The table

A sermon for the Sunday before Labor Day, after yet another mass shooting, Proper 17 of Year C. Readings include Jesus’ parable of the banquet seating plan.

Later in the morning, we signed condolence cards, including pledges to work, with God’s help, to reduce gun violence to the communities most recently afflicted, and we circulated a petition to close background check loopholes in our state.

Here is a question that the story told by Luke doesn’t appear to answer: where was Jesus’ seat at this dinner table?

Was he invited to sit at the host’s right hand, in the place of honour? Were the lawyers and the Pharisees jealous? Or did no one offer him a seat, too busy finding their own place and attempting to assert themselves in the pecking order of the local leadership? Were they watching, once they had secured their own spot, to see whether Jesus would accept a place among the also-rans, the charity cases who filled out the leader’s dining hall?

If you have been following Jesus’ story for a while, you may have noticed that he is less concerned with the manners and rituals of genteel society than he is with the earthy goodness of God’s great love for the great unwashed, the rank as well as the file.

His parable, then, should hardly be construed as advice on how best to achieve the most beneficial seat at an influential dinner table – “Play your cards right, and you may be invited up to the inner circle.” That’s just not the kind of game Jesus appears to have played.

So what is going on here?

In the opening verse of the episode, we are told that Jesus has been invited to the Sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, and that “they” were watching him closely.

The question of who “they” were is answered in the next verse, which we skipped in our gospel reading. In fact, there is a whole little healing episode that we jumped over, perhaps because it is too similar to last week’s Sabbath-healing, boundary-breaking, argument-inducing episode from last week. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow: nothing if not consistent.

But while he was on his way to dinner, watched closely by the other religious leaders and scholars, Jesus came across a man in need of healing. And he stopped, and asked the lawyers and the other religious types, “What do you think? Should I heal him? Is it lawful to do so on the Sabbath? Is it right to do good?”

And for all of their close watch of him, they had no answer. So Jesus, of course, healed the man, and then he accused them for their silence, “Which of you would not pull your ox out of a well on the Sabbath?” And still, they made no reply.

The lawyers and the Pharisees made no answer, in case they fell foul of their neighbours. No one wanted to be the one to say, “This poor man’s life and happiness is worth more than the law.” No one said, “Perhaps we should amend some of our dearly-held convictions about what is acceptable on the Sabbath, in order to accommodate such cases, as God intended.”

There is so much we could say that would apply to our own situation. Is it good to heal on the Sabbath, Jesus asks. Yesterday, a church group in Odessa, Texas, was organizing a blood drive to aid gun violence victims in El Paso. They were doing their piece of good when yesterday’s violence erupted in their own community. At the hospitals, in Odessa and Midland, and in Mobile, Alabama, healing mercy was dispensed, bad news broken, families relieved or wrecked.

Is it right to do good yet, Jesus asks, or will you cling to your traditions that may not be infringed?

The lawyers and the leaders were curious about Jesus’ healing power, but they were not ready to let him heal their hard hearts just yet. As much as they longed for God’s salvation, they were not prepared to trust it to this Jesus, who broke all of their carefully constructed moulds and tapped into something wild, something dangerous, some Spirit from the heart of God. They were afraid to step out of the ruts and the roles they had created for themselves to join him and his weird band of disciples.

No one wanted to show his hand in case they made a political mistake, or a social faux pas; no one wanted to speak out of turn, in case they were diminished in the eyes of their peers.

But while they were watching Jesus, Jesus was watching them.

He told a parable, about socially striving people using one-upmanship and underdog-manship, anxious for their own honour before others, and in his closing line threw out the whole system: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Not those who boast, nor those who go cringing to the end of the line, for the sake of the pleasure of being invited to move up, but those who are truly humble before God: who put Christ in the place of honour, not for their own sake, but for Christ’s sake.

To borrow a phrase from the hymn, he “poured contempt on all our pride.”
(When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, words by Isaac Watts, 1674-1748).

And all this on the Sabbath.

In the parable, Jesus describes not the situation at the Sabbath table where they are sitting in ancient Palestine, but a wedding feast. Of course, we recognize from other parables and places in the Bible that the wedding feast is a metaphor for the coming of God’s kingdom, for the celebration of the consummation of creation, the Second Coming, the resurrection.

In that kingdom, at that feast, it hardly matters where we sit, as long as we are present. There is no poor seat, there is no place of honour except surrounding the throne of God in an ecstasy of worship. There is no competition for the host’s attention, when God sees all, and knows all, and invites everyone to see God.

If you want to see what the kingdom of God will be like, Jesus offers, forget your fancy dinner parties and your social calendar. Do not use abuse your hospitality as a form of trade, nor for profit. Invite instead the down and out, the poor, the needful, those who can do nothing for you, and offer them the places of honour at your own table.

Do you want to be like God, elevated and adored? Well then, says Jesus, be like God, generous to a fault, merciful to the point of madness, squandering social status and respectable reputation for the sake of that Sabbath whereby the captives are freed, the work-worn receive their rest, creation is restored to its goodness, on which “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).

But do this, Jesus says, not because it will earn you a better seat before your peers nor even in heaven, but for the sake of righteousness itself. For the sake of doing good on the Sabbath. For the sake of solidarity with Jesus, whose name means Saviour.

After he has said all of this, where do you think that Jesus is seated at the table of the religious leader? Does the host rise up and offer Jesus his own seat, astonished at his teaching and in awe of his honour? Or is he relegated to the rump of the table as a troublemaker?

When Jesus asks us to do good, do we answer? When he challenges us to speak of mercy before the judges, do we speak up? When he comes, in answer to our prayer, to settle into our homes, our lives, our bodies, do we offer him the place of honour, or, unsettled, hope that we can hide him in the corner? Are we prepared for his life-changing mercy, or do we harden our hearts, for fear of frightening the horses with his outrageous grace? Do we try to move him out of our way, or do we let him move us? Will we harden our hearts, or enthrone Christ within them?

Ironically, while we are deciding where to seat him, Jesus is busy setting the table himself. And his invitation is clear:

Come to me, all you who are weary, and I will give you rest.
Come to me, you who are thirsty, and I will give you living water to drink.
Come, eat of the bread of life, and I will raise you up.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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