Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jesus, the Lousiest Dinner Guest

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
November 5, 2014

Luke 14:15-24
“For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

Have you ever thrown a really great dinner party? I can think of numerous times when my wife and I have hosted good friends, like-minded people, people who share many views in common with us, people it’s great to share a glass of wine with, and then maybe to play Ticket to Ride or Lords of Waterdeep. I love these times.

But this isn’t the kind of dinner party Jesus blesses.

Have you ever been a guest at a really terrible dinner party? You know, the kind where one person makes everybody else feel uncomfortable, and it’s clear that everybody wishes the person would just leave, so the party can go back to being a group of like-minded people, people who share many views in common with us, people it’s great to share a glass of wine with?

The gospels show us that when Jesus is on the guest list, this second kind of party is much more likely. Someone at the party is going to make a scene, whether it’s an unseemly woman breaking in and crying all over Jesus’ feet, or in this case, Jesus himself.

Jesus is eating at the home of a leader of the Pharisees on the Sabbath. He tells a parable to one of the dinner guests, and by extension, to the table in general. Now, it’s not like they didn’t mean to invite Jesus. Most likely, Jesus is the supposed guest of honor, and the crowd invited has been invited for one purpose: to trap Jesus in his own words and to give them a reason to seek his arrest. And that’s the context into which Jesus drops his parable.

So what if you threw a party and nobody came? Even if you have a fairly healthy ego, chances are you’d wonder, at least for a fleeting moment, what that said about you. “Maybe nobody likes me. Why not? Where have I gone wrong?” But that’s not a problem for the dinner host in Jesus’ parable. The host is angry about the guests who didn’t come, but his greater concern is that there’s all this food, and it wouldn’t be right for it to go to waste. And so he invites “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” None of these people hold any status of value in his society. All of them will be hungry. So they will be much more likely to come to dinner.

Jesus tells this parable after just having said, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He has also just advised, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, don’t invite your friends, or rich people! Invite people who could use a meal, and who can’t possibly repay you.”

In the world of social services, we hear that we should not give cash to people on the street; who knows how they will use it? We should not support the dependent nature of those who are not helping themselves—whether they can or cannot help themselves is another question. There will always be those who want to assume that the poor, if they just worked a little harder, would no longer be poor. And there will always be those who helping instincts are difficult to rein in, who might not recognize their tendency to breed unhealthy dependency.

But both of these extremes are based on the assumption that we don’t actually know the people we’re helping. They’re based on caricatures, not on individuals. Jesus, on the other hand, was all about individuals. He could look at a person and very quickly ascertain the necessary remedy. In some cases, it was food or healing. In other cases, it was a very hard truth designed to shake the person up. Jesus’ response to a given stranger is totally unpredictable, but only because we don’t know the stranger. Jesus does. He evaluates this situation and decides that what this party needs is a hot, steaming, and very bitter plate of truth. And so he tells this parable.

Now, here I want to point out a detail of the parable we can’t possibly render in English unless we resort to a technique for Greek translation I picked up while living in the South: for singular “you,” say “you.” For plural “you,” say “y’all.”

“Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.’ For I tell y’all, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.”

In the last verse, “you” is plural! So the voice has shifted from the parable back to the real-life dinner party guests. “I may be a guest here, but in reality, I’m the host, and when the time comes for the heavenly banquet, not one of y’all will taste a bite.”

What an ungracious and embarrassing guest! Who does he think he is? Could somebody please ask this Jesus guy to leave so we can go back to our comfortable party of like-minded people? And then could somebody please uncork another bottle of wine? We’re going to need it!

Indeed, blessed is anyone who will eat bread (and drink wine) in the kingdom of God. But the very people who were invited first, when they assume they are included, become the ones in danger of being thrown out. These are the people who assume their place at the head of the table. So Jesus shames them and tells them to move down to the lowest seat. Jesus invites to the table first any poor, downtrodden soul who feels forsaken by society or even forsaken by God. But for those who feel assured of God’s blessing, Jesus offers only fear and trembling. He says, in essence, “I’m throwing a party for everyone in the world, all right. On the menu tonight you’ll find mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. But y’all are acting boorish and arrogant and threatening the other guests. If you’re not interested in what we’re serving, I can’t allow you to stay here and spoil the party. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” And so the guest becomes the host, and before long, he will also become the meal.

Friends, there is nothing more important than this banquet—not your land, not your oxen, and not even your own wedding. Not your financial security, not your self-assurance, and certainly not your social status. Even within the realm of God’s infinite loving mercy, there are consequences for our actions. Our places can be given away. But today, look! The table is richly laid, and you are welcome to it, as long as you understand that you may not unseat anybody else from it. Not even the wicked. Not even the undeserving. Not even those who never get their lives together. Everybody is welcome to eat their fill of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Come and eat. Amen.

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