This is a sermon based on Luke 14:1, 7-14 (you can look it up on Oremus).
I’m not much of a magazine reader, but I do enjoy reading food and cookery magazines. In most cookery mags, there will be an interview with a celebrity, with much the same sort of question: first food memories, what’s in your fridge, signature dish, food loves and hates, and finally, which famous people from any point in history would you invite round for dinner. Marilyn Munroe and Martin Luther King Jr feature quite often on these lists of dinner party dream guests. I read one such interview recently with the comedian Alan Davies who suggested someone whom I’d never come across in these questions in all my years of food-magazine reading; Alan Davies said that he’d invite Jesus round to dinner, along with Debbie Harry and Woody Allen.
As I read this interview, my first thought was ‘that’s interesting, and good.’ My second thought, I’m afraid to say, was ‘Really? You’d invite Jesus over? Do you realise what you’re saying there? Do you know what he’s like at dinner parties? Are you really sure you want to invite someone so subversive to your dinner party?’
What we see in this story from Luke’s Gospel is, perhaps, exactly the reason that Jesus isn’t mentioned in too many lists of fantasy dinner party guests from history. Jesus is invited to a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. This is quite an honour, as normally, Pharisee dinners are family gatherings and to be invited into one is to be told, effectively, that the Pharisees want to claim you as one of their own.
You may have noticed that there is no seating plan for this dinner; it is up to the guests to arrange themselves, in order of status and importance, the most important at one end, and the least important at the other. So as well as defining who is in and who is out, who is invited and who is not, the Pharisee dinner party was a way of organising those who are in, those who are invited, and making sure that everyone knows where they stand, or sit, in the pecking order. As I was thinking about his scene from Jesus’ life, I got thinking about diplomatic dinner parties and the sheer headache that must come from trying to place people appropriately, this Ambassador next to that minor Royal.
The difference is, of course, that whereas diplomatic dinner seating plans are pored over, here in the home of the Pharisees, it is left up to the guests to arrange themselves as they see fit. And the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely, we are told, to see where he puts himself. Is Jesus going to take the place of honour, and claim for himself the role of Pharisee of Pharisees, which is how St Paul describes himself some years later? Or is Jesus going to put himself between two rabbis whom he sees as his equals? Where does Jesus fit in to this very clearly defined hierarchy of the invited and the uninvited, the greater or lesser?
Maybe Luke’s first readers would have found it maddening that we never find out, because Luke doesn’t tell us where Jesus sat.
What Luke does tell us is what Jesus said, and what he says is a parable about a dinner party. That’s the first sign of just how subversive, how rude, even, Jesus is – he goes to a dinner party and starts talking about how dinner parties ought to be. I would imagine that if any of your guests did that in your home, you wouldn’t be too impressed. Luke says that Jesus tells a parable, and we might expect a story to follow, like the story of the sower or the story of the unjust judge. What we get, though, is a different type of parable. The Greek word ‘parabolos’ is the equivalent to the Hebrew word ‘mashal’ which can mean anything from a one-line nugget of wisdom to a full-blown story with a moral. The Old Testament book of Proverbs is full of mashalim – little tiny condensed one-line parables which capture a single idea, a single experience, and impart a little wisdom to its hearers about how to live well and wisely in all life’s little moments.
And what Jesus says to his Pharisee fellow diners is very much in the vein of the Old Testament Proverbs, which itself contains wise advice as to how to deport oneself at dinner parties, where to sit, how much to eat and so on. Proverbs advises its readers not to claim the place of honour, so that someone else can claim it for you; a canny strategy for those wanting the seat of honour. Luke repeats this ancient wisdom, and then takes it to its logical conclusion: ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Again, this is not exactly new material. The Pharisees would have known all about the humble being exalted from stories such as those of Joseph and Job, and about those exalting themselves being humbled from characters like King Saul and King Solomon. Those stories can be used to either affirm the hierarchy of human society, in which the righteous are eventually rewarded and right order is eventually restored, or, much more subversively, they can be used to question the whole hierarchy altogether, to say that a new way of being in community is emerging, a way in which it is the poor who will be blessed.
Jesus is taking familiar ideas from the Hebrew Scriptures, and using them to illustrate the message that comes across loud and clear from Luke’s Gospel – the kingdom of God is about the good news for the poor, about the rich being sent empty away and the hungry filed with good things, about the world being turned upside down, about those on the outside being welcomed in and those who thought they were on the inside realising how very far away they really are. And the place that we see what this means in practice, in real life, is how we behave when we east together.
As if that weren’t unsettling enough, Jesus takes it one step further and criticises his guests for inviting whom they did. It’s not just that Jesus turns up to a dinner party and starts talking about how dinner parties ought to be, it’s that he also tells his hosts whom they ought to have invited. Don’t invite your friends, he says, don’t invite those whom you like, who like you, who will invite you back to their house; invite those who are nothing like you, who don’t even know who you are, who may not even have a house to invite you back to. Invite those who can’t pay you back.
Because ultimately, this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. It’s recognising that we cannot pay God back for inviting us to the greatest dinner party of all, to the great heavenly feast to which all are invited and at which are all exalted, all are honoured guests. The kingdom of heaven isn’t about reciprocity. It’s not about give and take. It’s about receiving what is graciously offered to us, if we are humble enough to accept it. This is what we have gathered here this morning to do, in our worship: to anticipate that great heavenly banquet by eating and drinking together at the altar, humbly receiving the gift of Jesus who comes to us as we come to Him. The Psalmist asks ‘How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?’ The answer is, we can’t. All we can do is to come and gratefully receive his goodness to us, to offer ourselves in love and service to the one who welcomes us.
And how we behave here, as we gather at God’s table this morning, is to set the pattern for our lives. All are welcome; all are invited, not even those who are poor and marginalised and a bit awkward or difficult one way or another, but especially those who are poor and marginalised and a bit awkward or difficult one way or another. Those are the very people we ought to be welcoming with open hearts, because they are a sign of the kingdom of heaven among us.
So next time you throw a dinner party, whom will you invite? It’s easy to invite friends, and it’s nice. Inviting friends round re-enforces our sense of well-being, our sense of how the world is and how the world should be. Inviting those whom we find difficult is, well, difficult. It challenges our hospitality, our ideas about our own beneficence, our ideas about how the world is and how it should be. And maybe that is a very good reason to invite those whom we find difficult. We will be paid back, Jesus says, but not in the way people normally are repaid for hospitality, and not in this lifetime. And who knows, if we are brave enough to take Jesus up on his challenge and offer hospitality to the poor, the difficult, the unemployed and unemployable, we might just end up entertaining angels.
So Alan Davies is a brave man to say that he’d invite Jesus round to dinner. I want to end by imagining, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, Jesus being interviewed in a cookery magazine. First food memories, what’s in your fridge, signature dish, and finally, fantasy dinner party guests. Whom, in September 2013, in the UK, do you think Jesus would say?