Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 22 - Year C - RCL Resources Index | DBHome |
Your place at the table
Jesus had been invited as a guest at the midday meal after the Sabbath service by a leader of the Pharisees. He was being honoured as a travelling teacher, and as one with whom the Pharisee might have expected to agree, for much of the teaching of Jesus was the same as the Pharisees taught, in spite of what we remember of his critical comments. On this occasion he surprised them by again healing someone on the Sabbath as in the story we dealt with last Sunday, and they did not know how to answer him [Luke 14:1-7]. So he was stretching their understanding beyond what they expected. Soon he was pushing them further still beyond their conventional wisdom.
When he noticed the way the guests were choosing places of honour at the table he told the parable about guests at a wedding banquet:
He went on to point out how you can be embarrassed, whereas if you took a lower place you might be honoured by being asked to move up; and he concluded,
Social wisdom or heavenly aspiration?
It might sound like a good piece of social wisdom: chose a lower place so that you will be honoured by being asked to move up. There was an old saying, "Stay two or three places below your own [even modesty must not be exaggerated!] and wait until someone says, `Come up ...'." Precedence can be a tricky question, and you might think that if you play the game the right way you might win a point or two! The wisdom books like Proverbs did sometimes give that kind of advice. For example,
The Pharisees would have known that text, and it was not unusual for Jesus to quote something familiar to his hearers from the Hebrew scriptures to comment on a contemporary question. But surely Jesus had something more significant in mind than how to gain a little social recognition? Indeed he did, and that comes out more clearly in the second saying:
The idea of being repaid, and the alternative of its being better not to be repaid at all, takes us beyond mere table manners or concerns with status and recognition. The repayment Jesus spoke of was beyond this world and this time. Quite clearly, he was speaking of something of deeper significance when he said, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. So we see that here again we have a parable of the Kingdom of God.
The resurrection of the `just' or the `righteous' is mentioned by Luke in another saying about life after death,
The resurrection or the age to come or the Kingdom are times or states of being in which the children of God are entirely spiritual beings like angels in heaven, and it is then that those who are worthy of a place are "raised up". So the invitation to `come up higher' is to a high place indeed, to the very presence of God, to a place in heaven. It is a reward for those who seek no reward, who give pride of place to others, and especially to the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, that is, the despised and rejected, people of low esteem in general.
The emphasis here is on salvation not on judgment, although people might well have had that in mind as well, perhaps remembering the word of a prophet whose message had expressed some common hopes and fears:
God's grace for all
The positive emphasis is made again in Luke 20:35 as we saw before. Jesus did sometimes warn of the judgment of God, but here his concern is to encourage. It is dependence upon the gracious acts of God that is important. It would be a total misunderstanding to take the words of Jesus as a demand for Christian "humility" which says "I am nothing." Such an attitude can cover a secret wish for correction and thus greater honour. Or it could, in terrible earnest: terrible because by saying `I am nothing', we deny the value that God places on every person. People who attach no value to themselves cannot truly value others, because they do not appreciate the value God places on a human being. They cannot then love others as they love themselves according to Christ's command.
Of course the value that God gives to us is not found by comparing us one with another. That is the whole point of this pointless concern with status relative to one another.
It is not relative value that matters, but the potential of all people to become children of God. It follows that competitive striving and status in this world will have no lasting significance. Just as we cannot take our wealth with us, we cannot take any other kind of earthy achievement into the Kingdom of God.
The spiritual basis for a social and political revolution
I hope that this invitation to look beyond our life in the material world with not deceive us into thinking that what happens here is irrelevant. It was precisely our life in the world of ordinary human relationships that Jesus was talking about, and it is these very relationships that the coming of the Kingdom will change. That is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the song that Mary the mother of Jesus sang when she learned that she was to bear the special child:
That is not so very different from what Jesus himself said:
The coming of the Messiah was intended to make a radical change for justice -- a change much more radical than any secular doctrine of equality. The coming of the Kingdom is about changing the here and now as well the promises to be fulfilled at the resurrection in the age to come. To be unconditionally generous would indeed set us free to live truly human lives, and at the same time celebrate with others the joy of the age to come.
Our place at the Lord's Table
There is another implication. When we meet at the Lord's Table, we come with all our distinctions void, having no other status than that we are the guests he has invited. We are here at his pleasure, by his grace; and thus we receive and commune with him not according to our merits, but according to his grace. We have this sentiment expressed traditionally in the prayer of humble access which some of us [those in the Uniting Church who came from the Methodist tradition] used always to say before communion. We still have it in Uniting in Worship as an alternative prayer of approach:
We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under your table. But you are the same Lord whose nature is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of your dear son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
It is not accidental that Jesus chose to make his challenge to common ideas of status in a parable about a banquet in a way which pointed forward to the Lord's Supper. One of his hearers responded: "Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God." The early Christians would have seen clearly that the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, is an effective sign of the Kingdom, a new state of being in which the revolutionary changes that have brought about the unity of all with him can be celebrated. It is the meal at which Jesus both presides and serves:
Then, as we have seen recently in another context, he who washed their feet, doing the work of a slave, said,
The Lord's Supper has always been a time of sharing with the poor. Of course, communion means sharing or fellowship. We share in the life of Christ, and we share with one another, and if it is Christ's life that we share, then we must share what we have with those have need of it. It is a long tradition, throughout the history of the church, to make a special collection for relief of the poor at services of holy communion. That offering was in addition to the regular giving for the work of the church. Our practice today can cover that need if we include in our regular offering some part that is intended for those in need, but some local churches have revived the old tradition of a special offering for relief of needs. It is a tradition that goes back to the Jewish Passover meal, for which there was an ancient Aramaic formula, "See this is the bread of misery, which our father's had to eat, and whosoever is in need, let him come and keep the Passover (with us.)". It was in fact not unusual to invite someone from the street to the Passover, as some Christians today invite someone who is alone to Christmas dinner or Sunday lunch. Jesus said, in the parable we read today,
Jesus attempted in his teaching to free his disciples from domination by a culture of social, moral or religious hierarchies that close off access to those who stand higher or lower on the scale, as he himself demonstrated. So Paul taught of his humility, and his being raised on high, as an example to us:
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