Luke 14:7-14 Table Talk Rev. Betsy Hogan
So... when was the last time you were invited out for a meal... and found yourself jostling with someone else to see which one of you would get to sit in the most honoured position?
Unless I'm gravely miscalculating reality here, I'm going to guess that the answer for pretty much all of us... is going to be some version of "never".
I mean, admittedly, I don't have any experience with corporate boards or suchlike, where I suppose there might still be a sense of pecking-order in terms of where people are seated relative to one another --
But it still seems to me a reach to imagine that Jesus' first teaching in this passage from Luke that Brenda read for us before, cautioning us not to embarrass ourselves by assuming we're the most distinguished people in the room and ought therefore to be in the most honoured place at the table --
It seems to me a reach to imagine that Jesus' first teaching in this passage actually resonates as relevant for us, in this day and age, or at least in this place.
It just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that any of us would ever actually DO. Like so much so that it’d be important for us to, say, be warned against it. And with a parable for extra emphasis.
There are always ways, of course, in which we automatically have to recontextualize many of the teachings in the Bible for a world more complex that could ever have been imagined in Jesus' time -- quite apart from the distinct lack of shepherds and sheep in our immediate vicinity, our lives now are spent in an internet-fuelled post-enlightenment global maelstrom of interrelated ethnicities and faiths and technologies that have literally altered our worldview completely --
But even so, and even acknowledging the power of stories to transcend the particularities of time and place --
There's a certain alien-ness in the reality reflected in that first teaching. In the kind of ‘throwback to Downton Abbey’ notion that there's a highest place at the table, and a lowest place -- and that our operative principle in relation to that reality should be to always default ourselves down to the lowest.
Where at worst we sit and eat our meal as we would have anyway -- but if we're lucky we'll be invited by the host to move into a better position. And thereby be honoured.
Which is itself rather odd, considering this is a teaching of Jesus. Sort of like, cultivating an operative humility that manipulates those around us into graciously displaying how very honoured we actually are.
So it's kind of a strange sort of teaching, in our context, this first teaching of Jesus in this passage. And only mildly mitigated by his second teaching in this passage, in which he exhorts the gentleman who's invited him to supper in the first place -- it's one of the Pharisees, apparently --
And Jesus says to him, "When you give a dinner party like this, don't invite your friends and neighbours who can invite you back, so you'll be repaid for your kindness -- just invite the poor and disenfranchised who can't invite you back. So you can't be repaid, in effect."
Which on one level we see his point, in terms of opening the table and welcoming those who have nothing --
But at the same time, there's kind of a harsh assumption inherent there that if we have our friends over to dinner, we're doing so at least in part in the hope that they'll one day invite us to dinner in return.
Which seems a little cynical to me. Because, what if we really just kind of like them and want to invite them over?
So this is a strange passage. No shepherds or sheep and yet it still has kind of an alien and out-of-date whiff about it. And to be sure, reminders to operate with humility and grace, and exhortations not to forget those who have nothing when we have so much are always going to be relevant and useful -- but it's still a strange passage.
What it reflects, though, is something kind of interesting. Out-of-date in its particularities, I think, but still kind of interesting.
Because what this passage reflects is the idea of the table -- just, the dinner table, people sitting together and eating together around the dinner table -- as kind of a microcosm of how power manifests in community.
Because in Jesus' day, at a dinner party, where you sat, who was seated beside you, who else was invited -- all these could reflect your place, your position, your theoretical influence, your power in the community. And an invitation offered might not merely be an act of friendship but the first half, in effect, of a deal being made. Now that I've fed you, in other words, I expect you to return the favour, to seal the deal. It's an invitation but it's also a challenge, an overture -- it's the dinner table as political domain. A microcosm of power in community.
And in that way, at least, there IS a relevant word to us in our very different world two thousand years later. Because even if we've attempted in our 21st century democracy to smooth out the most egregious aspects of the kind of class system that literally renders honour based on one's position or presence at a dinner table --
We still understand how power tends to operate in a community. Who gets listened to and who doesn't. How influence is achieved, and how necessary it is. How power tends to be brokered via quid pro quo -- first the overture, and then returning the favour. And how very rarely, if ever, that pattern can be broken into. By those outside the inner circle. By those whose identity presents an additional barrier to ever being in that inner circle. By those who have no favours to offer.
So this weird little passage about how to behave at dinner parties is in fact Jesus shining a very subversive light on how power manifests in community. On a political system – who’s in charge of what stuff gets done and how -- that in many ways hasn't changed nearly as much as we might like to imagine, in our 21st century democracy.
And that's not unimportant for us to hear. Particularly in view of the eye-rolling propensity of some to insist that Jesus was only concerned with spiritual issues and never messed about with political issues.
Because who has power and how power manifests in community -- for Christians who profess that all people, regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, education, identity, vulnerability are equally made in God's image and beloved by God -- who has power and voice and who doesn't and how that's reflected in our sorting-ourselves-out in community – it’s precisely the exact intersect between the spiritual and the political that’s at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. In which love for God and love for neighbour aren’t merely meant to manifest in kindness to one another, and especially those in need –
But are also explicitly tied to questioning and shaking and overturning the big picture system that leaves people in need, keeps people in need, in the first place. When Jesus invokes the prophet Isaiah in his very first sermon, telling his listeners that the spirit of God has anointed him to preach good news to the poor, to set the oppressed free, it’s not metaphorical. It’s not just spiritual. His Way with a capital W is about deliberately overturning the worldview that includes and entrenches poverty and can’t function without oppression. Love of neighbour not just as kindness on a personal level, but as the natural result of love for God, when God is a God of justice and equity.
It’s political – it’s about how we live together, sort ourselves out, in community.
So Jesus shining his light on the power game in this weird little dinner party passage, showing his disciples, showing us, how the game gets played, in order to challenge us to subvert it by simply refusing to recognize its rules? Beyond first century dinner parties, it’s still relevant.
Because it IS a challenge. We live in, and most of us benefit from and always have benefited from, a world in which it matters not just who we know but also who we are. What we look like, how educated we are, how we speak – if we’ve been accustomed to being listened to by virtue of these things, that in itself creates its own self-perpetuating self-confidence that makes negotiating this power system in which we live that much easier. Because it’s familiar.
But Jesus wants it subverted. That’s the challenge to the disciples, to us, in this reading. The question is, of course, how we’re meant to participate in its subversion.
How we’re meant to be different. On purpose. Refusing to play that game, in effect, but frankly I think even more importantly -- in this 21st century when we imagine things have changed -- recognizing the ways in which many things haven't changed. And so operating, on purpose, with that awareness.
That there still IS, metaphorically, a table of power. As hard as we've worked, and we have, to iron out its edges and make it more egalitarian, the reality is that it may well be that many of us STILL, simply by virtue of race, ethnicity, wealth, education, identity, some of us are STILL more likely to have a place at that table. Being heard, while others aren't. No matter how individually not-powerful we might perhaps feel at any given time.
And so to on purpose remind ourselves to stay aware, stay aware, stay aware, of who's NOT at that table. Of who's not been invited and whose voice isn't being heard, and how limiting it is, in fact, for all of us as a community when power and influence continue to be limited in this way. No differently than it was in the time of the Pharisees. Via ears of influence and quid pro quo.
Awareness does help. But subverting it? That’s more of a challenge. Which I think actually is the brilliance of this weird little dinner party passage that seems to be about virtually everything OTHER than sitting down and eating dinner.
Because what in fact is an extraordinarily difficult thing for most of us to imagine doing? Sitting down and eating dinner… with people we don’t know. Sitting down and eating dinner… with people who aren’t anything like us. With whom we seem to have nothing in common. And now we have to chat over dinner.
Ultimately, at the end of all his teachings in this passage, that’s the last thing Jesus drops on the disciples, on us. This tiny little huge daunting challenge. Talk to someone you don’t know, who’s nothing like you, he tells us. Invite them to join you at your table at Smitty’s or Tim’s or wherever. Ask if you can join them on a bench in the Public Garden.
Sit down and eat with someone you don’t know, and make conversation. It’s the last thing he drops on us – this tiny huge challenge. Small talk with strangers, turning them into neighbours. Because that’s how subverting the usual order of things starts.
Are we up for it? God being our helper? Amen.