Homily: “Open Table”

There was a movie out a few years ago called ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. It was supposedly the true story of a woman on a personal quest that takes her to Italy, India, and Bali, where she, well, eats, prays, and loves. I guess that it’s appropriate that she begins her spiritual journey not with strict, ascetic practices but with consuming big plates of pasta with unreserved gusto; because, well, isn’t physical hunger a good image for spiritual hunger? Bread is important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom, St. Paul tells us, is not present.

Eating – that most human and most necessary of activities, and all that we associate with it are entwined with our spiritual lives, so it’s no surprise that meals and food are significant themes in the Bible.

Scholars observe, in fact, that meals are very important to St. Luke in his Gospel. Luke’s gospel has more meal-time scenes than all the others. If his vision of the Christian life from one point of view is a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, from another point of view, it’s a party.

It doesn’t matter whether the eating happens in Emmaus, an Upper Room, or the fields along the road plucking the heads of grain, or in the home of a despised tax collector or even those of respectable religious leaders who invite Jesus to join them: like Simon the Pharisee, or here today, where another unnamed leader of the Pharisees offers Jesus hospitality for the Sabbath dinner.

We usually feel tension whenever Jesus and the Pharisees get together and talk about religious issues. So here we are again, in the home of a Pharisee who has extended the honor of hospitality toward Jesus. And how does Jesus respond to the honor of being included in this social occasion? Well, not surprisingly, he does and says things that inevitably cause either dead silence or an uproar of protest.

Setting the scene in the very first verse of this week’s passage, Luke writes that “they were watching him closely”; he has, of course, already tipped us off that things are going to be tense. And Jesus does not let them down.

Jesus turns to one of my favorite pastimes – people-watching. Jesus observes the guests maneuvering for the places of honor at the table and recalls the ancient wisdom in an honor-based culture of holding back and hoping to be called up to the higher place: He practically quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “It is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” It’s important, the author was saying, that one be not at all trying to appear to be better than another person.

The behavior of these guests, however, specifically the Pharisees, was ‘true to type’; on the contrary, they were pushing their way to the best and highest places at the dinner.

Are the Pharisees hopelessly prideful, and are they “the bad guys” here? The Pharisees were the good people of their day. They never missed a religious meeting, they studied the Scriptures, they tithed, and they set the moral standard for their cultures.” Today, we would consider them faithful, active church members.

On the other hand, the people that Jesus holds up as worthy of inviting to dinner are the very people who would not be permitted in the homes of ‘the respectable’, or in places of worship either, for they were considered “unclean”: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”.

Today, we might have different names and designations for those on the margins, those in the lowest seats – those with Aids, those with criminal records, any Muslims — (if indeed, they’re even allowed to be in the room), but Jesus’ instructions are the same. Take the lowest place. Then the master will call you to a higher place. We have to careful with this advice. For some – especially those who already have little sense of their own worth – exhortations to be humble can be dangerous. Those, like women, who have traditionally been taught to be “lowly” or at least subservient, may find it difficult to assess exactly where they fit in the pecking order. But Jesus’ story tells the truth: God’s point of view matters more than our own,” or that of others. He’ll decide where we belong.

Jesus is referring to “the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God,” the way they would “push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, to maintain their own

purity

But this passage is even more specifically addressed to the Jewish Christians in Luke’s community of thirty years later, who were having a hard time accepting the non-Jews who had joined them at the dinner party prepared, they felt, for Jews.

These early Christians “could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head. Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity….Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God’s love to those in its shadow”.

And, even more importantly, Luke’s Jesus draws our hearts and minds toward that great feast that we will all share, the one we look forward to every time we celebrate the sacrament at a table that welcomes all of God’s children to be fed by the grace of God. Is it any wonder, then, that people are deeply moved, lives are changed, and we catch a glimpse of the reign of God?

So, when making up our guest lists and deciding how to share the blessings we’ve received, don’t be strategic. Don’t go for reciprocity. Be extravagantly, forgetfully generous. Invite the most unlikely, most unexpected of guests into your home and share that most necessary, most enjoyable experience of eating together. “You will be blessed,” Jesus says, repaid at the resurrection, for sure, but we sense that he’s referring to more immediate blessings as well.

What if we truly listened to the gospel, the good news? What if the humanity that we share, the sheer humanity that Jesus shared with us, led us to see one another as equals in the eyes of God? What if we could see ourselves and each other as God sees us, what if we could look at ourselves and each other through God’s eyes? Well, I guess then we wouldn’t have any problem at all inviting everybody into the feast, would we? We would sit down together, and we would break bread together. No barriers, no class, no labels.

In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus tells us to surprise others by our own dinner guest list, and prepare for a “great” time, too. Perhaps we, too, will come to understand a little better the meaning of true fulfillment. © Kate Huey United Church of Christ

 

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