Invited and inviting
This week Sureka I celebrated our twenty second wedding anniversary. Now while many of the details of the preparations for the wedding have faded into the midst of time (actually, I managed to avoid much of the planning by still being in England when decisions had to be taken), one thing that does stick in my mind was the incredible process of making a seating plan for the reception.
Working out which tables, and which seats at each table would be considered ‘better’ and ‘worse’, and then who would be offended if they saw someone else seated in a better place than they even though they were both second cousins once removed – this was a Tamil wedding, the extended family were there in full force, and relationships quickly get complicated. It’s one of the few parts of the whole process that made me think it might be better if our kids, when the time comes, just eloped.
At the wedding banquet Jesus describes, the situation is much more complex, much more fraught with social pitfalls.
But Jesus’ message, at least, seems to be fairly
simple. When you come into the banquet room, don’t push yourself forwards,
don’t claim the highest place. To do so is to run too great a risk – the
humiliation you will experience if you overreach and find yourself publicly
No, instead, take a place at the back, and then when the host calls you to move to a better seat you will be doubly honoured.
That is, if the host does call you forward.
Because of course the problem with the strategy that Jesus proposes is that most of the time the host isn’t going to notice that one of their guests has humbly taken a seat at the back. Of course, if you are important enough that your absence from the top table is obvious that’s one thing – but in that case you wouldn’t have been in danger of demotion in the first place. No, if you’re a middle-ranking guest, no-one is going to notice that you’ve sat at the back near the door to the toilets.
And any of the other guests who do notice will assume you are there for a reason. They’ll probably start to speculate about what you must have done to be in such disgrace. Taking a seat of little honour is more likely to be self-fulfilling prophecy.
And then of course you’ll be sitting with other people
who have little or no honour, you’ll miss out on the conversations at the
important tables. You’ll be mixing with the low-honour crowd, and their lack of
status will rub off on you just as much as you would have hoped to gain honour
by sitting near the host.
No, Jesus’ strategy makes no sense in the culture and currency of honour and shame that defined social standing in the first century world. But it isn’t meant to. Jesus isn’t really giving advice on how to behave to gain maximum benefit in the cut and thrust of society. As is ever his way, he is disrupting the status quo, and challenging the assumptions behind it.
Because most of his listeners would have gone through exactly the same logical steps as I outlined, and come to the same conclusion. Taking the seat at the back doesn’t make sense.
Unless you change the rules of the game.
Which, of course, is exactly what Jesus is challenging them to do.
Because he goes on to challenge the wisdom of the day
in a much more direct way: “when you throw a dinner, don’t invite people who
will invite you back – because then you will have been repaid”. Which was
exactly the point, of course. You invited those who were likely to offer an
invitation in return. That was how it worked – you scratch my back, I scratch
yours. And the people you mixed with, the people you invited, and who attended,
they defined who you were, where you fitted in. What you were worth.
And that is a far more important attitude for Jesus to challenge than any social conventions regarding who sits where.
“Don’t invite those who can invite you back – invite the ones who can’t. The poor, the cripple, the blind. The ones who are outcasts, the ones who are so low down the social pecking order that they have nothing to offer you back – no return invitation, to be sure, but no honour, either, no status, no prestige. Invite them, and trust that your reward will come from God”
What Jesus has done through this exchange, this pair of discussions, is ask the question, raise the challenge: where are you expecting to get your reward from?
Because all your careful attempts to get yourself into
a seat of honour, to get into the right circles, the right conversations, to be
seen with the right people; and your careful choice of guests when you throw a
party, they both come from the same place. They both come from your desire to
get a reward from those around you, from your society. Whether that reward be
as simple as a meal in return, or as subtle as respect and honour, it’s still
the same – you are looking for the reward that other can give you.
And it’s a pretty constant theme in Jesus’ teaching: do things that earn you a reward, that earn you the respect and admiration of others, and you’ve had your reward already in full.
But do good when no-one notices you, when you don’t earn praise, when you don’t get payback – then you’re earning reward from God. Because then you are acting like God, the one who gives without expectation of reward or return, but simply because to give is what love does.
So our reading today speaks to us as guests and as hosts; as invitees and inviters.
That we are invited to come as guests without status or honour, that we do not deserve a place of respect at the great banquet, we come and take whatever place there is for us, and that when we do, the host will lift us up, honour us with a place we do not deserve. That is the story we celebrate in communion this morning: the invitation to be guests at God’s banquet, together, equal in value, equal in worth, equally loved.
And that we are challenged to share that invitation,
just as we are challenged to share all we have, with others, not just those who
are like us, not just those we find easy, not just those who speak our language
or share our values, but with all.
And I wonder how this is a challenge for us as a Christian Church in Australia today. For it is no secret that the Church is not, right now, known for it’s all embracing invitation, for it’s extending of love and value and welcome to those who are different, those who do not share our values. That in the public sphere, the Church is more visible fighting to protect its right to discriminate than it is visible fighting to include those who are marginalised, those who are excluded, those who seem as if they have nothing to give.
Well, we don’t control the whole public appearance of the Christian faith. But we do have something to say about our small part of it. And so as we celebrate God’s invitation to us, God’s embrace of us, God’s willingness to go to any length necessary, even death, in order to be reconciled to us; as we celebrate that together, let us hear the challenge to reach out with that same invitation, to do our bit to make it so that Christians are once again known as the people who care, the people who include the ones no-one else is willing to put up with, the people who go the extra mile for the good of others.
Let our light so shine that all people see, and give glory to our Father in heaven.