22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 3, 17-18, 20, 28-29 + Psalm 68 + Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24 + Luke 14, 1, 7-14
August 28, 2016 on board MS Amsterdam
Sometimes I wonder why Jesus ever went out to eat. When you start to pay attention to all the stories, it seems as though every time he went out there was some commotion and controversy. He goes to Bethany and there is a fuss between Martha and Mary. He accepts an invitation in another place and there is contention about hand washing. Then he goes somewhere else, and everyone is upset because some woman is touching him. At another meal some are complaining that eats with sinners, and finally there he is in Jerusalem, as the hand of a betrayer is reaching into the same dish. Yet, even though these occasions are not refreshing and peaceful, they are never boring, and the truth of the matter is that in choosing all of these episodes Luke is revealing something very interesting and true about the church of his time which is hardly different from the church of our time. The church in which we continue to discover and celebrate the presence of God still faces the same challenges the church faced when Saint Luke was putting all this together.
There are two parts to this incident at the home of leading Pharisee. The first part is the one I think most of us like to pay attention to. The obvious lesson on humility spoken of with such a simple illustration about seating arrangements gives us a lot to think about. Perhaps that is why we often skip over the second part. We like to think of ourselves as guests, and the practical suggestion that we not get into some embarrassing squabble about who sits where is easy to understand. The obvious message here is that seating arrangements do matter to Jesus, and those who think that their dignity is established by where they sit or who they sit with are not thinking the way Jesus thinks.
Jesus has a vision of God’s future, and knowing who he was and where he was going freed him and allowed him to be exactly himself at every table. If it could only be so for us, things could be a lot different. Jesus must have laughed to himself at the whole picture of these guests shuffling around and the host trying to sort this out herding the guests into the right places. I like to think that Jesus was really the honored guest. The others were all confused wanting to sit next to him. Because he was sitting in the lowest place things got all mixed up among those who were so proud of themselves for being invited to a meal at the home of a leading Pharisee.
It was probably with a big grin that he leaned over to the embarrassed host and said: “Next time invite the blind and the hungry. They won’t notice where they sit as long as there is food.” With this comment the focus shifts to the second part of the story, and we might do better to take this part more personally than the first part. Instead of thinking of ourselves as guests, there might be something for us to learn about being hosts.
Every meal Jesus shared was an experience of communion, and Luke consistently uses meal as images of the Kingdom of God. There is no exclusivity when it comes to the heavenly banquet, and there are no places of honor. There is no “them” and there is no “us”, no “high place of honor” and no “low place.” Yet when Luke looked at his church, there was still an uncomfortable mood as gentiles and jews looked across the table at each other. There were Greeks and slaves, women and men pushing and slipping around for one place or another. The whole scene, and the message of this gospel asks us to look at ourselves and wonder if our congregations at home do not look a little too much like we do with a lot of people missing. It is my experience as priest that one of the most segregated places left on this earth are church congregations where everyone looks a lot alike and where strangers too often fell strange and out of place.
At the time of Jesus and at the time of Luke, sharing a meal was a profound act of solidarity. To sit at a table with someone implied that you shared a relationship with them, that you prayed together with them because you could not eat without praying. What Jesus asks and proposes at the home of this Pharisee is that like him we must open ourselves and for that matter our table and our churches to those who are hungry for food and for friendship to those who are not going to worry about where they sit as long as they get to sit. When we begin to get this right, every meal will be a taste of the Kingdom of God, and every meal will bring us all into true communion, unity, and peace.