Sermon written and delivered by The Rev. Dr. Steve White
Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
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.”
The Holy Hospitality Challenge
This gospel (Luke 14:1, 7-14) starts off with advice about how to behave at a banquet that seems like just plain common sense, and we might feel like it’s a pretty simple lesson that speaks for itself. I’ve always believed that when something speaks for itself, you shouldn’t interrupt. The whole thing makes perfect sense until we get to this line: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Wait a minute. That’s the polar of how things are supposed to be – the north pole is the south pole and the south pole is the north pole! This is upside down – not like we’re used to thinking at all.
So, we know right away that it’s not table manners we’re talking about. Instead it’s about how God acts in the world by turning things upside down. In a way, we’ve heard this before because we’ve heard polar opposites in other gospel stories – the first will be last and the last will be first, the rich are poor and the poor are rich, the dead will live – there are lots of polar opposites in Jesus stories!
In the second part of this story Jesus addresses the host of this dinner and gives an example of what this polar opposite business actually looks like. He tells the host not to invite his friends to dinner since they will just turn around and invite him over to return the favor, whether they like him or not, whether they really want to invite him or not. Instead, Jesus tells him to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind – all the outcasts of society, all the outsiders and the marginalized. Why? Because they will be unable to repay him! The act gets no reward, or, put another way, the act is its own reward.
Jesus is saying that hospitality can be the door to holiness, but only if you do it right. So, what is holiness anyway? The English word “holy” comes from the same Old English word from which we get the word whole. To be really holy – to be really whole – is to be dedicated and consecrated to God. Hospitality, and any deed or action that is self-serving has its focus on the self and therefore cannot be the doorway to holiness. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons – that is, doing good in order to look good – is not the road to holiness.
If our goal in life is to be holy – that is, dedicated and consecrated to God, devoted to the service of God – then real holiness begins by putting the interests of others above our own. It begins by finding ways to make God and the “other” the focus of our lives, not ourselves. Why? Because that’s what God does and that’s what God commands us to do too, not for God’s sake, but for our sake because it transforms us. Next week we’ll see an example of this opportunity for transformation in the story of Philemon and Onesimus – the slave owner and the enslaved.
The key thing that Jesus is saying in today’s gospel, right at the end, is that hospitality to the poor and sick cannot be repaid. This is a very Jewish idea – a mikva – a blessing. The highest and best kind of a blessing is one that cannot be repaid. This is why at Jewish funerals everyone participates in burying the dead person by throwing a shovel full or a handful of dirt into the grave. The dead person cannot ever repay the service you have done in burying them.
Jesus here is urging a social system without reciprocity, a system based only – only – on concern for the other and not the self. Like so much of what Jesus asks of us, this is hard. It’s almost unnatural always to do things for others without any regard for ourselves. We’re hard wired to think of ourselves first – to look out for number one – and so Jesus’ command to focus on the other instead of the self is upside down, unnatural – contrary to our human nature.
What would happen if this Pharisee actually did invite the poor and lame and blind to dinner instead of his powerful, well-connected friends? What would happen if we did that? The poor would become insiders instead of outsiders. But the Pharisee, who was an insider, might become alienated from his so-called friends – that is, he might become an outsider! He would become an outsider simply by making the outsiders insiders! And, once again the world would be turned upside down!
This is one of the Bible passages that reminds us that the God we know is the God of grace who loves us without limit or condition. God’s love shows us how to love without calculating the consequences. So, this parable is not a moral about human social practice like how to behave when we get invited to someone’s home. It is a vivid image of a gracious God who inspires and empowers human gracious action. As we have been graced, so we grace; as we have been invited to be an insider with God, so we invite others to be on the inside with God. The God whom we meet in Jesus Christ does not act out of self- interest or superiority but out of divine freedom and love. As God acts, Christians are graced to respond accordingly. We do not extend hospitality because we expect a reciprocal invitation. Rather, we lovingly invite others, because we have been lovingly invited by God. St. Benedict, in his famous rule for monks, writes: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’.” Christian hospitality, like God’s action, is not a two- directional arrow. It’s a simple straight line toward the other.
So, once again we are challenged to live our lives in a radically different way that doesn’t make any sense to the rest of the world. We can’t do this in just an hour’s time in church on Sundays. We have to spend our whole lives trying to get this right, trusting that God will continue to give us the grace and strength to persevere.
Are you up for the challenge?