at the head of the table. Sit down at the bottom of the table. Then that way, if there is someone of higher status at the dinner, you won’t be embarrassed by being asked to move. And if you are of higher status, you can have the pleasure of being asked to move up the table. And if Jesus left it there, yes, it is social manipulation. But Jesus gives us a hint that this parable is about more than social manipulation. Jesus tells us that the parable is taking place at a wedding feast. When we hear the words, “Wedding Feast,” we should recognize this to mean we are talking about more than food; the words “Wedding Feast” should tip us off to the fact that what we are talking about the reign of God. In the world God envisions, in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, we don’t jockey for position. We recognize that we are special just because we have been invited to the feast. And if we are asked to move to the head of the table, then that makes an already special event that much more special.
But Jesus does not forget the other side of this mutual admiration society that was on display in front of him. The host of the dinner was getting big points by having this august group under his roof. If all of these important Pharisees would come to this house for a meal, then the host must be pretty special too, right? And although Jesus comment about sitting at the lower seat of the table may not have been earthshaking, what Jesus says next is: Don’t invite people to your party that can return the favor. Invite the people who are outside and looking in, the poor, the hungry, and the begging. In other words, if you have more than you need, don’t give it to others who also have more than they need, give it to those who truly are in need. If we think about this, it makes sense; but putting it into action is much more difficult.
So this brings us back to the honor thing. We all want honor, but just where do we want that honor to come from? If we want honor from the world, then we just need to follow the example of the Pharisees. If we want honor from the world, then we just need to emphasize the differences between “us,” the dinner party people, and “them,” the people on the streets. But if we want the honor that is of God, we need to look for that which ties us together as humanity and share with each other that which we have been given. Jesus tells us it is when we think of others and share the gifts of God with those who are in need, it is then that we will be blessed and repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
We may be afraid of sharing our abundance because we may not be sure that abundance of the feast is for us, but this abundant wedding feast is something that we are invited to. We have received our invitation through the sacrifice of Christ. So grasping for what we think is the best is a waste of time and energy. The best has already been presented to us. Just to be at the party is more than we could ever hope for and better than anything the world has to offer.
Being human, at some point we will probably try and get what we think is the best part for ourselves; we will wait days just to be the first to get an iPhone. We will do silly things to try to obtain honor from the world. We will do what we can to get that seat next to the host. But no matter where you sit, the worst seat at the heavenly banquet is beyond any earthly honor. Even when the guest was asked to move down from the seat of honor, that guest was not kicked out of the feast! That guest was still allowed to stay. Since we are part of the feast, our scheming to get the honor and recognition of the world is a waste of our time and energy.
We are the loved and honored creations of a Loving God. We are invited to the Wedding Feast that is hosted by Jesus the bridegroom. We are presented with a place at the table. That, in and of itself, is more than we could ever hope for but this is the gift we have been given in faith. A place at God’s table is more of an honor than any iPhone could ever be. So, we can spend our time vying for what the world would tell us is the seat of honor, or we can rejoice in our place at the table and go out and remind others that they have a place at the table too. We can live in the knowledge that we are invited, but we can also go out and remind the world that they don’t have to stand outside looking in, they are invited too! The gift of life, forgiveness, and salvation is for all of us! And we are called to share that message with all we encounter.