by Christie Webb
If today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke were written up in Martha Stewart Living, the title of the article would be HOW NOT TO THROW A PARTY. Martha Stewart knows her parties, and the magazine helps us common people learn how to entertain and live the life. And Martha would not approve of any of this. The article would begin with a note to the Pharisees: do not invite people whom you are only hoping to watch and trap. It won’t turn out well. They probably won’t behave well, as you expected, and the result may challenge your honor.
And that would be followed by a note to Jesus, Now Jesus, be a good guest, do not challenge the other guests by calling them out on their honor seeking behavior. Awkward. You are just making everyone uncomfortable. And be nice to your host. Remember: You are an invited guest. Martha would definitely disapprove of Jesus note to hosts. She would counter: hosts, do not fail to invite your friends and family and the rich guy--that is just ludicrous. Parties are for the people you love.
But in Jesus world, in the kingdom world, in the realm where the banquet is set, in perhaps if you will, a magazine called Thy Kingdom Come, the title of the article would be: “How to throw the Best Party.” God’s party is not like any party we have ever been to before. The kingdom of God has come near. And it looks nothing like what we are used to.
Which is perhaps where the difficulty of this passage is for us. These interactions of Jesus, these quasi parables, that are more instruction for life, are hard to understand and harder to envision living. We are used to Martha Stewart’s rules of engagement, not Jesus rules of engagement. These suggestions of Jesus are odd and feel impossible, and quite honestly make us a little nervous.
They do not make sense in our world, in our ways, in the honor and shame culture in which we live, like the people of Jesus time lived.
In Jesus day, honor was like currency. There wasn’t enough to go around, so you had to bargain and connive and plot your way to winning more. And so they sought out places of honor at wedding feasts. And they sought to gain honor by who they invited to their own parties.
It’s not so different from us. We all seek the invitations to the best parties, the honored place at the lunch table of the coolest seminarians we know. We seek honor and fame, idealizing celebrities because they are known by all, loved by all, rich and famous. Or perhaps more close to home, we seek honor and fame by higher grades, perfect papers, more degrees, by an article printed in that prestigious journal, or simply by articulating the most complex theological thought so that everyone will admire us, honor us. Yep, not so different.
And so when we hear these words of Jesus, our honest reaction deep inside, is more: WHAT? You can’t really be serious. Than it is Yes! Right on Jesus.
For the fear is this: what if we humble ourselves and take the lowest place so that we might be exalted, so that we might be asked up higher, and instead of hearing “Friend, come up to the place of honor” we hear the host whisper in our ear, “Oh, I’m so glad you recognized your rightful place.” SHAME. Do you feel its fiery tongues lash at your heart at the thought.
And what if we were to really invite the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind to our tables. What would our friends and family and the rich guy next door think of us? Imagine the backlash: SHAME. And really, what then, once all these Undesirable number ones are at our tables? What ever will we talk about? What will people think of us? SHAME.
And guess what, these are precisely the very things that are supposed to bubble up within us. It is as if these instructions from Jesus are meant to be for us, and for the people at the party long ago, mirrors. They are mirrors in which we see clearly, perhaps for the first time, how steeped we are in honor and shame, how it rules the center of our beings. And even as we see ourselves clearly in the mirror, to recognize these instructions from Jesus for what they are: the way to subversively beat the system.
Yes, that’s right, to humble ourselves, to invite the undesirables, these are the very ways that we may and can and are called to free ourselves, disentangle ourselves from the system that limits us, oppresses us, and our neighbor, and the whole world.
For you see the best way to end the game, to ruin the game, is to stop playing the game. Like a kid who upon losing another game of baseball, picks up his ball and bat, the very things that are necessary to continue to play the game, and simply walks home. Game over.
Jesus refuses to play the game. Jesus begins his ministry with these words: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. And in the first beatitude of Jesus in the sermon on the plain we hear: Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Jesus sits in the places of dishonor with the people of disrepute, and loves it. And when John’s disciples question Jesus as to whether he is the one they were waiting for Jesus says “Tell John, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
Jesus preference for the poor, the crippled, the lame the blind, the outcast plays against the system, outside the system, and defeats the system by his refusal to engage. For the system of the world is not what God has in mind. The kingdom of God is so very different. And Jesus brings the kingdom near.
He brings that kingdom near enough that we glimpse it. We glimpse the possibility of the kingdom, like those beams of light that break through the clouds with their piercing illumination, we glimpse just how very different God’s kingdom is and will be. We for an instant can see the banquet table in the realm of God. Do you see it? It’s a round table, no head, no seat of dishonor. And around the table all are gathered. See there, its President Obama engaging with smiles the President of Syria, exuding between them peace and understanding and honor while they help a crippled man eat his dinner. And there is Jennifer Aniston, sitting next to the blind beggar that we all used to walk past on the streets of Chicago. And it looks like we have a seat next to Jennifer, and it doesn’t even matter that she is famous, and that long ago during the Friends years we had posters of her up in our bedrooms, or that we tried to cut our hair just like hers. For now, she’s just plain old Jennifer, with a place at the banquet.
And perhaps sitting on our other side is the very person we failed to invite over and again to our parties, or our study groups, or our lunch table, and here they are waiting for us, here at the banquet before us, receiving in fact their invitation first, and what do you know, they thought to save us a seat.
This is the heart of Jesus instructions at the party. This glimpse of what might be. Jesus words open in us the possibility, the vision of what it looks like to really live the kingdom of God here on earth. It sparks within us the desire, and gives hope that maybe, just maybe, if we could, well, if we could do it together, we might find the courage to throw off the system, toss out our Martha Stewart guide to the best parties, and instead start making the invites, and sit down with the least and the lost and the outcast for the party of the cosmos, God’s kingdom party right here on earth.
Luke 14: 1, 7-14