Knowing Our Place – Br. Curtis Almquist
Luke 14:1, 7-14
There’s more going on in this story Jesus tells than meets the eye. Jesus’ most obvious point is about distinctions between people, the invidious, sometimes tempting desire to distinguish ourselves from others to make ourselves look better, more important, higher than we might otherwise appear. I’ll come back to that. There’s also something more subtle going on here in this story about who is at the table. In Jesus’ day, given the practices of both Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, there were no controversies about what to eat and with whom to eat. The cultural mores were absolutely clear. Eating shows our common vulnerability. Eating is a very revealing necessity. Whether you are a prince or a pauper, you must eat. In Jesus’ day, you ate with your peers. Period. To do less, to lower yourself to some other class or caste of people would be a violation and a vulnerability to be avoided. In our own day, in our own culture, there are some similar norms. People normally eat among their own. If, however, you were wanting to make a point that you relate to all kinds and classes of people – if you were, for example, a politician running for office – there would be no faster way of convincing people that you were their kind of people than by eating with them. You would go to Iowa and eat a pulled pork sandwich in some small town diner (and be photographed!), and you would be equally glad to be seen at a dinner party in Bel Air. We are at one with those with whom we eat. Now Jesus is not running for office. What he preaches and practices about table fellowship proves to be one of the nails in his cross because he is making room for everyone at the table, which is clearly wrong in so many people’s eyes.
In both the Hebrew Scriptures and Dead Sea scrolls, which were written by a messianic community of practicing Jews just prior to Jesus’ birth, there are lists of people who will not enjoy God’s eternal invitation.1 And, no surprise, the metaphor used to describe this eternal fellowship with God is sitting at table. Eating. Eating with your other worthy peers in God’s presence, the Messianic banquet, the eternal feast of the heavens. In the Hebrew Scriptures and these other writings extant in Jesus’ own day, those who are denied invitation to the eschatological banquet include those who are “afflicted in flesh, crushed in feet or hands, lame, blind, deaf, or dumb; those who suffer from defective eyesight or senility.”2 It’s a very mean, limiting list of people who are reportedly not chosen to sit at God’s table. Luke is referring to that list in his writings. Those people and the poor, a category Luke adds, are indeed extended the invitation by Jesus. Jesus and his disciples are violating both Jewish and Greco-Roman protocols, invidious protocols, about who belongs to whom, now and forever, by this revealing practice of eating with everyone. Jesus even goes a step further in saying, don’t just sit down with everyone, take an active role inviting anyone, any class or sort of person to your table, which is to say, into your life. That is Jesus’ principle. There is also a practical element to this principle. In the early church, common meals, where everyone was welcome, were a way of meeting physical needs but in such a manner as not to embarrass anyone. Those who had and those who did not have sat at table together without distinction.3 And so we read in Saint Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”4 … to which we could add, “there is neither rich nor poor.” Back to Luke’s gospel The story we read about here in Luke’s gospel Jesus calls “a parable.” This is not a news report of an event. This is a parable, which was Jesus’ way to share a principle drawn from a common experience. And the principle: everyone has a place at the eternal banquet table of God; begin the practice now.
And secondly, in this parable there is this slightly amusing, maybe embarrassing aside Jesus makes about trying to climb to a higher place at the banquet table. You don’t have to be a member of the diplomatic corps to appreciate what Jesus is talking about here. It’s one thing to be invited to a banquet; it’s another thing to find where your place card is at the table. If you’ve ever hosted a dinner, you will know these dynamics: who is going to sit where, next to whom, at which place at the table? Maybe a round table would be better? And if there’s more than one table, which is the “high” table, and who eats there? I suspect that most all of us – whether host or guest – know about these dynamics of distinction about who sits where and with whom at the banquet table.
I’ll go one layer deeper and ask the question, why does this make a difference? Jesus here is telling a parable, using a familiar dynamic (then and now) to draw an analogy. Why is there this age-old desire, maybe temptation, to come up higher in life, to be seen as better? What is your own version of this? Where do you find yourself wanting to crawl up higher in the eyes of others, and why? How are you poor, inadequate, undeserving, unworthy, uninviting in your own eyes? I’m presuming that we all have our own version of this, if for no other reason than Jesus uses this metaphor as a parable, i.e., this is an every-person story. How is it your story?
Where this parable which Jesus tells is most poignant is not about who we will invite to the table, who we will include in our life, with whom we will dine, associate, collaborate and offer care, as important as that is. Where this story is most poignant and pressing is in our own relationship with God and in our own relationship with ourselves. We will love our neighbors as we love ourselves, which is another of Jesus’ principles. If you find yourself prey to your own invidious distinctions – if the truth be told, some days you are the poorest person you know – then hear Jesus’ welcome. Jesus – not just in his words but in his very life – is extending God’s welcome to you. Jesus comes to be born among us and to live as one of us. Take Jesus at his word: you are lovable, and you are loved by God. It’s Jesus’ recurring invitation and I think it calls for our recurring acceptance: to keep saying ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to be loved.
If you find sink holes in your own soul – as many of us do, certainly I – where you fall prey to little internal damnations upon yourself – why you are as you are, or why it is you aren’t different, better, more beautiful? Why you aren’t more articulate, younger, older, smarter, in better shape? Why you aren’t from this part of the country, this side of the tracks? Why you can’t dance? Why you can’t speak better French? Why you don’t have more money in the bank? Why you aren’t a brunette? Why it is you can’t make table conversation? Why you can’t relate to adolescents, or people with more education than you, or less education than you, or older people, or people from certain cultures? Whatever your internal litmus test is about a person which is good and acceptable and perfect… which you are not… when you get in touch with your internal disqualifiers about why you cannot really be accepted and loved by God, I would say two things. First, you are wrong. God loves you. God knows you and God loves you, which is Jesus’ amazingly good news. Jesus meets us on our own plane: born as we are, living as we are on this earth. If you think God doesn’t love you, you’re wrong. God adores you. You are God’s child, the apple of God’s eye. God loves you.
And secondly, if you get in touch with your own disqualifiers, why it is you think God doesn’t accept you or love you, doesn’t have a place for you at the table, I would say that is an invitation for your prayer. God has turned on a light in your own soul on whatever this is. Talk to Jesus about this, which is your prayer. Ask Jesus for more of this light to shine on these dark places in your own soul, to be filled with more of God’s healing light and life and love. And with that assurance at hand and in your own heart, you won’t need to be told who to invite to the table or invite into your heart. You won’t need to be told who to include in your life. What could otherwise be judgment and disdain for others will be converted into compassion in your own heart. How much we are all alike….
Some years ago Father Henri Nouwen used the language of “downward mobility” to speak of the freedom Jesus offers us in this life.5 Our benchmark in life is not to achieve higher mobility – to be the greatest in our little hemisphere of the world – not to be the greatest but simply to claim freedom to be: to be wholly and fully who God created us to be, and to welcome others into that same freedom. Whether to ride high or to ride low in life to claim the freedom to be, to be a child of God fully alive, really free to move. It’s to ride easily between what could otherwise separate us from one another. It’s to witness Jesus’ example and Jesus’ power given to us. It’s to use our own life to weave a unity into our amazingly diverse world. It begins at home, in our own soul, receiving God’s love, and then letting that love radiate outward with great generosity. God loves you.
2 From the Qumran scrolls: 1QSa 2:5-22.
3 Insight fro Fred B. Craddock in Interpretation; Luke (John Knox Press, 1990), p. 78.
4 Galatians 3:28.
5 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life (Orbis, 2007).
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Dear Br. Curtis,
This sermon brings back so many bad memories from my youth in the deep South where blacks, even though they were close neighbors, would never have been welcome at our table. They were given food, but at a kitchen table, not in the family dining room. We children could play with black children so long as we did not touch them. Therefore, no hugs, no holding hands or closeness. My parents were church-going Christians who were in worship services at least three times a week. I do not think of them as bad people. I think of them as products of their own raising, prejudiced, yes, but a part of that culture. Some of it has vanished, thank God, but when I go there to visit family, I still worship with white people, while the population is about 40% black. Jesus says to come to the feast, come one, come ALL! Oh, how I wish we could open our arms to everyone. At the table, in our homes, and especially in our churches. I belong to a church family who does. We have many of different cultures, colors, economic status, all who love our Lord Jesus Christ. Praise His name!
No good effort is ever in vain, but could we do more. Of course! but the trick is not to hate, belittle, dismiss, or in some other way harm ourself for what it is that we are doing
Thank you, Brother Curtis, for the word. I confess to receiving it with some anguish, given the this week’s public discourse in which making room at the table for everyone is still clearly wrong in so many people’s eyes. In a nation that prizes freedom, how is it that we have put ourselves into bondage to upward mobility? Why do we not welcome others into freedom? Why do we not make room at the table? Maybe it is not freedom we really cherish after all. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.
Good morning, Br. Curtis:
This is a wonderful sermon and has so much to say to me. Two churches that I have been involved with have outreach programs for men and women who live on the street. One, in Toronto, also provides overnight sleeping arrangements; the other where I live now, provides a cooked lunch./// Sometimes, we are asked for donations of food to keep this program going. Now and again, I make a meal for a small group of people with schizophrenia; the timing is of my choosing, and I don’t go and sit down with them to have the meal?// Reading your sermon, it dawns on me that, yes, we help out in one sense, but, we do not sit down with those guests. Do we fail? Would our guests feel uncomfortable with an outsiders sitting at table with them? Is what we do sufficient? I don’t know? Christina