A reflection for Proper 17, Year C:
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 honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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 honoured 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 neighbours, 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.’
It seems like we spend a lot of time in the Gospels eating with Jesus. Eating at wedding banquets, eating at friends’ homes, eating with multitudes of people, breaking bread with close friends. Of course, there is a lot that happens in the narrative of Jesus’ birth, ministry, life, death, and resurrection that we encounter in the Bible, and we tell those stories across the liturgical year. The more I reflect on how often food appears in those stories along with Jesus, the more I realize that these stories of feasting, eating, and dining with Jesus are at the core of my faith. There is awe in the divine mystery of Jesus Christ, God-made-human. But, there is also something incredibly beautiful about Jesus, the divine-yet-human being who understands the nature of what we need…food for sustenance of body, and relationship for sustenance of soul. If Jesus is someone that I can eat with, Jesus is someone that I can relate to. If Jesus conveys stories through the sharing of food and fellowship at the table, then I am someone who wants to listen and be fed. So, when Jesus invites me to eat with him, I am drawn to say an enthusiastic “yes.” That, in a few sentences, is the pattern that has drawn me deeper and deeper into the relationship with Jesus that is the basis of my Christian life.
I’ve realized while reflecting on this Gospel that we read today that eating with Jesus is probably the perfect metaphor for our lives of faith.
Jesus, as a devout and faithful teacher, offers up stories and parables which invite his hearers to live deeply into the two great commandments that were central to his Jewish faith and life: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These core values…the Shema…frame his life and ministry. When I think about those words, I realize that my own upbringing instilled something that at its core is a branch of this sacred value. It was spoken and lived out by my Grandmother: when you love people, you feed them. She was the matriarch of a farming family, and fed everyone from farm hands to her own flesh and blood with food cooked with love. Sometimes that food was abundant, and sometimes she made due with whatever was available. But, always, you were fed because you were loved. Favorite meals on birthdays, family gatherings with spreads of comfort food, Thanksgiving banquets that would stretch across multiple rooms of my Gramma’s farmhouse, containing contributions from multiple family members cooked and baked with love and care. We feed our families, we make sure our children have food…even special food…and sometimes we even go without food ourselves in order to make that happen. When people we love are sick, we feed them. When people are hurting and grieving, we feed them. When we are happy and celebratory, we throw parties and invite people to share our joys with us. The food and faces may change with culture, geography, what we love to eat and what is available to us. But, rather universally, when we love people we feed them. When we are fed, we come to know that we are loved.
And so, it becomes a deeply loving gift when we are invited to eat with Jesus.
First, Jesus teaches his fellow dinner companions what it really means to be a guest. Jesus himself is being watched, and he is watching people clamor and climb to be seated nearest the person of power. In the cultural setting of a meal such as this, this would literally mean watching people trying to be the center of attention. The guests of honor reclined in the center of the room, with those who wanted to be seen and heard crowding into that central space. Jesus is drawing our attention not just to where we find our place at the table, but to how we feel occupying those spaces. If we are only looking to be at the center of attention so that we can share in another’s power, we don’t even pay attention to who is with us, or who we crawl over in the process. We stop seeing those on the margins. We stop making relationships . When the guest in Jesus’ parable is demoted from that self-appointed place of power and feels disgrace, that feeling comes from being set apart, from feeling apart from community. Jesus offers up a different perspective: joining first with those who are on the outside builds community among those with whom we are gathered at the table. Jesus points out that even when we are invited closer, it isn’t just about us if we are living in community. We are honored in the presence of all who are with us because they rise with us. Jesus as guest reminds us that it isn’t the position where we start out or where we strive to be, but instead it is seeing ourselves as a part of the table…the community…that makes all the difference. When one of those humble guests is honored, all of the guests are exalted. I think of Jesus, the guest, reminding us that he didn’t choose to enter this world amid wealth and power. His incarnate beginnings were humble, and it is in his exultation through death and resurrection that all of us….ALL of US…are brought closer to God.
In the second part of today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches his host…and us…a lesson about intention. Do we do what we do so that we’ll get something in return? Or do we do what we do, because we genuinely care about feeding and loving our community? Jesus the host doesn’t create an exclusive guest list of those who give the church the most money or who have the highest social standing. Jesus invites us to his table…those of us who will come as we are…wearing all the flaws and challenges and marks of our humanity. We are the guests. Jesus the host knows that this beloved community of authentic, flawed, real people is where the real joy lies. Jesus, our host, rejoices when we are restored. Jesus, our host, delights to feed us without expecting that we can ever reciprocate. Jesus, our host, embodies that same sacred value as my Grandmother: when you love people, you feed them. There is a delight in offering all of what we have to feed those we love. There is deep gratitude in being lovingly fed. In the abundance of the banquet Jesus hosts for us, all are fed. All are nourished. All are welcome.
Yes, I think eating with Jesus is probably the best metaphor for our active lives of faith.
Everyone here today is being invited to eat with Jesus, and Jesus is here to eat with us as a guest. Jesus is here in community, with us as we pray together and eat together. Jesus is here, with those you will sit with at lunch, and those you break bread with, and Jesus who eats with you here continues to show his love through your words and actions toward those you will encounter as you leave. Jesus is in the hands and hearts of those who are back in the kitchen finishing up their cooking preparations right now; it is Jesus who holds the hands that serve and supports the hands that receive. Jesus is present in the scrubbing of the pots, the washing of the dishes, the vacuuming of the floor, and the wiping the tables. Jesus is here with us knowing the humility of this human life…knowing about poverty, about oppression, about being beaten, about feeling abandoned and betrayed. Jesus is here as our host, offering us his stories of hope, of resurrection, of the humble being exalted, of a kingdom that is both of this world and beyond it. If you come back on Sunday for Holy Eucharist, which you are all welcome to do, Jesus is host for that sacred feast, too. Jesus is host, and Jesus is guest in all these ways that he holds out for us to feed on today…because we are the community of Jesus. Feed on that in your hearts as we break bread together today. Jesus, the host, invites you. Jesus, the guest, dines with you. In Christ’s own humility, and in his rising up, we also are exalted.
[Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church: A Service for Healing, Friday August 26, 2016]