Have you ever not been invited to a dinner party? Perhaps because you were not in an inner circle. Perhaps because you were overlooked. The worst is when the people you know were there. It can hurt, a lot. With some prayer, yes, we can turn to love and let it go. But it is hard. It is about companionship denied, and about power. Jesus lived in a shame culture. In many ways, so do we. Being excluded has deep hooks in our self-esteem and social status.
Jesus is dining with some Pharisees. Friends. Pharisees were the literate people, and some were intrigued with Jesus, and many were delighted to debate theology with him. So Jesus is here for a good dinner and good talk. Jesus was open to friendship, and the host may have been a friend, even a follower. Right at the first verse of this chapter we are told that “One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.” But closely watched in the Greek can mean “walked beside.” Watched, yes. And yes, there were those who were pretty skeptical about this itinerant prophet, or whatever he was. It was a dangerous time. But we know there were those Pharisees and others who were looking for the sign that he was the one promised by so many prophets of the past. Tested, might be another way to see it.
In the previous part, Luke 14:7-12, Jesus suggests that it was better not to take the best seat because you just might be invited out of the seat and sent to the low end of the table. Better to be invited up. And we hear some chuckles, and see some red faces. And then he pushes a bit more. Don’t invite the good people. They just might invite you back, and where is the blessing in that? And think of the social mess you might have gotten yourself into. Invite the poor, smelly, broken, hungry. A good Jewish sentiment. “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Puzzled faces, some grins, some rolled eyes. Olam haba, the world to come. Is he one of those rabbis? But somebody got it. “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Picture how those who hear this parable read in Luke’s community get to smile, because they know that those who were at the banquet with Jesus were doing just that, if they only had known.
Breaking bread is just about as central to human society as sex. If Jesus was at Shabbat, somebody started the meal with a blessing of the bread and wine. Now it is the job of the woman of the house. Was it then? Who did bless and break the bread? This is a sacred meal, one which binds the participants, and praises the abundance of God. All tables are holy tables, or should be, where we share nourishment and fellowship. And Jesus is teasing, teaching the lessons of the Torah, to welcome the stranger, to feed the poor, be merciful to the disenfranchised, those who sit at the end of the table, if they are invited at all. But this dinner party is also about power competing with humility.
For the faithful Jew, ethics were firmly grounded in scripture and ritual. Everybody at that table knew to his bones that the poor needed to be cared for and fed. But maybe not at the family table. No room with the inn? And these are the people, friends or skeptics, with whom Jesus is spending the Sabbath evening meal. And he is not offended by them. He loves them, enjoying their company, and teaching, always teaching.
Then Jesus tells a parable, similar to the parable of the Invitation to the Wedding Banquet (Mt 22: 1-14). Here, a certain man is giving a dinner party. At the last minute he sends his servant to gather the guests. We know that at least three people begged off. In every case it is a man (presumably) who has acquired something, even a good thing. A farmer, a rancher, a newlywed. All good things, useful to the community. But the host of the feast is not pleased and rounds up the stranger, poor, needy from the street, and when that doesn’t do it he orders his servants to round up more from the hedgerows, homeless, rural poor, to fill the hall and share in the abundance of the table. Bring in the whole world. Yes, we get it, and Luke’s community gets it. And probably the slightly scandalized Pharisees at that Sabbath table get it.
With Jesus it is always about humility. About being the least. And it is good people as often as not who are chided or punished. Jesus’ priority is always to obey God, our Father. Focus on heaven. Always be ready for the call. Yielding, submitting, obeying are not modern virtues. Where are we now? A monster movie or a church function? Taking care of the lawn or a soup kitchen? So we gauge what is enough and what it too much? This is pretty normal; was then, is now. But we are also surrounded by an overwhelming secular and materialistic society. It batters and distracts. Bling. Shiny. Flashing lights. Noise. Fifteen minute heroes. Celebrities made and shut down in days. And millions spent on mind numbing entertainment, and that ever present 24/7 noise delivered on ear buds. Everything is disposable, including people. Who has the discipline to deny their child the sport shoe du jour when money is short? Can we sit at table without the TV, tablet, smart phone competing with kinship of family or community, and share abundance of the table? Having a little fun doesn’t mean turning from God’s law. We are not plaster saints. We are the Beloved Community. But when does fun drown out the Spirit?
And this brings us back to the teasing and teaching. Are we going to take the best seat? Only wear what is trendy and new? Are we going to try to hang with the in crowd? It is the high school cafeteria all over again. But these stories are not just feel-good pop psychology. Jesus is telling what is True, the will of God. None of these worldly honors matter. St. Thomas Aquinas said that after God all else is straw. St. Teresa of Avila said much the same thing, “God is all.” Our call is to follow Jesus and our Teacher says to be simple, take care of the needy, and don’t worry about the glamour (a word that also means bewitchment) of the world. Jesus is saying enjoy a good life, feasting, companionship, but not forget that he is present in it. Take joy in the gifts of God. That abundant table will be ours now and forever. We take one step at a time, with prayer, with teaching, with Scripture. We have faith in the promise of God who gives us eternal life, eternal safety, unqualified love. We can be one with the poor because we are rich. We are important to the only one who counts. We feast with the true Host of the Table.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.