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Luke 14:1, 7-14
Seems it’s always at Miss America pageants or quirky job interviews or maybe the lightning-round dating clubs where this question pops up – “If you could have dinner with anyone throughout all of history, who would it be?” And one of the most common answers is Jesus. I’ve even answered that. It’s a win-win, right? It shows that you are cognizant of history, deep enough to not choose a Kardashian or Madonna, spiritually sincere enough to select someone like the “son of God”, and you get bonus points for some sort of humility that comes by selecting Jesus, or piety or honor…something good that seems to follow associating yourself with Jesus.
It’s a terrible idea. I mean seriously, read the Bible. People who invite Jesus to dinner have a really bad night, because he calls them out on everything. There is no pleasing this guy from the get-go. This seat, Jesus? Wait, no…this seat? Geez, we can’t even sit down, I don’t want to even bring the food out, if we have so many issues with seating, the hummus will never pass muster.
Once again, inviting Jesus to dinner, or into your political conversations, or, frankly, into your heart, might not be the happy, polite experience you’re hoping for. It’s like inviting mercy or grace into an ethical debate, it upsets the whole arrangement. When we talk about what to do with people who have broken the law, mercy is an unwelcome guest. And when confronted by a tragic situation visited upon our own family, we might clamor for rights or certainties or absolutes that we don’t give to others in the same situation. Yes, the introduction of “The Jesus Plan” tends to not only expand the tables, it just as often overturns them.
This is the Jesus who has been domesticated by the religion founded in his name, for the “law of love” is just too abstract, the practice of hospitality and welcome too wishy-washy, and the character trait of humility makes for a poor bargaining chip. “The Jesus Plan” is no way to build an empire, so we have shifted to believing things about Jesus, and placing the burden on him. Now all we have to do is agree to Jesus, to state our faith in him, and we can avoid this whole “who sits where” dilemma. And that begins to shape our theology about God, so that God becomes the one responsible, instead of a more relational God, the one pointed towards in the words of St. Augustine…”Without God we cannot, without us, God will not.” These are words that place us on a tightrope of human-Divine interaction and truly shape who we are and how we will be in the world.
But this is why our theology matters. The words we choose matter. The images of and names for God matter, as does the way we think that God works. For in the quid pro quo world we have created, it can be easy to accept that faith is contractual, that our relationship with God works within the world’s insistence on agreements and bargains; transactions and contingencies, rather than a relationship made possible by the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted and undeserved love of God. This story calls out our tendency, our cultural norm, which is to make relationships transactional, including our relationship with God. So performance, reward and punishment, what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, they all become our model for God’s interaction with us. And then we step right around the radical claim of this story, which tells us that the kin-dom is not about that kind of weak interaction…it isn’t about how we see ourselves, but how God sees us, who does not play by our rules.
Just a few years ago my father took my brother and I to Boston for a vacation, a chance to spend some time together and see the Red Sox play in historic Fenway Park. He planned, bought the airline tickets, didn’t realize that flying into Providence, Rhode Island, was not across the street from Boston, and put up with his sons as we navigated the train and made it work out. When we got to Fenway the next day, nice and early so we could take it all in, Dad handed us the tickets he purchased online. There was no one in the park yet, save a few folks like us…tourists here early to see Fenway. We walked out into right field to find our seats and as we walked up the steps, closer and closer, following the letters to our row, I could see that someone was sitting in the place I was estimating my seat to be. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “Surely with about 12 people in the ballpark we don’t already have a seat mixup.” So we waited because the people there were taking a picture and as they moved away I could see that they were sitting in a single red chair amongst the sea of green chairs in right field. “Hmmmm,” I said to my Dad, “That seems strange. I guess they must’ve had to replace that one.” So we sat down and looked over the splendor that is Fenway when another couple came up and asked if they could take a picture sitting in my seat. OK, something was up…why my seat? Turns out that in the luck of the draw, in the randomness that is online ticket sales, my father had bought the seat in right field, the only red chair in a sea of green, that marks the spot where Ted Williams, the greatest Red Sox hitter and perhaps the best hitter of all time, hit the longest in the park home run in Fenway history.
Sometimes we luck into our seats. Sometimes they are chosen for us. But what Jesus presents us with is a chance to shift our paradigm away from the transactional, where we give something in order to get something. He moves us to give something in order to make something, or, even more deeply, to give something because of something. The Apostle Paul will pick up this language when he writes to his church plants, saying that when we are “in Christ” we join in his resurrection, dying to an old self, and old way of life, and old set of values, and old paradigm, and we are raised with Christ into something new. And that new thing, my friends, is precisely what Jesus points at in this parable.
If you are celebrating a meal, Jesus teaches, don’t write down your typical guest list. You are probably including them our your list to pay them back anyway, right? No, when you invite those who cannot repay: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13b), you are living out the assertions you make, you are re-shaping your eyes to see the world differently, you are inviting the gospel to make a claim on your identity. So, this isn’t really about dinner, if you haven’t picked up on it yet. It’s not a lesson in manners, an Emily Post-type social etiquette demonstration, but rather Jesus uses the scene in front of him, complete with it’s shame and honor rules, it’s caste-system kind of hierarchy, to say that life in the Kin-dom does not operate the same way.
It’s hard to see that because the seat of honor at a dinner party is not really part of our day-to-day, is it?Perhaps instead of all of the talk about what seat to take, which much more sense to Jesus’ audience than it does to us, we should talk instead about what’s really at work in this parable which is this – what really motivates us to do something “Christian?” When we think about emulating the characteristics of Jesus, being kind, loving the stranger, healing the sick, caring for the poor and needy, is it so we can claim some seat of honor, toot our own horn, so to speak, or because we might get another star in our crown in heaven? Or, as the parable puts forth, should we invite those who cannot repay…should we have good manners at the table of God’s grace because in our messy existence, in the midst of the social conventions in 21st century North America that ask incessantly, “What’s in it for me?”, such action discloses the existence of the good intentions and purposes of the force that is there to re-create the universe all around us. As floods tear through towns, life returns. As human beings do terrible things to one another, some other human being is there to heal, to console, to pray. As our bodies age and die, life moves on through us, with us and beyond whatever part of “us” that our body is. This is what we call God, who provides us the framework of the kin-dom right here and now, present in the things that bring life…beckoning us beyond labels and a puny way of seeing the world only as me, only as the things I can quantify and describe…beyond the smallness of our bank accounts or our cholesterol count and showing us a world more defined by that feeling you have when you get awed by reading a poem or hearing a song that makes you feel like someone else understands you, or they feeling you get when you look at a sea of stars on a dark night in the middle of nowhere, or that twist in your stomach when you see your baby smile at you for the first time.
As I read and re-read this passage I was slowly reminded of the principle of seven generations, often used by groups seeking environmental justice and equally as often attributed to the so-called “Constitution” of the Iroquois, the Great Binding Law. The principle states that you should not make decisions without thinking of their impact only not only the next generation, but seven generations from now. This is actually not a direct quote from the law of the Iroquois, but rather part of the commentary on that law from native leaders who were involved in it’s making. But it rings true at a time when profit margins trump human interest, short-term gain outweighs long term consequence and we are willing to say most anything to be in a position of perceived power. For it asks us to consider something other than ourselves, to define our world in larger ways. I think that Jesus is trying to tell us that to live the kin-dom life, we must be able to think of the “sweet by and by” while living in the sometimes nasty here and now. We must be able to imagine a world without racism or poverty while knowing that it exists all around us, and within us. We have to have a vision for a time to come, for an imminent change, for what we believe will be the ultimate reality of humankind…what theologians call an eschatological vision…and we have to hold this vision while living in the reality of something as mundane as a meal, something as trivial as a dinner party, something as simple as a single encounter, with one person, a collaboration over coffee…all while you envision a revolution.
Now, are you still sure you want to invite him to dinner?