"Story Time: Seating Charts & Party Invites"

LUKE 14:7-14

May 4, 2014

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            It seems Jesus seldom, if ever, turned down a dinner invitation.  If food and people were involved Jesus seemed to say, "Count me in!" and in just a moment, we are going to read our passage for this morning, but first allow me set the scene, to offer a little context. 

            Jesus has accepted another dinner invitation from a Pharisee, not one of the good kind of Pharisees of which we spoke a couple of weeks ago, but a not-so-good-kind, an invitation from one of his Pharisee enemies.  Why he kept accepting dinner invitations from those who were out to get them, well we can only venture a guess.  I think it's because Jesus never gave up on people.  He held out hope, even with those out to get him, that they may come over to his side.  Apparently, Jesus thought that he would never turn an enemy into a friend if he refused to socialize with one, so he accepted another dinner invitation from a Pharisee.

            This dinner took place on the Sabbath.  Imagine, being a good Jew, and having a dinner party on the Sabbath.  Of all the days of the week to have people over for dinner, that was the toughest day, at least for the cooks, sort of like inviting people over for dinner on a Friday night after a long week at work.  That's a tough day to entertain, and so was entertaining on the Sabbath.  You see, according to Jewish law, no meal could be cooked on the Sabbath, since that would have constituted work, so all the food had to be cooked on Friday, the day before.  Furthermore, if the food was to be served hot, it had to be kept warm in a way that would not cook the food anymore.  So, having someone over for dinner on the Sabbath came with a unique set of challenges.

            The Pharisee, though, seemed to have chosen this day on purpose and the Pharisee invited a guy with "dropsy" to the party.  We know it better as "edema" today, which is an accumulation of fluid under the skin.  The guy with "dropsy" was a plant.  Of course, what does Jesus do when he sees the man with "dropsy?"  Right, he heals him.  It's one of the seven times in the Gospels where Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath, and he gets into trouble for doing so as the did the other six times for healing on the Sabbath.  Healing on the Sabbath constituted work, and thus violated Jewish law.  If you couldn't cook on the Sabbath, you certainly couldn't heal on the Sabbath.

            That brings us to our passage for today.  As we wrap up our walk through Luke over the next few weeks, we will look at some of his parables, some of the stories he told to drive home a theological point.  Today we will look at a parable, actually two parables, two earthly stories with heavenly meanings, that he told at this Sabbath dinner party after healing the guy with dropsy.  Listen to it.  Luke 14:7 ...

 

            When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, Give this person your place, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, Friend, move up higher; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

 

            Note the two lessons, a lesson for guests and a lesson for hosts.  Let's begin with the lesson to guests ... when you arrive at a banquet and are looking for a place to sit, choose a lesser seat, not a prime seat.  In other words, when you are getting ready for a party and thinking about how to dress, what to wear, dress in humility. 

            I love the story of Alex Haley, the author of Roots, when he served in the Coast Guard.  He served during the Second World War and because it was the early 40's, and because of his race, Haley's jobs were limited to the kitchen.  One job was serving coffee to the captain, who usually was so busy reading magazines that he ignored the person serving him, but one day the captain observed, as he lifted his cup, "There's a good article here by an Alex Haley.  Same name as you."

            Haley said, "I am the Alex Haley who wrote the article."  After that, the captain made fewer calls for coffee and many more for conversations with the author.[1]

            Humility.  Humility.  There's some practical psychology in Jesus' words here. Let me ask you a question: what do you think of the person who continually tries to be the center of attention, or continually seeks to impress others?  My guess, it's not favorable.  I dont know if you are familiar with the name Hal Sonnenfeldt.  Sonnenfeldt served on the National Security Council under Presidents Nixon and Ford. That was not his primary claim to fame, however, at least not in the eyes of those who knew him.  His major claim to fame, for those who knew him, was his inserting himself into pictures with the President.  Whenever the Presidents picture was being taken, Sonnenfeldt found a way to get into the photo opportunity.  He perfected a move in which he leaned forward and blocked the faces of the people standing between him and the President.  In this way, it always appears that Sonnenfeldt is standing next to the President.  The Presidents Secret Service agents nicknamed him "The Ferret" for his amazing skill at weaseling his way into pictures with the President.[2]

            If you want to be thought of well by others, don't claim the best seat and don't photo bomb pictures.  Practice humility. 

            What I really want us to note today, however is the second lesson, the lesson for hosts.  When you throw a dinner party invite the down and out. 

            Taking Jesus words literally, imagine this situation.[3]  A husband comes home from work on a Friday night, say the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and as he drives into the driveway, he sees that there is a rented tent in the back yard.  Under the tent are tables and chairs for about forty people.  A bandstand and dance floor are assembled in one corner of the tent.  Paper lanterns are hanging all around.  Now mind you, none of this was there when the husband left for work that morning!  Seeing all these preparations and having them come as a surprise, what do you think the husband might think?

            A first reaction might be one of panic: "Good Lord!  It's our anniversary, and somehow I've forgotten!  And, look at the preparations!  It must be one of the big ones!"  But, assuming he does some quick arithmetic and realizes it isn't their twentieth or thirtieth or fortieth, he might continue thinking, "I guess all this must be for a Memorial Day party, which somehow slipped my mind."

            Then imagine the husband walking into the back yard to find his wife basting a dozen chickens and discovering a pile of choice steaks in a cooler nearby.  What might he think then?  Probably, "This one's going to cost me a bundle!"

            Then suppose his wife looks up, smiles sweetly and asks, "Guess who's coming to dinner?"  Now his guess would probably be relatives, longtime friends, neighbors and business associates.  Before he can respond, however, his wife answers, "I've invited twenty homeless men from the Frances House in town, a family of boat people from Haiti, and all the residents of a group home.  Don't worry, dear, you won't know a soul.  And best of all, not a single one is likely to ever pay us back!"

            Given that situation, how do you think the husband might react?  Don't you think he might think his dear wife was behaving a bit oddly?

            Yes, God bless her, she would literally be following the words of Jesus, but I don't think that's what he's getting at in this parable.  I don't think he's saying we shouldn't invite friends and family and business associates over for dinner or to a party.  Furthermore, I don't think this passage is about how to make out a guest list for dinner.  No, I think Jesus is encouraging us to make a special place in our hearts for the disenfranchised, for those on the margins of society, for the broken, weak, and poor.  "When you give a dinner," Jesus says, "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."  In other words, have a "soft spot" in your heart for anyone who is needy, and do good for them, without expecting any "pay off" in return.

            I think Jesus calls us to reach out to "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind," because at various times, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are us.  Perhaps we're not financially poor, but we can be "poor in spirit," grieving or confused or angry or lonely or discouraged.  And we may not be crippled physically, but sometimes we're crippled emotionally. And, while most of us have our sight, we can be "blind" about various aspects of our lives, like how much we're hurting someone who's near us.  Jesus wants us to give generously of our time, our treasure, and our energy to the down and out, because when we do, we do what he's doing for us.

            Imagine, if you will, one of the angels returning from a hard day's work, doing whatever angels do in heaven.  Imagine that angel coming back to see Jesus working hard to prepare a feast.  It's a spiritual banquet, an offering of every good thing God can give: joy and peace and satisfaction and grace and forgiveness of sins.  And imagine Jesus looking up at the angel and smiling and saying, "Guess who's coming to dinner!" 

            And, when the angel shakes his head and says, "I don't know, Lord."

            Jesus continues, "I've invited sinners.  I've invited anyone who's ever broken God's laws.  I've invited husbands and wives who have betrayed each other.  I've invited children who have let their parents down. I've invited parents who feel like they have failed their children.  I've invited people who have subjected their bodies to all kinds of abuse.  I've invited people whose eyes are blind to other people's pain.  I've invited people who say they love me, but whose actions deny me.  I've invited all the people who, in any way, have ever failed me.  I've invited anyone who has ever done anything that sent me to the cross."

            "Why, Lord? Why?" asks the angel. "Why would you invite those people?  How could they possibly deserve you?  How could they pay you back?"

            "They can't," responds Jesus. "But still, I love them.  And I understand their hunger.  And I hope that once they have been spiritually fed, they might just be moved to feed somebody else."

            That's what this table is.  This is an dinner invitation to the lame, the blind, the poor, the crippled.  It's an invitation to us.  Let's stand and sing and prepare to come to the Lord's Table.



[1] Lamar Alexander, "Find the Good and Praise It," Parade, cited in quote, February 1993, p. 34.

[2] John Whitcomb and Claire Whitcomb, Great American Anecdotes (New York: William Morrow, 1993), p. 43.

[3] Illustration and remaining insights taken from "Entertaining Tips for Christians," a sermon by Alex Gondola, Jr.