The Seat of Honor for the Least of These

A Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

When I sat down and looked at the Gospel lesson this morning, I must admit I felt like I had been here already – Jesus is at dinner with the Pharisees and has to correct them about how they treat those in their society without status.

If we take a step back and look at the Gospel of Luke in its entirety, this should come as no surprise, really.  The writer of Luke seems intent on pointing out the imbalance of power that existed in Jesus time, one that which, is anyone really surprised, exists still to this day.  The establishment, the ruling-class, whichever group that may happen to be in a given culture, thrives best when there is an underclass, a people group or two to keep down, to suppress.

Jesus goes throughout the Gospel pointing to those who were being shut out, kept down, ignored.  From the lost son to the widow who lost her son, from the sinful woman who honors a dishonored Jesus to the Samaritan who alone showed mercy to his Jewish neighbor, Jesus shows again and again what it means to love our enemies, to seek peace and not revenge.

In this scene from yet another dinner party, Jesus is once again turning the tables.  We have looked at how important both sharing food and showing hospitality were in Jesus’ day.  But at an event like a dinner party, it was so easy to establish someone’s class and status, based on how they were treated.  Remember when Jesus was dishonored by Simon the Pharisee – Simon didn’t greet Jesus properly or offer to help him prepare for dinner by washing.  This is a similar scenario being played out in today’s lesson.  Jesus has been invited to dinner, mostly so that the Pharisees can watch him.  But Jesus is watching them as well.

Dinners were, as they often are today, a place to see and be see, a place to gain some advancement in social circles.  The last thing you would want to do would be to cause a scene – to embarrass yourself.  Jesus noticed how ambitious people at the dinner were – taking the best seats, those closest to the host.  Jesus warned them by reminding them of moments when their ambition can turn to humiliation – when the host had someone else in mind to be the guest of honor.

How humiliating it would be to have the host ask you to give up your seat of privilege for the sake of someone you had deemed less important.  And it’s not as if everyone was going to just shift over a seat.  No, if you were asked to move, you would then have to find a seat far away from the host where the least important people were seated.  Jesus speaks some common sense – why not sit at a low seat in the first place and have your host honor you with a promotion.  Can you hear the murmurs of agreement among the gathered guests?

But then Jesus goes further, as he was so fond of doing – he posed a harder scenario.  What if, when you are hosting a dinner party, you invite people with no status at all?  What would that be like?  Invite people who can’t repay you with an invitation to their next dinner party.  Invite people who don’t throw dinner parties.  Now to some this may seem quaint, almost like Boxing Day in England – letting the butler “play” master for the day.  But Jesus isn’t describing a party game – he’s calling on his followers to turn the tables, do away with the status and class system that marginalized people in the first place.

I’m surprised the Pharisees keep inviting Jesus back to dinner.  You’d think they would get it by now.  If we invite him, he’s going to disrupt our dinner!

We miss a bit in context here, because the lectionary crafters have shortened the lesson.  As soon as Jesus gets to the dinner, he is confronted with a man who wants to be healed.  It’s the Sabbath!  Haven’t we been here before?  Jesus asks the crowd – what should I do?  Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?  Unlike the last time when they responded in anger when Jesus healed the stooped-over woman, they respond with only silence.

Jesus heals the man and he leaves.  Then comes the exchange we hear this morning about the place of honor.  Following this passage comes another parable – that of a host giving a dinner where everyone has excuses.  A similar version of this parable is featured in Matthew, so the lectionary omits it here, but it reinforces the point.  The host of the dinner angered by the lame excuses of the guests he has invited, turns the tables and invites people with no status instead.  He sends his servants out to bring in the lame, the lepers, and the poor.

Jesus again and again points to those who were being left out, excluded, marginalized.  Dance around the issues as you will, Jesus is reaching out and including those considered “less” by the ruling class.

The writer of Luke was writing to Christians who themselves understood what it meant to be marginalized.  These early Christians were very much a suppressed underclass.  The first Christians were persecuted and marginalized for their faith, leading to passages such as the one we hear this morning in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”  Prison and torture were very tangible possibilities for these early Christians.  When the Christian faith gained a shaky foothold in pagan Rome, persecution increased, not just from the government but from other religious groups.  Rumors of cannibalism and child-sacrifice haunted the early Church, forcing the early Christians often to meet in secret, a level of privacy that enhanced their reputation as a dangerous cult.

When the Constantinian revolution occurred in the 4th Century, Christians suddenly found themselves to be the authorized state religion.  It is one of the great sadnesses of history that these very Christians some of whom had been persecuted, turned around and began persecuting those who now were out of power.

To this day, I am deeply troubled when I hear Christian leaders speak of America being a “Christian nation” knowing that they mean what makes America “Christian” is not how our ruling class treats the poor and marginalized – just look at the Gulf Coast – still a disaster area two years after Katrina.  No, what they mean by America being a “Christian nation” has more to do with their idea of societal purity, keeping undesirables in their place.

What would Jesus say at a dinner party thrown by one of these Christian leaders?  I dare say, he probably wouldn’t be invited back.

Believe it or not, we are half-way thru Ordinary Time.  There are only twelve weeks left before Advent begins.  Our time with Luke is drawing to a close.  Keep listening to the lessons Jesus is teaching us through the writer of Luke.  Look for those who are being left out.  Watch for the ways that Jesus is turning tables and making the establishment uncomfortable.  This is the legacy of a truly Christian nation – the poor, the outcast being given the seat of honor.  Amen.

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