In the 14th chapter of Luke Jesus lays out, what I’m sure was considered to be by many of his time, rather disgusting and outrageous dinner-party etiquette. But this chapter is about much more than merely a first century dinner party. It is a chapter that has astounding implications for our lives today!
Read Luke 14:1, 7-24 (Lectionary assigned Gospel for Sunday, August 28th)
Jesus went to a dinner party of a “leader of the Pharisees” which tells us it was a prestigious event comprised of the religious elites of the community. It was at this party that Jesus advanced his outrageous points of etiquette in three different ways; points that clashed and conflicted with “proper” dinner-party etiquette of his time, as well as with deeply embedded social, moral, political and religious values.
First, observing that many of the guests had chosen the preferential places of rank and honor, Jesus seized it as a teaching point. He said when going to a dinner party to not seek out the places of honor, but to intentionally seek out the lowest place, the place of least distinction, the place of humility.
Second, he suggested directly to the host that the next time he had a party to not invite his friends, colleagues, relatives and status people of the community who would most likely return the favor back to him, but “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind… because they cannot repay you.”
With that, it seems to me, Jesus had quickly insulted his host. To “invite the poor, crippled, lame and blind” was for a Pharisee to invite those considered religiously unclean and morally inferior, and there were many religious prohibitions against contact with the unclean and immoral, especially around the table of fellowship.
Third, with that insult Jesus plowed ahead and told a story about someone who gave a party and invited all the people that one would expect at a prestigious dinner party. The implication was that these invited guest had already RSVP’d their acceptance. It was the custom, in those days, to send a servant out to the homes of the invited guests to announce that all was ready. But, as the servant made his rounds, he encountered a litany of last minute cancellations and a host of excuses. Two excuses were about business matters and one was personal in that he just been married and was on the honeymoon. The servant returned and told the host of the cancellations and the host became angry. Who wouldn’t? If you had a party and everyone cancelled an hour before, you would be angry too.
But the host was adamant and would not be discouraged or denied. He was going to have the party come heck or high water! So, he his sent his servants out to the community margins to invite the poor, crippled, blind and lame. When they finished their rounds, they announced to the host that there was still room for more. Again, the host sent the servants back out with an even greater sense of resolve and urgency so that his house would be filled.
So what is this really all about? As I stated at the beginning, this story is about much more than a mere dinner party. What Luke does, in this chapter, is present us with two agendas, two visions of reality, two visions of how the world could be constituted. There is the rather exclusive agenda of the rich and powerful that is contrasted with the more inclusive agenda of Jesus.
First, Luke’s community experienced Jesus as the bringer of a radical new vision of reality. They experienced Jesus as one who brought a vision of a new way to be a human being and a new way to live in community. Luke’s Jesus insists that all of the carefully articulated rules of proper moral, social and religious etiquette that regulate who is to be included and who is to be excluded; who are the insiders and who are the outsiders, who are the first class citizens and who are second and third class citizens, who are the saved and who are the lost, were to be thrown away as so much rubbish and replaced by a wild and lavish inclusive grace that embraced and welcomed all, even and especially those that had been economically, socially, politically, morally and religiously marginalized.
Jesus paints a picture that shattered their world-view! If we have the courage to allow this vision to inform and shape our lives, it can do the same to us. Jesus pulls us into a vision of a whole different kind of world where grace is not controlled, not structured, not qualified, not rationed restrictively and according to proper etiquette, but is spread around lavishly and extravagantly. It’s a world where grace is over the top!
The congregation I served in Summit County, Colorado co-sponsors an event called “The Community Dinner.” It occurs weekly on Tuesday evening at the Silverthorne Elks Club. It’s just that, a free inclusive community dinner. Show up and you are welcomed and provided a scrumptious meal no matter who you are. All the “proper” restrictive rules of etiquette have been superseded by an inclusive dinner-party experience. Several times when I served there I was asked some version of this question by an attendee, “Why do you do this?” My answer was something like, “Why not? This is a better way to be the world according to Jesus.” I remember one attendee looked at me incredulously and said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” I responded, “I’ve never been more serious!”
The second thing that impacted me was the contrast in this story between the guests excuses and the host’s intensive effort to fill his house. A clash of agendas takes a central role in Jesus’ story. We see the clash between the agenda of the invited guests that caused them to opt-out out of the dinner party, and the agenda of the host who was passionate about putting his dinner-party agenda into motion. For Luke’s community then and for us now, it gets down to a question of profound self-examination, “Which agenda is going to dominate/rule/shape my life/your life/our community life?”
The parable ends with a splash of ice water in the face. Jesus said, “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” I don’t take that as a threat or harsh statement of judgment, but rather a statement of fact and challenge. The original invited guests were not uninvited, the invitation was still in effect. It was a matter of them opting-out of the party. They were not included because they opted out. That’s what it gets down to in the end for us. Do we opt in or opt out?
None of the excuses provided by invited guests were bad things. They were acceptable, rather ordinary everyday things. But that’s just the point! That’s what it gets down to! Which agenda is going to be the basis of my life, your life, our life together as a faith community? Whose agenda is going to be advanced: our own personal agendas that are often riddled with the accepted values of everyday “etiquette” that usually gravitate toward being narrow, exclusive, prejudicial, self-indulgent, conditional and even bigoted? Or, will we open ourselves up to the agenda of the inclusive grace of the great dinner-party of Jesus and allow that vision to shape who we are, how we live and the kinds of communities we foster and create?
Which vision of reality are we going to build our reality upon? Are we going to opt for the more exclusive and restricted agenda of the Pharisee? In our 2016 world that might look like deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants “so fast it will make your head spin,” as one presidential candidate has said. Or, It might look like narrow restrictions to keep Muslims and Syrian refugees out of the country. Or, it might look like increasing the burden of the poor and elderly by cutting Social Security and Medicare. Or, it might look like resisting any form of increasing the minimum wage through legislation Or, it might look like discriminating legislation against the LGBTQ community. Or, it might look like giving the lion’s share of the tax breaks to billionaires.
Or, are we going to opt for the more inclusive vision of Jesus that lifted the most vulnerable and worked in such a way that everyone was lifted and affirmed? Are we going opt for a vision that that truly holds up the “common good” as one of highest values of our civilization and not merely the advantage of the wealthy and powerful elites?
I think the 14th chapter of Luke speaks directly to these issues of our time. Our nation is increasingly taking on the characteristics of plutocracy and/or oligarchy. If you don’t know what those terms mean, then look them up. It is serious business. It is time to make some conscious, intentional, value-based decisions about which vision of life and reality will each of us individually advocate for, and what kind of corporate life together are we going to work to create? By not deciding and acting we risk being complicit with a vision other than the world-view of Jesus.
“Taste the dinner,” as Jesus said, the inclusive dinner party of Jesus.