Jeremiah 2:4-13 Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Labor Day weekend always makes me nostalgic. As I have told you before, I come from a big Texas family, and when I was growing up every year we would have a family reunion on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. This gathering was made up of the descendants of Hiram and Phoebe Ward, who had 10 children, including my great-grandfather Hubbard. There were usually 100 to 150 folks in attendance, all wearing color-coded nametags to identify which branch of the family we came from. My branch was the biggest – usually a full third of those in attendance. We would visit all afternoon, enjoy a delicious potluck dinner, then have our business meeting, where we heard family news, then found out who had traveled the farthest to attend, who had traveled the shortest distance, who was the oldest, the youngest, etc.
I carry nostalgia not only for my folks, but also for their accents, their food, and the Texas-ness of it all. There are plenty of good reasons why I don’t live in Texas anymore, but I really do miss it sometimes. Lucky for me there are a lot of Texans, and a lot of opportunities to feed the need to touch base with that unique place—to touch not only the Texas of today, but to remember the way it was. I think particularly of the many works of art that capture different aspects of life in the Lone Star State: Movies like “Places in the Heart,” TV shows like “Friday Night Lights,” documentaries like “Hands on a Hardbody,” and plays like “Ann.” All of these give me the opportunity to be immersed in that world, and give me an excuse to talk about it with others.
The lens of place and time is important. Stories are marked by their settings—to fully understand the message the author intends we must understand something of its context, of the place and the people: Their customs, their political systems, their habits, etc.
All summer long, through our Sunday readings, we have been traveling with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. As Christ prepares for his final days on earth, he teaches his followers about the nature of God’s love and about the coming kingdom. Today’s reading, despite being called a parable, feels somehow different. It seems more like an excerpt from a column by Miss Manners than a biblical lesson. But we know the ways of Jesus, so we must assume that there is more to this passage than meets the eye. So what’s behind his talk of dinner etiquette?
The historical context of this story is the key to understanding it. As Jesus here discusses seating for a wedding banquet, it helps to know a little bit about the customs for such an event in this time and place. Emilie Townes, the Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, tells us that at Palestinian wedding feasts the male guests reclined on couches, the center couch being the place of honor, with its inhabitants chosen on the basis of wealth, power, or office. Just as the passage indicates, if a more prominent man arrived late, someone of lesser rank was asked to move to a less prestigious location.[i]
So this is sound advice Jesus is giving: To avoid embarrassment, don’t presume too much about your own worth. Be humble. This story reflects Hebrew wisdom literature like the Book of Proverbs, where in the 23rd chapter we are given the proper etiquette for eating with a king.
But such advice alone doesn’t seem enough to warrant this story’s inclusion in Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom. This story, far from just being a historical lesson in manners, leads us to a logical question: who might outrank us for a place of honor?
And the answer to that question lies in the second half of the passage. Here Jesus talks about the way that a host chooses his guests. Instead of inviting only those that you know can repay you with a similar invitation, invite those you know cannot reciprocate. In other words, don’t rely on the outer trappings of prestige, and don’t make invitations only for what you will get out of them.
Jesus is again talking about God’s economy—about what God values, not what we value. This passage gives us a glimpse of the realm of God, with its own social and spiritual order.
This passage reminds us that God values all of God’s creation, including those that the world does not value. God sees the potentiality of all humankind, and, in an effort to overcome our human tendency to have favorites, God shows a partiality for those forgotten in our society.
Of course, all of us have been neglected by the world at one time or another, haven’t we? Part of the human condition is that we all have felt oppressed at one time or another, even as we have also been the oppressors. But of course most of us usually find ourselves among the haves rather than the have-nots.
But even that doesn’t matter to God. God values us all, blind to the distinctions that we make. The point is not that God loves the disenfranchised more than those of us who have been richly blessed. The point is that God loves us all, and longs for us to do the same—to love each other, without reserve.
In today’s gospel Jesus calls us into service of the kingdom of God as instruments of God’s upside-down, unearthly economy. Karl Barth, the 20th-century Swiss theologian, explained that we are called to acts of love for one another as a witness to the fellowship between God and humanity. When we love one another unreservedly, we are merely bearing witness to the unreserved love of God for us. In regard to racial, cultural, and ethnic differences, Barth goes on to say that our work as God’s people is not simply to recognize our difference, but to overcome it—to erase it in thanks for God’s blindness to our own shortcomings.[ii]
This call to unreserved love and respect for one another appears again and again throughout the Bible. In the 18th chapter of Genesis, three angels disguised as ordinary men appear to Abraham, and he treats these strangers with great favor; this is contrasted with the treatment these three same angels receive in the town of Sodom, showcasing God’s preference for hospitality. Later in the Old Testament, in the Book of Proverbs, we read, “Those who oppress the poor insult their maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” And Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews admonishes us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” [Hebrews 13:2] The call for hospitality to strangers is a clear call to recognize the value of others.
For the early Christians this kind of hospitality was important. The letter-carriers who brought the messages from Paul and other early evangelists that now make up the Epistles of the New Testament were often strangers to the communities they came to. First-century Christians, as outsiders to the power base in their homelands, were outside the law and therefore sometimes subject to punishment. And a personal morality that began with recognizing the sanctity of the each person was crucial to this small, family-centered church.
We are called to practice hospitality and compassion for all people. Certainly our world could use a bigger dose of hospitality and respect in these times, when our government often seems bent toward suspicion and inhospitable actions. The news today is full of stories of neglect and abuse of migrants, the poor, the marginalized. Indeed these are people who deserve not our scorn, but our respect and compassion. Shouldn’t we as followers of the way of Jesus be the first to offer an unconditional hand of love and honor? Isn’t that the central promise of the Kingdom of God?
As I think about all of this, I come back to a film I mentioned earlier. Robert Benton’s 1984 movie Places in the Heart evokes the powerful contrast between our world and God’s kingdom. The movie is set in central Texas in 1935, (the Texas of my grandparents) where the depression, natural disasters, and bigotry all made for a hard life. Sally Field, in one of her Academy Award-winning roles, plays Edna, who after her husband is accidentally killed, finds herself a widow struggling to hang on to her home and family. She takes in an out-of-work black man, played by Danny Glover, as a hired hand, and he helps her see that her land has potential to yield a successful cotton crop. Along with her two young children and a blind boarder, they manage to bring in a crop and raise enough money to save the farm.
Along the way these characters experience the many prejudices, betrayals and limitations that characterize that time. But this band of outcasts, perceived as of little use to society (a single woman, a poor black man, a blind man, and two children) prove that they can fend for themselves—they prove that they are of worth. In the last scene we are back in the church that we saw in the opening, and all of the movie’s characters—black and white, young and old, able-bodied and differently able, living and dead—take communion, passing the bread and wine to each other and invoking the peace of Christ.
In this rich scene we see a glimpse of God’s promise to us. Just as we experience here in this beautiful church, when God’s beloved children gather at God’s table, we are reminded that we are all favored guests. Each of us is worthy to receive the priceless gift of God’s grace: The knowledge that we are precious in God’s eyes, and that God cradles each of us in a loving hand.
God’s gracious hospitality is extended to each of you. God invites you to a special place of honor at this table. Come share in God’s extravagant love. And then dare to go into the world and pass along that love to all of God’s people. Amen.
[i] Townes, Emilie M. in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 22.
[ii] Raynal, Charles E. in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. pp. 22 & 24.