Scripture:  Luke 14:1, 7-14

Dinner Party With Jesus

I’ve always had fun with that game that we played during Children’s Time ("If you could invite any 3 people to dinner - dead or alive, real or fictional - who would they be?).  When I worked at camp, it was one of my favorite activities to play in order to get to know my campers.  You can learn a lot about a person by hearing their response about who they would invite to dinner.

I must admit that since becoming a pastor, it hasn’t been quite as much fun.  When people find out that I’m a pastor, their answer always includes Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong – I think that Jesus is a great answer!  But sometimes it sounds a little bit forced, because he doesn’t always fit in very well with the other two people on the list.  “Jennifer Lopez, Harry Potter, and Jesus”  “Ryan Gosling, Stephen King, and Jesus”  “Lady Gaga, Inspector Gadget, and Jesus”  It sounds a little bit odd, doesn’t it?

My response is that it’s not necessary to list Jesus on our list of invitees, since he is always present at the table with us already.  But there’s another reason you might want to think twice about inviting Jesus to your next dinner party:  He has a habit of making quite a scene when he comes to dinner.

Luke’s gospel is full of stories of Jesus making a scene at dinner parties.  It has been said that, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is always going to a meal, currently at a meal, or coming from a meal.  For example, in chapter 5, we are told of a dinner “with a  large crowd of tax collectors and other sinners sitting at the table,” during which Jesus and his disciples were accused of being drunkards and gluttons.[1]  Then in chapter 7, Jesus is at meal that is interrupted by a woman who cries on his feet and wipes them with her hair.[2]  In the 10th chapter, he criticizes his gracious host, named Martha, for wanting her sister to help in the kitchen as she prepares the meal.[3]  And then in chapter 22 – the last of Jesus’ dinner parties – he was betrayed, arrested, and dragged away in handcuffs at the end of the night.[4]

Luke gives us many reasons that we might want to reconsider our guest list.

Scripture Passage

The story in our gospel reading this morning is no different – it is another story of Jesus stirring things up at dinner.  At the end of the meal, he turns to his host and says, “You know, this meal has been pretty good…  But the company could have been better.  Next time you throw a party like this, try inviting different people.  Don’t invite your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors.  In fact, don’t invite anybody with status or clout who might honor you by returning the favor.  Instead, invite the people in the community who have no way of repaying you or boosting your social standing.  Invite the people who have never been invited.”

In the context of First Century Jewish customs, Jesus’ words to his host were shocking – following his advice would completely upset the hierarchy of social standing.              This hierarchy was most clearly reflected in the context of a luncheon or dinner party, where certain guests were elevated into places of honor while others were given places of less importance.  If you wanted to know where you stood in the social hierarchy then accepting a dinner invitation would give a definitive answer.  For instance, those who sat on the left and right of the host were held in highest honor, not necessarily because they were the favorites of the host, but because they had the most privileged standing in the group.  These were the most coveted seats, because everybody in attendance would know how important you were.

Dining customs could also be used to put others in their place, especially those over which the host held power. You could give them the least important seat, or simply refuse to invite them at all.  It was always a little dangerous to invite the rich neighbors that Jesus speaks of because they might consider you below them and not return the invitation, and everyone would know it. Whatever the risk, it was a risk that most would take in order to increase their own social standing.

To most people, it would be completely inconceivable to do what Jesus has suggested – to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, because doing so would automatically diminish one’s social standing – and thus be completely counterintuitive to the entire purpose of hosting a dinner party in the first place.  So when the opponents of Jesus remark on his strange dinner companions in the gospel, it’s because they can’t make sense of what Jesus is up to.  The only reason to invite the outcast would be if you recognized some commonality with them and considered them your equal – a dangerous game to play when it comes to social politics.[5]

Open Table

But Jesus was never one to play the game of social politics.  Instead, he imagines a world – a new kind of kingdom – that is characterized not by a hierarchical chaste system, but by equality and inclusion and care for the oppressed.  Jesus envisions a banquet table that is truly open to all people.

As we look around our world today, we continue to long for this truly open table that Jesus has encouraged us all to offer and to seek. 

As the new school year begins this week, I am reminded of one of the most obvious examples of the social hierarchy that exists today.  It’s one that most of us have experienced – the school lunchroom.  Do you remember how obvious the pecking order was at school?  How important it was to find a seat at the right table and show that you are associating with the right crowd?  Do you remember how much it meant to be invited to a party, or even just have somebody save you a seat at lunch?  I remember constantly encountering the clear lines of the social hierarchy – lines that were not supposed to be crossed…  “Our schools very much operate on a system of status, where everything counts and everything is counted.”[6]

But Christ has called us to a different vision for our children.  And this vision doesn’t end in the school lunchroom – we all know that isn’t the only place where we encounter an oppressive hierarchy in our society.  The vision for an open table needs to be extended to our communities, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and our churches.

Opening Our Table

In our world, just like Jesus’ world, a truly open table is an uncommon thing.  An invitation with no strings attached is difficult, nearly impossible, for most of us to conceive of.

This became especially clear to me yesterday as I walked around Bay View, knocking on doors and inviting people to join us for the anniversary celebration.  It was my goal to invite as many people as I could get to in the 4 hours that I had allotted, and to do so without regard for wealth, or status, or church affiliation or lack thereof.  So I knocked on the doors of big houses, small houses, new houses, old houses, well-kept houses and houses in disrepair - and everything in between.

Doing so gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people who have never walked through the doors of this church, and probably some who had no idea that the church even exists.  It was a joy to be able to invite them to the picnic, but I was surprised by the way that some of the people reacted.

There was one man who, after hearing that the food will be provided by the church and the members of the congregation, asked, “That sounds like you’re going to lose money.  Why would you do that?”  The unspoken question, I could tell, was, “What’s the catch?”  I explained that we’re not looking to make a profit, but I’m not sure that he ever really understood that we truly just want to celebrate the history of the church and its place in the Bay View community.

Another man, after receiving the invitation and reading it closely, simply asked, “You mean, Catholics are allowed?”  I could tell that he was half joking, but his response still pointed toward a suspicion that we might be checking baptismal certificates at the door, or that we’ll only be serving food to people who are likely to become members of the church.

At another house, I was asked if the meal was going to be a potluck.  I explained that we would provide the food and all she would have to do is show up and enjoy it…  And she kept trying to insist that there must be something she could bring, something she could do so that she could feel that she deserves the meal.

I am excited that we have this opportunity coming up to invite people to join us for a meal, to be able to bless them with food and fellowship without any expectation of them being able to “return the favor.” 

Open Table of Grace

What is even more exciting and amazing is that our offer of a free meal pales in comparison to the grace that God offers – freely – to each of us.  We have all been invited into the Kingdom of God, to share in the Lord’s banquet table, and there is nothing that we can do to earn that honor or repay that gift.  It is our joy to celebrate that gift, but it is also our responsibility to make sure that the gift is shared with the world.

On the first Sunday of every month, as we prepare to gather around the communion table, I remind you that the table is open to everybody.  I’m sure that most of you have heard me say that so many times that you could repeat it:  The table that is set before us is not my table, it is not the congregation’s table, or the denomination’s table.  It doesn’t belong to any individual, or even to all who have been baptized.  Rather, it is the Lord’s table, where all are welcome and invited to share together as equals.

Our communion table is open…  But, as I saw in our very own community yesterday, we still have a lot of people who are missing from the table. 

As we prepare to come to the table this morning, I encourage you to think of those people in your life and your neighborhood who are missing from the banquet.  How can you invite them to be a part of this?  How can you make sure they know that they are invited to be a part of the table that has been set here at the Church this morning, as well as the table that is set for us in the Kingdom of God?

[1] Luke 5:29-33

[2] Luke 7:36-50

[3] Luke 10:38-42

[4] Luke 22:47-55

[5] Explanation of table hierarchy from Casey Thompson, accessed at http://www.goodpreacher.com/shareit/readreviews.php?cat=50

[6] David Lose, “The Kingdom of God…At School,” accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2719