Luke 14:1, 7-14
Today I invite us to go back to high school…. It is Sunday. Tomorrow morning you will be walking into a new school. What will you wear? What do people wear at this school, anyway? Where will you find your locker? Will you be able to get from your locker to your classes in time? Will the teachers be able to pronounce your name? Will everyone laugh when they try? You have to arrive on the bus. That is so not cool! Changing for P.E. with all those strangers in the locker room – humiliating. Will anyone be friendly? You bring your lunch, because you have some dietary restrictions. Another way to be unusual, pointed at, discussed behind the hands.
Okay. Are you in high school? Do you remember what it was like?
There is no place where the social codes of society are more on display than in high school. And that is what Jesus is addressing today. The social codes of society, versus the social codes of the kingdom of God.
Jesus lives in an Honor-Shame culture. Shame cultures are based on the concepts of pride and honor, and appearances are what count. Keeping “face” is critical. Ostracism is the worst fate.
In contrast, sociologists categorize America as an Innocence-Guilt society. We want to know what is right and wrong. We seek justice, fairness. Honor-shame societies find equilibrium when they receive inclusion, which is valued higher than justice. But that Honor-Shame thing is deep in us too. Just look at the popularity of Brene Brown, a shame researcher. She has touched a nerve with Americans, especially young ones. Watch her TED Talk, “Listening to Shame,”here: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame. We are more shaped by shame, or the avoidance of shame, than we want to admit.
In Jesus’ day, honor was always displayed at mealtime. Guests of honor were seated close to the host, while those of lesser importance sat further away. And those who weren’t invited mattered not at all. Where we see the closest thing to this is at wedding receptions. Couples and their families agonize over the guest lists, and the seating chart! But fortunately, it is not a daily experience, as it may have been in Jesus’ time.
Honor was so important, and one little slight, one recognition, could mean everything! A move to a higher place could have tangible benefits to your business pursuits, or to your family’s marriage arrangements. To be moved to a lower position could cause the bottom to fall out of your life!
So, this is more than manners Jesus is talking about. It is about how to give and take away security, sustainable living, even life itself by how we behave in community. If your high school experience was anything like mine, to be invited to the popular girls table at lunch was everything, and to have them ask you to leave because this is “so and so’s” place, well, that is humiliating. The boys will laugh in your face, make fun of you, and you will not be asked on a date for the rest of high school!
There are two parables here. Jesus starts with the easier one. When you go to a wedding banquet, take the lowest position. Up is the only movement from there. If you take a high seat, you are only looking down if you have to move. He gives good advice – don’t think too highly of yourself. Be humble. Better to start from a lower position and be invited higher than place yourself ahead of others and be asked to move lower. It’s the kind of strategy which might work when going to that new high school.
We know that Jesus was variously received at dinner parties. Sometimes people didn’t even offer a servant to wash his feet. In this case, we know that his hosts were “watching him.” Where would he sit? I wonder if they made him guess, instead of even doing him the honor of showing him to his seat. Would he receive a seat of honor, near the host, indicating that they wanted to hear him? Or would he be at the lowest seat, indicating that they did not respect him and wanted to prove him wrong, get others to ostracize him as they have? This first parable may have been what Jesus was experiencing that evening, describing his own choice.
The second parable cuts much more sharply. It is not addressed to those attending a banquet, like himself, but to those giving it. Now he is not just describing his own dilemma. He is accusing his hosts of poor behavior. And in an honor-shame culture, the advice he gives would have sounded ridiculous: when you throw a banquet don’t invite those in a position to do something for you, but rather invite those who cannot give you anything in return.
In an honor-shame culture, counting is everything. Inviting persons to a banquet put them in your debt and made a claim on them to return this favor to you. It’s an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of world and meals were a great way to scratch someone’s back. Which is why Jesus’ “advice” probably sounded so ludicrous. Why on earth waste an opportunity for to make social wealth by inviting those who have nothing to give you? Further, why lower your own honor by being associated with the lower types? It undercuts all the values of the society.
And I think it is important to remember here that the society was built, they believed on the principles of the law of God. The values of their society were the same as the values of God, they believed. To be a person of honor in Israel, was to have been noticed and honored by God!
Jesus says, in essence: You don’t understand the kingdom of God.
God wants us to treat each other as God treats us – creating us, giving us what we need to flourish, caring for us, forgiving us – even though we can do nothing meaningful for God in return.
Think about it. What can we give to God in return for being created in the first place? In return for forgiveness? In return for grace?
About the only thing we can do in return is to share what we’ve been given with others. The Kingdom is knowing that God has enough, is enough for whatever we need. For all we really need is to be included in the presence of God. And when that is enough, we have everything.
Truth be told, we live in an honor-and-shame world too. When I think about high school, that most deeply formative period of choosing, it is all about the values of honor and shame. If we get through it in one piece, we may graduate to justice concerns. But we are never far from the memories of our burning red faces of shame.
The gospel, the really good news, is that God has given us all good things for no good reason and invites us to do the same for others. Jesus’ whole life is centered on inviting into the presence of God those who neither expect nor deserve such an invitation. And Jesus expects us to do the same. He expects us to stop counting the costs, benefits, and rewards of our actions and live from a sense of abundance and blessing. All that counting doesn’t matter! Did you hear that? Try it out on Madison Avenue or church budget meetings. All that counting doesn’t matter because it is based on the idea that there is never enough. Not enough money, time, prestige, resources, recognition…, you name it. Everyone says so! It must be true.
But Jesus says it isn’t true. God has enough grace, enough love, enough forgiveness, enough creative ability to take care of the world God created in the first place, and to keep creating as needed. The holy presence of LOVE is all we need. And a life lived without the holy presence of LOVE is an empty life, no matter how much status one achieves.
It won’t be easy. Defying social convention – whether two thousand years ago or today – still can seem pretty ridiculous and takes equal measure of faith and courage. We need support from each other to do this. Check in with each other. Take on the discipline of reviewing your day at supper with your family, or at bed time on your own. As I look back on what I did today, how was it different because I am committed to the Jesus Way? Where was God’s presence there for me? What did I do differently today because of Jesus?
And as school is getting underway, commit to praying regularly for our youth. Remember today how hard it was in your youth. Pray for the youth of today, that they might fashion a whole new world built on the visions they are lifting up of creativity, love, peace, abundance. May they be the ones – the ones hoped for for generation after generation – may this generation be the one to usher in the kingdom of God and to live at peace!
Even so, Lord Jesus, come!