Sunday, August 29
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Almighty God, in your goodness, you provide for the needy. Remove from your people the pride of place and the pursuit of power that mocks humility. Open our hearts in generosity and justice to the neglected and lonely, that in showing esteem for others, we may honor and please you through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Amen
Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable."When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 2:4-13 with Psalm 81:1, 10-16 or
Sirach 10:12-18 with Psalm 112 and
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and
Luke 14:1, 7-14
1. What does hospitality mean to you? To your church?
2. What makes hospitality "strategic"?
3. How can you be a blessing in your everyday life?
4. Who is missing from the table of your church? From whom do we "avert our eyes"?
5. How do you imagine the Great Feast will look and feel?
by Kate Huey
Spending a little time wandering around a bookstore provides some sense of a deep contradiction, or at least tension, in our culture: on the one hand, there are plenty of books to help a person "get ahead," make it to the top (and maybe even the corner--office, that is), to succeed and be recognized and rewarded. I suspect that not one of those books advises the reader to make a habit of seeking the margins, the lowest places of invisibility and inconsequence, far from the "important" action…after all, how can one make one's mark on the world from way out there? On the other hand, there's also shelf after shelf of books and tapes that promise to help us find inner peace, wholeness, wellness-- books that will tell us how to relax, to enjoy fulfilled, happy lives. Perhaps it depends on your definition of being fulfilled. Or at least of being filled.
Over the weekend, I saw the new film, "Eat, Pray, Love," the story of a woman on a personal quest that takes her to Italy, India, and Bali, where she, well, eats, prays, and loves. Perhaps she appropriately begins her spiritual journey not with strict, ascetic practices but with consuming big plates of pasta with unreserved gusto, for isn't physical hunger a good image for spiritual hunger? Fred Craddock sees an even deeper gospel connection between the physical and the spiritual: for Luke, "[b]read was important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present." Eating--that most human and most necessary of activities--and all that we associate with it are entwined with our spiritual lives, so it's no surprise that meals and food are significant themes not just in the movies but in the Bible as well.
Indeed, meals are very important to the Gospel writer, Luke: N. T. Wright observes that "Luke's gospel has more meal-time scenes than all the others. If his vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, from another point of view it's a party." It doesn't matter whether the eating happens in Emmaus, an Upper Room, or the fields along the road (plucking the heads of grain); in the home of a despised tax collector (Levi, in chapter five) or even those of respectable religious leaders who invite Jesus to join them: like Simon the Pharisee, in chapter seven, and here, in chapter fourteen, another, unnamed leader of the Pharisees who offers Jesus hospitality for the Sabbath dinner.
Speaking of tension: we usually feel it whenever Jesus and the Pharisees--not to mention the lawyers and other leaders--get together and talk about religious issues. However, that doesn't make Jesus and the Pharisees enemies. On the contrary, Gary E. Peluso-Verdend observes that Jesus behaved more like a Pharisee than like any of the other groups of his day, including the Sadducees, the Essenes, or even "the people of the land." It's much better to approach these disputes "as conflicts within a community and a tradition," Peluso-Verdend writes, "than as Jesus' efforts to destroy the tradition and its adherents." However, while the Pharisees, just before this scene, warned Jesus about Herod's plan to kill him, there is still that haunting sense that they are so displeased with Jesus that they, too, will finally feel that this trouble-making "heretic" has to be stopped.
In any case, here we are, in the home of a Pharisee who has extended the honor of hospitality toward Jesus, and how does Jesus respond? With the other guests watching him with suspicion and expectation, he does and says things that inevitably cause either dead silence or an uproar of protest. In the verses omitted by the lectionary reading, "a man who had dropsy" appears before Jesus, who seems to think it would be a good conversation-starter to ask about the lawfulness of curing someone on the Sabbath. When he gets no response, he goes ahead and heals the man, and then points out that any one of the guests would have helped their child or their ox if either had fallen in a well, even if it were on the Sabbath. Again, they say nothing. So Jesus turns to one of my father's favorite pastimes: people-watching.
When I was growing up, we kids often sat in the car with our dad, while our mother shopped, and were entertained by his interesting commentary on the people who walked by. In the same way, Jesus observes the guests maneuvering for the places of honor at the table and recalls the ancient wisdom of an honor-based culture about holding back and hoping to be called up to the higher place: he practically quotes Proverbs 25:7, "it is better to be told, 'Come up here,' than to be put lower in the presence of a noble." It sounds like shrewd advice rather than spiritual wisdom, something cultural and very this-worldly, but that doesn't stop the guests at this dinner from going for the best seats.
Words of wisdom
Are the Pharisees hopelessly prideful, and are they "the bad guys" here? It's helpful, and perhaps a bit painful, for us to remember that today we would consider the Pharisees faithful, active church members who are trying to live virtuous lives. In other words, we might best read this text through the eyes of insiders who shift uncomfortably in our seats when outsiders come into the dinner party we know as church. (Think of that infamous but familiar line, "You're sitting in my pew.") However, the people that Jesus holds up as worthy of inviting to dinner--rather than people of one's own station who can repay the favor; where's the generosity, the grace, in that?--are the very people who would not have been permitted in the homes of "the respectable," or in places of worship either, for in that time they were considered "unclean": "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind." Today, we might have different names and designations for those on the margins, those in the lowest seats (if they're even in the room), but Jesus' instructions are the same.
Jesus' response to the mad rush for the best seats among the honored guests begins, Luke says, with a parable, so we can safely assume that there are layers of meaning in it. N.T. Wright suggests that Jesus is referring to "the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God," the way they would "push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, to maintain their own purity." For Luke's generation, these instructions must have helped shape their celebration of the Lord's Supper, the center of their worship life, but it also addressed the tension that existed over the acceptance of non-Jews, or Gentiles, into the originally Jewish-Christian community. According to Wright, these early Christians "could not grasp God's great design to stand the world on its head. Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God's generosity….Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God's love to those in its shadow." And, even more importantly, Luke's Jesus draws our hearts and minds toward that great feast that we will all share, the one we look forward to every time we celebrate the sacrament at a table that welcomes all of God's children to be fed by the grace of God. Is it any wonder, then, that people are deeply moved, lives are changed, and we catch a glimpse of the reign of God, when we gather at the table? Perhaps it depends on how you define "wonder."
Be forgetfully generous
Jesus then directs instructions not only to his host but to all of us: when making up our guest lists and deciding how to share the blessings we've received, don't be strategic. Don't go for reciprocity. Be extravagantly, forgetfully generous. Invite the most unlikely, most unexpected of guests into your home and share that most necessary, most enjoyable experience of eating together. "You will be blessed," Jesus says, repaid at the resurrection, for sure, but we sense that he's referring to more immediate blessings as well.
We have domesticated hospitality, shaped a kind of eco-system of inviting that keeps the welcome circulating among our "own kind" of people, or at least those we can feel comfortable around. Our generosity toward strangers and all those we might consider "strange" is often offered from a distance, without personal contact. But Peluso-Verdend reminds us that the "Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means 'love of the stranger,'" and "banquet behavior fitting for the reign of God ought to affect dinner invitations even now." Byars observes that the list of those "strangers" changes from one time and place to another, the ones "whom respectable people expect to turn aside. Jesus' challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to avert our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues"--that is, we are to include at our tables "those who do not take an invitation for granted." In those moments, we will catch a glimpse of the way things will be in the reign of God, but not because we have condescended to welcome those "beneath" us; rather, we will understand that Jesus has changed "the rules" for, as Dianne Bergant writes, he "redefines" both "honorable behavior" and "honored guests."
Be a blessing
Early in the film, "Eat, Pray, Love," the main character seems to realize that she's missing something in not being able to extend herself, to be present for, others. We might say that she hungers to be a blessing as well as to count her blessings (which she does do, at one point). Emilie Townes has written a beautiful reflection on this passage from Luke that incorporates just such an awareness: "Being a blessing is not easy, but trying to jump-start it by scurrying into spaces and places we think will shower us with blessings or display the blessings we have received or perceive we have received is much easier. In all these cases, the deep theological meaning of blessing is lost…." Townes challenges us to "mine for how we seek blessings, rather than how we try to live our lives as blessing."
With those words in mind, I read an op-ed piece, "Angels in America," by Frank Rich in the August 15 New York Times about the recent death of a wealthy, prominent woman, Judith Dunnington Peabody. Surely, Mrs. Peabody enjoyed the highest place at the tables she graced, and we might think that she was one of those people who chose to remain in her own circle of privilege and comfort. Lisa Davison provides the possibility of another perspective, a different lens through which we might read this woman's story: "Having power and wealth is not inherently evil; it is how one uses these privileges that matters most to God. Is power used to oppress others or to liberate them? Is wealth hoarded only for self-gain or shared with those who have so little? When the human family works together on behalf of everyone, life improves for all, and God is pleased." More than one article about Mrs. Peabody's life reveals a woman who understood--deeply--what it means to be a blessing, and what it means to love the strangers in our lives, not from afar, but sitting right down, next to them.
In addition to the traditional fundraising (among her "own") that most society matrons engage in, Judith Peabody worked with and for those in need, those whom most folks would have avoided, including, for example, a Hispanic youth gang in East Harlem. Her obituary, written by Bruce Weber, makes it sound as if she keenly understood Jesus' instructions about whom to invite to your table: "One night she invited them all for dinner to our apartment,' Mr. Peabody recalled in an interview Monday.'The doormen were, well, a little surprised. It was a great night'" (NYT July 27, 2010). Guy Trebay's article gives voice to those who recall her courage and generosity of spirit, when she also worked hard during the 1980's as a caregiver for gay men with HIV/AIDS, while others stayed away out of fear: according to Marjorie Hill, the director of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, "There was this constant with her of consoling and holding people's hands." Trebay quotes a number of people who try to describe what made Mrs. Peabody so unusual: "That the people in her particular village were 'the most marginalized,' and often those furthest from her own milieu of 'incredible social privilege' was what set her apart, Dr. [Jonathan] Jacobs said." And William Norwich's reminiscences certainly evoke the heart of Jesus' advice to his dinner host: "What made her different was she was always going into areas where polite society didn't go….Friends of hers would tell her: 'I can't believe you're doing that. We don't know people like that'" (Trebay, NYT August 4, 2010). In this week's Gospel passage, Jesus tells us to surprise others by our own dinner guest list, and to make our mark from the edges, the most unexpected place of all.
A preaching version of this commentary can be found on http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel
For further reflection
Boris Pasternak, 20th century
He comes as a guest to the feast of existence, and knows that what matters is not how much he inherits but how he behaves at the feast, and what people remember and love him for.
George Bernard Shaw, 20th century
The churches must learn humility as well as teach it.
Thomas Merton, 20th century
Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.
Victor Hugo, 19th century
There are people who observe the rules of honor as we observe the stars: from a distance.
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