By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 14:12-24
This morning begins our Lenten sermon series “A Passion for Life.”
I am grateful to Ruth Smith, Trinity’s communications person and Community Engagement Coach, and to several local artists who have provided the artwork that you see on display this morning and will see throughout this season. They are modern renderings of the Protestant Stations of the Cross; each marking a distinctive moment (or station) in Jesus’ passion: the journey of his suffering, crucifixion and death.
On the final night before his crucifixion, Jesus ate a special meal with his disciples; one we often refer to as The Last Supper. And that is a fitting designation because that meal was, in the gospel of Luke, truly a culmination of all the meals that precede it. As artist Jackie Oliver depicts in her photo of Communion, one might glimpse Jesus’ cross looming in the background each time Jesus reclines at the table. I mean, someone with the kind of “table manners” Jesus displays was just begging for trouble, you know?
Meals are a theme, a focal point, within Luke’s gospel. Luke mentions 19 meals and 13 of those are peculiar to his gospel. That’s a lot of time spent around the table eating. One might think Jesus was a Methodist ahead of his time since ours is a denomination frequently distinguished by our love of eating together; everything from Mardi Gras Pancake Suppers to after worship potlucks to Ladies Night Out.
But that’s because, in Jesus’ culture, meals were a social function and a social statement that defined and revealed ones place within community. In the ancient world, “breaking bread” was no small thing. What one ate, how one ate, where one ate and – most importantly – with whom one ate, were all matters of great importance for two reasons: (1) it reflected and reinforced the host’s reputation or status AND (2) it reflected and reinforced the guest’s reputation or status. Thus these banquets were a reciprocal practice designed to influence one’s social standing. To eat with someone was a kind of public proclamation that you considered that person acceptable and that you shared common values and principles. So, a good, reputable Pharisee would invite to supper those who are good and reputable. He wouldn’t invite the poor. One would give alms, charity – because that’s the proper thing to do for the poor. But, you wouldn’t invite them to eat with you because they could never reciprocate. They don’t have a big house to accommodate guests and they don’t have enough money to buy fancy food. Furthermore, you wouldn’t sit around a table with prostitutes and tax collectors because you certainly don’t want anyone to think you share their values.
So, if I were to invite you to my dinner party and seat you with me at the head table, it is as if I have made a public proclamation to our village that I consider you a respectable and honorable person. And, if I invite you, I can also assume that you will, in time, return the favor and invite me to sit at the head table at your dinner and boost my honor and reputation in the village, as well.
However, Luke informs us that, this was not the case when the Pharisee in this morning’s story invited Jesus to dinner. He does not invite Jesus in order to honor him. Rather, he invites Jesus to dinner so that he and his friends can keep an eye on Jesus in hopes that Jesus will do something to discredit or embarrass himself.
As they prepare for dinner to begin, Jesus is watching the guests vie with one another for the best seats. The closer you were seated to the host, the more important and honorable you were deemed to be. Although the scripture doesn't tell us so, I can imagine that Jesus got a little chuckle out of the show and so he proceeds to tell them a little parable about a dinner party.
It is actually spoken in response to one of the dinner guests who pronounce a beatitude: "Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God." That beatitude functions as a reminder that this parable is about the Kingdom of God and it reveals what life in the kingdom is like. It reinforces Jesus’ teaching throughout Luke's gospel that the Kingdom of God belongs, particularly, to the disenfranchised or marginalized – to those who are the least, the last and the lost; or, in this case, specifically, the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. In fact, Jesus – in Luke’s gospel – is quite clear that it is the poor, the hungry, the persecuted and the sorrowful who are blessed in the Kingdom of God. We see this most clearly about halfway through the 6th chapter of Luke when Jesus pronounces blessings on these folks. But he doesn't stop there; he also pronounces woes or curses on those who are comfortable now; those we might refer to as "fat cats." Those beatitudes of Jesus are a clear reminder that – if we hope to eat bread around the Lord’s Table – we should expect the poor, the disabled and the disenfranchised to be our dinner companions.
Jesus’ parable is one of a host throwing a great dinner – perhaps not so different from the one Jesus is attending even as he speaks. The host must be very wealthy. We can assume that for two reasons: 1) just the very fact that he has a home large enough to host such a grand party; and 2) because he engages in a practice common among the elite of this period – the "double invitation." In other words, people are invited to the dinner well in advance. Then, they receive a follow-up reminder closer to the time of the event; like those refrigerator magnets couples give out when they get engaged, reminding you to save the date for their wedding ceremony. In Jesus’ culture, two things can happen in the interim between the two invites. First, on a practical level, folks clear their calendars. That’s not strange. We do that today. Secondly, folks talk to each other. They figure out who all has been invited and decide whether or not this little party is in keeping with their social reputation. And it is very likely that those on the same social level will, together, respond negatively or affirmatively to the invite. If those invited determine that attending this dinner will in any way jeopardize their good standing, they will come up with an excuse and when the servant returns to announce that everything’s being “plated,” so to speak, the guests that do not consider this party good enough for their reputation will “beg off.” So, although we may not realize it initially, this is about more than simply declining an invitation. This is about knocking someone down a peg socially. These guests have responded to the invite in a way that has shamed the host.
Now, if this happens, it creates a real conundrum for the host. He has been slighted. And, his good reputation can only be maintained if he is able to find substitute guests of as good a reputation as those on the original guest list. But in a culture of “one for all and all for one,” this will not be an easy thing to do.
The host in our parable, however, comes up with a very radical solution. This food will not go to waste. He’s going to offer this feast to those who are way, way below his social standing. People from across the tracks, from deep in the hood, folks in the ghetto. Imagine showing up at dinnertime at Lafayette Transitional Housing and inviting them all to your home where you will serve them a catered meal from St Elmo’s Steakhouse in Indy. It might appear extreme but some might at least label you as generous and charitable. But, in Jesus’ culture, there would have been no upside to this decision. This dinner host, whose reputation has already been insulted, would have surrendered his last shred of respectability by inviting these kinds of folks over for a meal. And yet that is exactly what he does… which is in keeping with Jesus’ teaching; in keeping with everything he said and did. The rich host of the parable invites the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. Jesus had already instructed the Pharisee who invited him to dinner by saying, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers, or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return… But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” And these were, in fact, the sorts of folks Jesus ate with. Just a few chapters later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will enter the town of Jericho amidst a great crowd. One among that crowd will be a short tax collector who is quite rich and likely, a crook and a shyster. And yet, it is Zacchaeus, that little shyster, whom Jesus selects to honor with his company. Jesus is clearly none too picky about the company he keeps… and he expects the same of us.
But, without a doubt, Jesus’ message is not an easy sell and not easy to wrap ones head around. Even his own disciples – who have tagged along with him day in and day out, hearing and seeing it all; at that Last Supper, as they gather around the table with their Lord, as artist Jim Sondgeroth has depicted in his work entitled The Last Supper; even that evening at table, Luke tells us that “a dispute arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” Seriously! Is Luke kidding us? Did those disciples just sleep through everything? Have they just been following Jesus around like a bunch of zombies? But, we are human creatures who find it so difficult not to compare ourselves to others; not to succumb to our culture’s criteria for what makes a person important and successful. All this humility and servanthood sounds great at church; but it doesn’t seem very practical when we walk back out through those doors.
Yet friends, that is precisely where it is most needed.
What I hope you will not hear this morning is a call for charitable giving… although, quite obviously, our church needs it and welcomes it. But this story is not about writing a check or even standing behind the serving table putting food on an anonymous homeless person’s plate. This story is about building radical, inclusive community. Following Jesus, naming ourselves as his disciples, is about inviting those who are most frequently left out and forgotten into our fellowship.
Today marks the first Sunday of Lent. You have five weeks to go and I would like to challenge you to identify someone who is left out, ignored or neglected and invite them to break bread with you this season. It might be a relative who did something dreadful years ago and the family cut them off. It might be a co-worker that everyone avoids because they are loud and socially awkward and sometimes downright offensive. It might be that person who stands outside your office building asking for spare change. It might be a neighbor everyone avoids because their life is scandalous and their yard is dragging down property values. Or, if might be someone in a nursing home whose only visitors are nurses and doctors and therapists. How you break bread will be different. At a care facility, maybe you can just join them for dinner in the dining room and a little visit in their room after dinner. For a homeless person you don’t know, it might not be wise to invite them into your home; but you can definitely walk to a nearby diner and have a cup of coffee and a sandwich together. The food, the context, the setting, even the conversation will be different depending on the person.
Meals matter because meals are about community and they’re the work of the church. Scholar Mark Allan Powell writes that from the book of Acts we know that “Christians in the early Church met [together] regularly for meals… [So] what happens at meals in [Luke’s] Gospel corresponds to what can or should happen ‘at church’.”
Friends, we’re all people. We all need to eat. And we all need someone to show they care about us. We all need someone to listen to us and welcome us. So this Lent, invite someone who is neglected or rejected to eat with you. It won’t be the “Last Supper”; but it just might be one of the best suppers you’ve ever had and, no doubt, Jesus will be there dining with you.
 Luke 22:24. NRSV
 Introducing the New Testament: a Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey by Mark Allan Powell; Baker Academic; 2009; p 159
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