When he noticed how guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable…..
May the words that I speak and the words that you hear be in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the culture Jesus occupied meals were powerful indicators of position and status: who was invited, where you sat in relation to the host, and, indeed, the quality of the food served, all expressed your position in society.
So to assume your place within this seating hierarchy, and then to be publicly down-graded in favour of someone else, was deeply shameful. And, of course, the reverse was therefore also true. To be promoted in the sight of all would bring great honour.
So, the advice of Jesus in his parable was not particularly new, nor especially radical, but rather inherently obvious. But from this home-truth Jesus drove home a spiritual lesson that he wanted his Pharisaic hearers to understand. As in social etiquette, so in the realm of the Spirit of God: if you seek your own status and recognition it may well elude you and bring you shame; if you act with humility and dignified self-awareness then unexpected honour is a likely handmaid.
In my last parish we hosted a monthly Lunch Club. I made it my principle as Vicar at this occasion to wait until everyone else was seated and then occupy the chair left vacated. Sometimes that unoccupied seat was left by chance but waiting ‘til last gave me the greater chance to sit by the person neglected, or feeling vulnerable, or who had been ignored. Indeed, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, it is always possible that the person in the room being ignored is the angel we are entertaining unawares.
The reversal of fortunes in the Kingdom of God is a favourite theme of Luke’s Gospel. In Mary’s Magnificat the proud are humiliated and the lowly raised up. When Jesus contrasts the Pharisee and the tax-collector in another little parable the proverb is “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled”. This theme is repeated in the Gospel for good reason. Jesus wanted these values to be part of his Church. St Paul picks this up: he has harsh words for the Church in Corinth (chapter 11 verse 17 onwards) when he hears that some in that church only engage with their own group of friends. The point is this: Jesus makes the connection between how we behave and act and the spiritual values such behaviour and actions express. It has been a delight to find these positive attitudes and actions abound here at Bradford Cathedral over the last year.
Today’s Gospel is divided into two parts. The first is the advice Jesus gives to guests. The second, that follows it, is then his advice to hosts. Here his words would have been far more surprising to his hearers. The social norm was one of reciprocity. You would invite people who were social equals to yourself, part of your own natural social network. The assumption was that they would invite you back. And to receive a refusal of such invitation was in itself shameful for the host. But here Jesus turns that completely on its head. He rejects the inherent symbiosis of mutual invitation, or shame and honour that accompanies it, and instructs his followers to invite those who are wholly unable to reciprocate.
Jesus’ target audience is again the religious Pharisees. It is a natural and common characteristic for us all to cultivate friendships with those who are like us. But the Pharisees had elevated this to an unfortunate spiritual plain. They believed it to be a spiritual principle that they should not mix with those who didn’t share their spiritual standards, those who didn’t share their narrowly defined forms of piety. They missed the real point therefore of the hospitality, kindness and generosity of the Kingdom of God. The reward of such open hospitality has an intangible and immeasurable reward.