A sermon on Luke 14: 1, 7-14. . August 28 2022
Luke’s Jesus sometimes seems to be preoccupied with meals. There are more references to eating, banquets, tables and reclining at tables than in any of the other Gospels. Luke suggests that, for Jesus, the table is a key place for teaching, and for encountering the marginalized. Jesus also uses the meal table as a focus for some of his parables. Sharing a meal, sitting round a table, is a principal site for fellowship and for teaching. So, here we go again, with a meal within a meal.
On the surface, this looks like a straightforward little story. Don’t ever assume that you have a right to the place of honour. It’s not status that counts, it’s service. You may think you are important – but that won’t necessarily be the way God sees your rȏle. That’s the obvious message of this little parable that Jesus told. It’s the upside-down kingdom again – and let’s be quite clear about this – it’s seditious stuff. In Jesus’ world, status was important and status underpinned the established authority. This is Mary’s song all over again: ‘He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts……… he has brought down the powerful from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek.’ We’re so familiar with this theme, and possibly with this story, that we can slide over the provocation, but be very sure that his fellow dinner guests would have got the point.
So – Jesus had been the guest speaker at the local synagogue, and as the guest speaker, he was invited back to dinner after the service at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. The leader is an important person, and the guest of honour is an important person, but this guest is an observant person. He watches the way the other guests claim their places, and he speaks out about it. Don’t imagine, he says, that God’s table order is anything like yours.
This can seem simple and obvious, and we can nod wisely and say, of course, that’s how things should be. All are welcome and all are equally welcome. But – if we look around us, we won’t see much difference between that dinner table in Palestine and our own practices. At civic events, there’ll be a top table for the Mayor and the Councillors and the invited speakers. At weddings, there’s often a certain order in the seating arrangements even beyond the table for the bridal party. I’ve been to secular conferences where the speakers get special treatment. And even in our churches, we get hierarchies. The clash between culture and gospel here can lead us into a minefield. Let me share some of my own experiences.
The first time I was invited in as a lay preacher and Vice-President Elect, to take a service in a Tongan church, there was lunch after the service. In a palangi setting, lunch after the service is a shared meal. Everyone mixes and mingles and gathers round the tables, and chooses their own place to settle. If the guest preacher has any function here, it may only be to say grace. In the Tongan setting, I was expected to sit at a table with the incumbent presbyter, apart from everyone else, and I was served with food and drink. Moreover, nobody else could begin until I had ‘opened the table.’ Everyone else went up to the tables and helped themselves. And I felt very uneasy. Talk about being out of my comfort zone. The internal debate I had was about reconciling my respect for the culture I had been invited into, with my own ingrained culture about how to behave in church settings. It wasn’t easy trying to disentangle my personal reaction from the rȏle I was occupying on that occasion. And it’s worse when you are a visiting palangi presbyter in Pacific cultures, because the ordained rȏle carries further implications of status. It becomes a continuing challenge to remember the message of our parable.
Then there’s what happens when you are in a national leadership appointment. How does this parable fit with what goes with the office? It’s fascinating, of course, experiencing the differences between the cultures of our churches. A President or Vice-President in a Pacific setting is a person apart always. In a palangi setting, once you have carried out any official duties that you were invited to undertake at any particular occasion, you become again part of the crowd. Then there’s the communion service. We say: all are welcome at this open table. But every congregation has its own customs, and sometimes for strangers, those customs can be a point of separation. I once found that I had to serve the most honoured person first of all, using separate and (more expensive) plate and cup.
Maybe this parable isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. It’s still a ‘work in progress’ to get our heads round it. It takes time, and much sharing to be able to move across cultural divides and work out together what are the appropriate times and places when custom needs to be honoured, and where the gospel values are upheld in that honouring.
There is another danger point that we might note in this parable. What happens if we are continually exhorting people to be humble. The message may be taken most to heart by those who least need to hear it. Here’s an illustration from a secular setting. Hospitals can find themselves in the gun of public opinion over inadequate communication with patients. Christchurch once called in an overseas expert to offer workshops on communication, free to all staff. Ten percent of staff turned up for the free workshop, and the speaker began by saying: ‘Actually, you are the 10% I don’t need to work with.’ He is often called in by hospitals that are in serious difficulty with the communities they serve, and he always begins by offering this workshop to all. The first group that show up are the ones who already know about the importance of good communication. They’ve worked at it, and welcome the opportunity to hone their skills. They actually don’t need the workshop. He then goes to Admin. and says: ‘Now you will advertise compulsory workshops for all staff who did not attend the first one.’ That gets most – but not all. The 10% or so who still fail to appear will then be told that, unless they now attend a one-week live-in workshop, their employment is on the line. They are precisely the ones who simply don’t ‘get it’ about the need and the importance of communication. If we push the message of humility, we have to be aware that the people who are most likely to take it to heart, are the very people who are already practicing the virtue. The ones who most need to hear will be the ones who have no idea that they need to hear.
Parishes are often asked to describe their ethos and to be honest when writing parish profiles. There are traps to be aware of. You have to make clear your understanding of the words you use – particularly loaded word ‘inclusive’ – which can become in itself a most exclusive declaration. It’s important to be quite clear about your parish’s understanding about the terms ‘open’, ‘inclusive’, evangelical’, ‘liberal’. At the same time, be aware that your understanding may be worlds apart from that of other parishes. How about the exhortations to be openhanded and hospitable? All of our congregations like to think of themselves as welcoming – all are welcome we say. Especially if there’s any possibility that the newcomers might be back! We affirm the ministry of hospitality; we say that at Communion we have an open table; we make a point of having people on the doors to welcome visitors to our Sunday services, but we haven’t always, as parishes, really worked at understanding what we mean by being open and hospitable. Labels are very imprecise, and therefore, in the end, can be meaningless and unhelpful. How does this parish define itself? How does it understand its calling to offer hospitality in fellowship?
A parish’s fellowship is witness to God’s fellowship established in Jesus Christ, both between the whole world and God and among human beings. Karl Barth’s four dimensions of such witness are:
- Offer unity among peoples that overcomes national, ethnic and linguistic barriers in our world.
- Refuse to accept either the legitimacy or necessity of dividing up the community into special white, black or brown congregations;
- Respond to the plurality of human cultures
- In pastoral work set aside class distinctions in society between rich and poor.
How well are you doing in these four aspects?
One last experience to share with you. Te Haahi Weteriana has a stated commitment to working as a bicultural partnership. This has challenged us when it comes to the issue of power-sharing, especially when we add property and assets into the mix. There’s nothing like discussions about money to challenge principles of partnership and power-sharing. The partnership works well in the only overt bicultural committee of the church, Council of Conference, but it’s hard for people up and down the country to get any sort of feel for working as partners, particularly in the south and in CV’s. Even Council of Conference has its moments. One year, when Te Taha Maori announced that the entire Connexional Budget would be funded out of TTM resources it was a cultural shock for the Tauiwi caucus to be the recipients of money and not the dispensers of money! We agonized over how to respond to our partner, and were told that formal thanks were not required – this was one part of the family holding out a hand to another part of the family.
And now of course, New Zealand is no longer a country that has an inheritance only from Western Christianity (although we have never been a predominantly Christian country in the sense of active church support). We are now a multi-faith country, and learning how to have those conversations across the faiths isn’t easy. Given that we still have a way to go when it comes to inter-denominational conversations, this is hardly surprising!
To sum up, Jesus challenges us to set aside any calculations about what’s due to us in return for any good deed. We are to be a community that celebrates self-giving, and shares the table with those from whom folks with conventional values turn away. In every society, and every time, there will be groups of people on the outside, and to live out our baptism ‘in Christ’ by being always mindful of those who are typically left out. In the end, the host of the feast is God, and God invites whom God invites, without consulting our inclinations. In the end: ‘People will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 13:29)
Rev Dr Barbara Peddie