I’ve finally hit the age where I am now playing host at dinner parties or family events, and, I have to say that it’s pretty fun. I love cooking. I enjoy planning for the event. I don’t love the decorating, but, thankfully I have someone else in my life who is good at that. Just in the past year we’ve hosted Thanksgiving Dinner and most of my in-laws for a Fourth of July/40th birthday weekend.
We host others for dinner because we enjoy the company. We want to deepen friendships. We want to let family know we care that they’re in our lives. We want to have fun. But never once has it entered my mind to have a party because I want to look good or increase my social standing. That’s just not what motivates me.
Jesus gets invited to lots of dinners in the gospels. Why? Because their culture was based on honor. There were social obligations for sure, but there was also plenty of social capital gained when you could get the right people to come to your dinner. Jesus has gained a reputation, and having him at your table was significant. (Although given that Jesus tended to disrupt the social order with teachings and healings when he showed up for dinner, I wonder how much buyers’ remorse these hosts had after inviting him.) Today’s text is no exception.
The setting is similar to our text last week. Once again Jesus has been to synagogue on the Sabbath. It was common for Jews to gather for Sabbath dinner in the early afternoon following their time at the synagogue. This is yet another practice that seems to have carried down to many Christians. I know many gathered here today will go out to brunch or lunch after church.
And, I have to admit that I spent way too much time thinking about why we call lunch on Sundays “dinner.” If I invited you to dinner at my house this Thursday, you’d assume we’re eating around 6:00. But if you invited me to Sunday dinner at your house, I’d assume I was going straight after church! Why is Sunday dinner at lunch time, and Monday dinner at…dinner time?
So, Jesus is at the home of a prominent Pharisee. In their world, the host would occupy the most important seat at the table and then others would sit in order of importance. As I said, it was an honor/shame culture, so it makes sense that they would do this. But then Jesus, noticing how they do this, calls them on it. He’s likely aware of the parable we read this morning. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble” (Prov. 25:6-7). That’s basically the surface of his teaching.
The Book of Proverbs is fascinating because it is so full of wisdom. I once led a Bible study on Proverbs, but I found myself frustrated with the study. We’d read a verse like we just heard, and I would ask people what they thought about the verse. All I’d hear back were crickets because there’s not a lot you can interpret. Mostly we’d look at each other and say, “Well. Yeah. That makes sense. Next!”
It would be selling ourselves short to hear Jesus’ teaching at this table as a proverb. That’s not what Luke calls it. Did you notice what Luke calls Jesus’ teaching? A parable. Not a proverb. Jesus is not just giving good social advice. The application of this teaching isn’t meant to merely save us from embarrassment by sitting in the wrong place at dinner. No, it’s a parable, which means that Jesus is implying far more than what’s at the surface.
This is a parable, not a proverb. It’s the difference between Jesus’ merely prescribing a remedy to cure a socially awkward situation and describing what God’s beloved way in the world looks like when it’s actually lived out.
R. T. France points out that “the whole scenario could be read simply as [good] advice for social climbers: it is better to aim low and hope for promotion than to aim too high and risk loss of face (cf. Prov. 25:6-7). But human society does not usually work like that: in the real world it tends to be the assertive who are noticed and honored, whereas those who do not push themselves forward are more likely to be ignored. It is only in the kingdom of heaven that ‘the meek will inherit the earth’ (Matt. 5:5). It seems more likely, therefore, that here Jesus is deliberately challenging the prevailing social system and commending an alternative scale of values in which honor is something given by God.”
In that moment, those gathered are probably taking this teaching at its surface, but his point goes beyond advice for how to hold a dinner party. Jesus is criticizing how they handle their affairs around the table, and Jesus is going deeper. His parable describes what life is like at the table where God is host. Jesus is describing the world in which God is always the host, which is the foundation of Christian belief if you think about it. This is God’s world, and we’re guests in it. We are perpetual guests—even when we’re the ones providing hospitality!
As guests we realize we’re on a level plane with every one else—since we’re all guests! The host—God—is the one who defines the way things are supposed to be. As people who are awakening to God’s way in the world, we then model God’s way when we live our lives not according to the norms of our culture but according to the way God has designed the world, which we see in Jesus.
Jesus continues to model this in his teaching. He tells these important folks that their dinner parties should welcome “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (vs. 13). It’s such a startling teaching. My Thanksgiving dinner had family and friends at it. I didn’t wander the streets of Grand Haven looking for others. I’m guessing that’s true for most of us.
But like the parable that precedes it, this is not a literal teaching. It’s not a new law. Rather, Jesus recognizes that “though we are perpetual guests…we have the power to also be hosts who invite others to the table.” But how are we to invite those on the edges of our community if we don’t already make space to be near them?
Jesus was willing to eat with the respectable and the outcasts. He sat at table with the powerful and the weak. It’s one of his most remarkable traits, particularly in a culture that so valued honor. When we live like Jesus, we model that same kind of openness to all. We also intentionally seek out others who are not like us because we want to be like Jesus in the world.
Jesus’ table talk pushes the understanding of his hosts, and it pushes ours. What is he saying to us today?
Don’t concern yourself with climbing to get the best place for yourself.
Be open to meeting the lowly and outcast of the world because you have the power and ability to model what life is like on earth as it is in heaven.
Follow God’s seating chart, where the first will be last and the last first.
Remember that even when we are hosts, we are also always guests of God’s world.
I often come right back to the Lord’s Table. In fact, whenever we encounter a meal in the New Testament it’s helpful to think about it in relationship to communion. It’s a foretaste of what a world that is totally ruled by God’s gracious love is like. It’s a world no longer concerned with status. It’s a world where all are welcomed—the haves and have nots, those beaten down by life and those whose lives appear perfect.
I do see glimpses of that on Sundays here when we celebrate at the Lord’s Table. I see you all—young and old, questioning and sure—responding to Christ’s call to take and eat, to glimpse what life together in the kingdom of God looks like. It’s a taste of the abundant, faithful, and joyful feast God is calling us all to.
I heard many of you talk about how you could hear my heart for this community so clearly in last week’s sermon when I urged us to embrace being present to one another once again. I’ve missed you at the Lord’s Table too. Seeing all of you stream forward in all of your beautiful individuality to the Lord’s Table is a glimpse of God’s kingdom. It’s a moment where we fleetingly capture what Jesus is talking about while he’s at the table for Sabbath dinner.
While God’s kingdom has not arrived in fullness yet, my hope is that our time at the table is always a reminder of the heart of the God we love and of the kind of people God calls us to be in a world that sure could use a whole lot more welcoming love.
Jesus’ teaching is a parable, not a proverb. He’s not giving us a remedy to cure an awkward social situation. He’s describing what God’s way looks like. He’s describing life in God’s kingdom—a place where all are welcome. It’s a place where all belong.
May others catch a glimpse of that kind of life in each of us, both in how we welcome all to the church and in how we welcome all into our lives.