August 28, 2022
It’s been a few years, but I can still remember the anxious feeling I got the first time I walked into a brand-new school lunchroom after moving from Virginia to North Carolina. I didn’t really have any friends yet (having just met a few people in the two periods before lunchtime), so there I was, holding my lunch tray and looking around the room for a table that made sense. There’s a weird level of politicking that goes on in school lunchrooms—where you sit and who you sit with matters. I had to quickly judge who were “my people” that it would be okay to sit with to avoid the very public humiliation of being told I couldn’t sit at some certain table or other. The safest way to go, as far as I could tell, was to avoid any table with kids who looked too popular, and it seems like that worked. Not thinking too highly of yourself seems to be the lesson of the day.
And I think we’re pretty decent at that, most of the time, right? We value humility. We don’t, generally speaking, think we deserve the most important jobs or the most prestigious promotions. Or at least we won’t go around proclaiming that we do! We won’t go to a party or get-together that we weren’t invited to. But that assumption that humility is a virtue wasn’t always the case, which is the situation Jesus is speaking to in our reading today.
See, Jesus was constantly being invited to dinner parties in the gospels. It seems like he was always eating with someone. But this particular dinner party today was different. Jesus had been, essentially, invited to a really high-end party with very important people rubbing elbows. He was probably invited specifically because the host thought it would reflect really well on his (the host’s) reputation that such a wise and popular rabbi decided to come to his house. So when the gospel writer pointed out that all eyes were on Jesus, we can assume it was because they really expected him to say something wise, or do some miracle, or in some other way let them get a peek at what led to his reputation.
Of course, Jesus was watching them too. He was observing the way that the people at this dinner party were jockeying for the most prestigious seat they could get. And then he offered an observation: “when you are invited to a dinner party like this one, don’t assume the highest place. If you do, the host may come along with someone more important than you, and you will be shamed by being asked to take a lower seat. Instead, take the lowest seat, and the host will raise you up in front of everyone, and you will be honored”
Something important for us to remember is that Jesus lived in a world dominated by an honor and shame system. Basically, you got social influence and social capital by doing things that increased your honor—and you lost it by doing things that earned you shame. Everyone wanted more honor so they could have better connections, more influential ties, and more bragging rights. Humility was not really valued in the culture. It was more like how we talk about closing all businesses on Sundays—it’d be nice, but it’s no longer realistic to think we’ll go back to it now. Humility may have been more of an old-fashioned and maybe quaintly outdated value to Jesus’s audience, but it’s not like he was breaking some radical ground with this wisdom. He more or less quoted the Proverbs reading we had this morning.
However, Jesus doesn’t disappoint, and the radical word followed. After appealing to traditional values that would help the guests get ahead in life, he instructed them to throw it all away. “When you host a dinner,” he pivoted, “invite the poor, the lame, the blind, and the outcast, who cannot repay you.” Remember this is an honor-shame system, right? One of the best ways to show off and get more honor was to show just how great of people you can get to come to your dinner parties! It’s why Jesus was invited to begin with! So to suggest that these eager, upwardly-mobile guests invite people that society simply does not value, that’s crazy talk. That’s beyond the pale. What’s the point of inviting people to dinner parties who won’t do anything to improve your reputation?
Jesus always had one goal in mind when he was teaching—to help people understand how they can take part in God’s great project of making the kingdom known here and now. So let’s pay attention to how Jesus talks about rewards here. In the first case, he encouraged the guests to use their humility to earn a better reputation. Get embedded into the powerful circles of society. Make friends and influence people, you might say. The reward was more influence, more clout, a better reputation among important people in society. But in the second case, the reward comes not from people, but from God. These people, these outcasts and marginalized people, are not able to return the favor. Instead, by spending their social capital on elevating the least of these, putting them in the spotlight, reminding the world that they exist and they matter, the up-and-coming guests would be rewarded by God for their kindness.
There was a story I read of a set of seniors in a high school who made it their mission to sit with the kids who were sitting alone in the lunchroom. They were the popular seniors, and they knew just about everyone at the school, so they would use that opportunity to learn about these kids sitting alone and connect them with people they thought they might get along with. For no other reason than helping others, they used their position of social privilege to make life easier for others.
And that’s what Jesus was instructing the guests to do. The kingdom is coming, but the world still has its old structures. So, Jesus said, use them. Use those structures. Get embedded. Grow your reputation. Make connections. Be the person everyone looks up to. And then use that power for good. Use the ways that you have made yourself admirable to others to show the world what kingdom living looks like. People imitate the people they admire, so when they look to you, let that imitation be in service to the kingdom.
Because that’s what Jesus did. He got invited to the fancy parties with the high society. He was the talk of the town. People admired him. They wanted to imitate him. So what did he do? He went and dined with tax collectors and prostitutes. He associated with beggars and lepers and people with disabilities. He brought people to the table who would never receive an invitation, because the world didn’t consider them important enough. He let his reputation precede him, and then he showed those who were awed by his reputation what the kingdom looks like.
So how can you use the way people admire you to show them what the kingdom looks like? How can you use your reputation to turn our attention toward the needy, the outcast, the marginalized, and the poor? How can we, as the church, use the influence we have in our community to make the world a better place, to improve the lives of those who are forgotten, to build up the kingdom of God? Let’s do those things. Let’s convince the world to build a bigger table. Let’s make grace the bedrock of our society. Let’s fill the world with the hope of reconciliation, justice, and mercy that Jesus brings to us first. After all, we’re just imitating the one person we admire the most, right?
Thanks be to God. Amen.