“The Table is Open” Colchester Federated Church, September 1, 2019, (Luke 14:1, 7-14) Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
My mentor Pash continues to spend time in Karnataka (in the south of India) working in partnership with the Siddis (Indians of African descent) to support their education and focus on improving their life’s daily conditions. He’s there right now actually. On my first trip to India with him, we went on a walk together and ended up walking through several villages in the jungle. We were quite the pair to the locals and one older woman saw us out walking and invited us to sit down in her home and have a snack and just rest for a moment. She gave up her plastic chair and insisted that we sit as she went into the interior of her home (with dirt floors and thatched roof) to get us something to eat and drink.
Now depending on where one travels in the country, one must be careful about the food consumed and the water drunk if it hasn’t been prepared in ways that our American systems can handle. At the convent where we stay, the sisters and their cooks know this and boil water for us before cooking meals. We know to brush our teeth with bottled water and drink either bottled water or water that’s been boiled and then cooled and all that, so it’s no problem. But out in the wider villages surrounding the convent, you just have to be more cautious about stuff like that to avoid becoming ill.
So out came this Indian woman from her home in the middle of the jungle (this woman who I didn’t know and Pash didn’t know) with a small plate of food and a small metal cup for each of us. We gratefully took the food and I glanced inside the cup. I couldn’t tell if this was water or juice, it looked clear in color. I smiled at the woman who was smiling at me and looked over at Pash for some indication of what we should do in this unexpected situation. He looked back at me and took a quick drink and I followed his example and did the same. You see, hospitality is huge in India. There’s a Sanskrit saying that “the guest is God.” It’s like the story we have in our own Christian tradition in Genesis about Abraham and Sarah entertaining three strangers and they ended up being angels. Or we can read in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.” The call to hospitality can be found in many traditions, including our own.
Further, when someone has so little and they generously offer you what little they have—it’s not like you can just refuse that kindness, at least I couldn’t and Pash couldn’t sitting with this older woman in her home. It would have been awful for her to offer hospitality to us (knowing the belief that the guest is God) and for us to refuse that hospitality in the form of resting from our walk and eating food and having something to drink. At the same time, the reality is that you may be risking getting sick and that’s not exactly a pleasant thought in a foreign country. So we sat with this woman, mostly just smiling at each other, as we ate the food and drank the juice she gave to two strangers in her village out on a walk. We thanked her and went on our way. And by the way, neither of us got sick.
The lesson that we hear from Jesus this morning is about humility and hospitality. What he teaches is informed by an experience he had during a meal when he himself was a guest. One Sabbath Jesus goes over to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees to share a meal. Again, it’s short-sighted if we think that Jesus and every Pharisee were always at odds. Here’s a religious leader who invites Jesus over to his house for a meal! Anyway, while in his home, Jesus observes how the guests were seeking out the best seats at the table. This occurrence makes Jesus feels compelled to tell those gathered a parable about both humility and hospitality. To remind them that when someone invites you to a wedding celebration, you shouldn’t take your seat in the place of honor. Because someone who is more highly regarded may have been invited by the host. And you would put the host in the position of having to tell you to give your seat up to this other person.
Jesus explains, “Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Hospitality was a big concern during Jesus’ time in his culture. Giving your seat up at a wedding celebration would have been so embarrassing and so public. To understand how this would have even looked, we need to know something about dinner parties in the First Century. The editors of the Common English Bible explain that Jesus went to dinner parties with Pharisees, tax collectors, and the poor throughout the Gospel of Luke. These meals are images of God’s kingdom. In the world in which Jesus lived, dinner parties were an important aspect of maintaining one’s place in society. To prepare to attend a dinner party—people bathed, would put oil in their hair, and put perfume on their bodies in the afternoon to be ready for this social event. Remember that hygiene back then was not like our hygiene tends to be now (people couldn’t just jump in the shower before going someplace important!) When it came time for a dinner party or a wedding, people would take the time to look and smell nice—and it took time and effort to do so!
Sometimes a slave would even travel around town to inform the guests when the party was ready to begin on behalf of their master. As the guests entered the host’s home, a slave would wash their feet to ensure that they felt comfortable and received hospitably after their journey. Once in the dining room, the guests would recline on cushioned benches that were in a U-shape and would rest on one elbow. After being seated and comfortably reclining, slaves would come into the dining room and place the food on low tables in front of the benches. The diners would slowly eat and drink with one hand while having conversations with their neighbors. In our American culture, we tend to eat quickly. If we go to a restaurant and the service is slow, we complain about it. Our meals are often not leisurely at all. That’s not true in every culture.
Now the best seats (the seats of honor) were the seats in the middle of the U. That was where the action took place. The farther away that a person was from the center, the less significant their status happened to be. So what Jesus is observing at this meal at the Pharisee’s house on the Sabbath is that people are seeking to be in the middle of the U. And if you do that and someone more important comes to the meal, then the host is going to have to ask you to move (in front of everyone) to not offend the person who has more status in society than you do. So by puffing yourself up with your seat of honor, you’re actually embarrassing yourself. You’re embarrassing your host. And you’re possibly embarrassing the person who’s deemed more important because you’re having to move for them to have an appropriate place at the table.
Instead, Jesus says that when someone receives an invitation—that person needs to sit far away from the center and show a little humility. Though at the same time, all of this is coming from a place of sarcasm in some ways. Because among Jesus’ follower’s, status and being recognized publicly for who one happens to be or one’s accomplishments doesn’t count for much anyway. Jesus didn’t have a lot of time for stuff like that.
Jesus ends his parable by saying, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”
So Jesus ends this discussion of humility and hospitality by challenging people even more. Don’t just think about being humble and not placing yourself in the center of the action by putting yourself in the center of the seating arrangement. Also think about inviting people who never get invitations to fancy dinner parties. Because when you host a meal for someone who can’t repay you, that’s even more significant. Jesus ends this lesson by being more radically open than many people would have felt comfortable being. Jesus is calling for an open table, a table where everyone is invited to dine.
This image of the banquet open to all happens to be one of my favorite images of the Kingdom of God in the entire Bible. Because it’s an image that’s so relatable even here and now. It has implications for how some Christian traditions (like our own) view Communion and who’s allowed to receive the Sacrament. Who’s in and who’s out, if you will. The open table doesn’t take a ton of translating to understand, and it still feels a little uncomfortable to imagine hosting a dinner party and not inviting those closest to you but inviting strangers. And not just strangers, but the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.
When we’re tempted to pass it all off as impossible, another lesson that Jesus taught that we can’t possibly do in real life so it must be metaphorical—I think back to that Indian woman who invited Pash and me (two foreigners who were perfect strangers to her) into her home to receive what little food she had to offer and a cup of juice that meant she and her family had less to eat and drink that day. And I think, not only is this possible, it’s just so beautiful. Thanks be to God. Amen.