“Holy Invitations” Colchester Federated Church, August 28, 2022, (Luke 14:1, 7-14) Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Today’s Gospel text is Jesus teaching lessons on humility and gratitude.  The parable he shares involves a wedding celebration.  I have a lot of thoughts.  After Neill and I had gotten engaged, I set up a Zoom with my mom and sister (since we live in Connecticut, Ohio, and Washington).  It was exciting to be engaged, yet I wondered what comes next?  How do I go about planning our wedding?  Maureen loved every minute of planning her wedding and gave great advice.  We talked about deciding on a date, exploring venues, figuring out our guest list—these sorts of immediate plans to figure out.  But then Maureen asked questions like, “What about your wedding colors?”  “Um, I have no idea.”  “Well, that will depend on the season, I’ll send you ideas once you decide on the date.”  “What about flowers?”  “Yes, I would like to have some?”  “What about your wedding theme?”  “What do you mean my wedding theme?  The theme is wedding—Lauren and Neill are getting married!  I don’t know!”  It went on from there for many months.  Poor Neill.  Though somehow it all worked out.  Moral of the story—planning a wedding can be stressful (and fun) and time-consuming, and wedding planning brings out so many dynamics because people are so opinionated about weddings!

Okay, so it ends up that one Sabbath Jesus goes over to the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees to share a meal.  While in his home, Jesus observes how the guests were seeking out the best seats at the table.  People watching and observing this behavior causes Jesus to tell a parable.  To remind those who had gathered that when someone invites you to a wedding celebration, you should not take your seat in the place of honor.  Because someone who is more highly regarded may have been invited.  And you would put the host in the position of having to tell you to give your seat up to this other person.  Figuring out seating arrangements for one’s wedding reception can be a lot.

Jesus explains, “When you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place.  When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.  All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”[1]  In other words, a little bit of humility goes a long way.  Also, don’t assume that you’re the most important person invited to a wedding or dinner party or whatever.  Don’t embarrass those who are hosting you and doing their best to provide hospitality.

Hospitality was a big concern in Jesus’ culture.  Giving your seat up at a wedding celebration would have been so embarrassing.  To understand how this would have looked, we need to know something about dinner parties in the First Century.  The editors of the Common English Bible explain that Jesus went to dinner parties with Pharisees, tax collectors, and the poor throughout the Gospel of Luke.  These meals are images of God’s kingdom.  In the world in which Jesus lived, dinner parties were an important aspect of maintaining one’s place in society.  To prepare to attend a dinner party—people bathed, would put oil in their hair, and put perfume on their bodies in the afternoon to be ready for this social event.  Remember that hygiene at that time was not like our hygiene tends to be now (people couldn’t just jump in the shower before going someplace important!) 

When it came time for a dinner party or a wedding, people would take the time to look and smell nice, and it took time and effort to do so!  Sometimes a slave would even travel around town to inform the guests when the party was ready to begin on behalf of their master.  As the guests entered the host’s home, a slave would wash their feet to ensure that they felt comfortable and received hospitably after their journey.  Maybe they had to travel a-ways to get to the event. 

Now once in the dining room, the guests would recline on cushioned benches that were in a U-shape and would rest on one elbow.  After being seated and comfortably reclining, slaves would place the food on low tables in front of the benches.  The diners would slowly eat and drink with one hand while having conversations with their neighbors.  In our American culture, we tend to eat quickly.  If we go to a restaurant and the service is slow, we complain about it.  We post nasty reviews on town Facebook groups. 

Now the best seats (the seats of honor) were the seats in the middle of the U.  That was where the action took place.  The farther away that a person was from the center, the less significant their status happened to be.[2]  What Jesus is observing at this meal at the Pharisee’s house on the Sabbath is that people are seeking to be in the middle of the U.  And if you do that and someone more important comes along, then the host is going to have to ask you to move (in front of everyone) to not offend the person who has more status in society than you do.  Imagine how this would play out at a wedding celebration when people have gathered, possibly from further distances.  What Jesus is getting at here is that by puffing yourself up with your seat of honor, you’re actually embarrassing yourself.  Though you’re also embarrassing your host.  And you’re possibly embarrassing the person who’s deemed more important because you’re having to move for them to have an appropriate place at the table. 

Instead, Jesus says that when someone receives an invitation—that person needs to sit far away from the center and show humility.  At the same time, all of this is coming from a place of sarcasm in some ways.  Because among Jesus’ follower’s, status and being recognized publicly for who one happens to be or one’s accomplishments doesn’t count for much anyway.  Jesus didn’t have a lot of time for stuff like that.

Jesus ends his parable by saying, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward.  Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”[3]

Jesus ends this discussion of humility and hospitality by challenging people even further.  Don’t just think about being humble and not placing yourself in the center of the action by putting yourself in the center of the seating arrangement.  Also think about inviting people who never get invitations to fancy dinner parties.  Because when you host a meal for someone who can’t repay you, that’s even more significant.  Jesus ends this lesson by being more radically open than many people would have felt comfortable being.  Jesus is calling for an open table, a table where everyone is invited to dine. 

This image of the banquet open to all happens to be one of my favorite images of the Kingdom of God.  Because it’s an image that remains so relatable.  It has implications for how some Christian traditions (like our own) view Communion and who’s allowed to receive the Sacrament.  Who’s in and who’s out, if you will.  Everyone is invited.  The radical hospitality is what makes the invitation so holy.  Everyone’s in.  The open table doesn’t take a ton of translating to understand, and it still feels a little uncomfortable to imagine hosting a wedding or a dinner party and not inviting those closest to you but inviting strangers.  And not just strangers, but the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  This is remarkable!  All are welcome.  This is what the church can be at our best.  All are welcome.  Come.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 14:9-11, CEB.
[2] “1st Century Dinner Parties” in the Common English Bible, 124 NT.
[3] Luke 14:12-14.

Photo of Lauren & Neill Ostrout’s Wedding by David Butler of Butler Photography.