Wedding Banquet Etiquette

Proper 22           Aug 28, 2016

Luke 14:1,7-14 

How appropriate, after the last two evenings of fun and celebration, that we have a reading about a banquet this morning. On the surface, this seems to be advice as to how to behave, a kind of etiquette for banquets. But more than that, Jesus is giving us clues to reflect on the very nature of hospitality, and what it means when we eat together.

Eating together is something Jesus clearly liked to do. He is quite the party animal, apparently; he seems to come by his reputation honestly as a glutton and drunkard, friend of tax collectors and sinners. Particularly in Luke’s gospel, we find story after story that take place around the table, eating with all kinds of people, from “sinners” to the most respected Pharisees. Dinner parties are the settings for his teachings, for the telling of parables, for healings. But they are more than just a setting: the dinner party itself is an important part of his message, a key metaphor for the kingdom of God. Eating with all kinds of people, joining in conversation and celebration, Jesus is acting out a parable of the kingdom of God.

Now his words this morning look like practical advice:
‘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.
Now the first thing to realize, is that this was actually a realistic scenario in Jesus’s day. Dinner parties were important social occasions, especially among the more well-to-do circles. They had adopted the Greek custom of reclining on couches, and there was a careful social hierarchy reflected in the seating: a head table where the most distinguished guests sat; down the two sides the ordinary respectable people were seated, in careful order of precedence; and then at the far end, a place for the charity cases, like Jesus and his disciples.

In this context, Jesus’s warning seems to be just a piece of social etiquette, how to avoid humiliation. I don’t know about you, but it is a lesson I took in in my childhood. Never push yourself forward, because you could get slapped down. Hold back, and be modest, and maybe someone will notice. This was good enough advice, I guess. It never hurt me. But after all, I’m a white male. I’m not sure it’s such good advice to a black in the civil rights era: “go to the back of the bus.” Or to a woman stuck in her career, as one less competent man after another gets promoted over her.

But Jesus is not just giving a piece of social advice. It goes deeper than that. The reading begins “Jesus told them this parable”, and like all Jesus’s parables, this is an account of the kingdom of God. His teaching is not really about how to behave when you’re invited out; it’s about the new order that Jesus came to proclaim and embody. It is a revolutionary order, nothing less than the upending of polite society as we know it. In this upside down world Jesus talks about, the poor and humble are exalted to the places of honour. The high and mighty are put down from their thrones. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

This becomes even clearer in the second part of the reading. ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

See, here its hard to see how this works at all as practical advice. If you are having a dinner party, of course you will invite your friends. You know you get along with them; they’re your friends! How awkward it would be to invite complete strangers; how condescending to invite them just because they happen to be poor or lame; and how self-serving to invite anyone because you hope to get something back in return.

Again, this is a parable of the kingdom. In the resurrection of the righteous, when God’s kingdom will be fulfilled, the order of this world will be overturned. It is not the rich and powerful who will be in a position to repay us. The poor and the lame will repay us: they will be the ones in positions of honour, in the radical overturning of conventions of this world.

So what is the lesson? In our private lives, not that we have to neglect our friends and invite strangers; but maybe that we might just be a little more open to the possibilities of strangers who cross our path. That we might cultivate the courage and imagination to recognize in them potential friends – even and especially in people who are very different from us.

That is in our private lives. Here, in this place, things are a bit different. Because this is a place where we come together to try to orient our lives more consciously to God’s kingdom. This is a place we can play a bit at being the kingdom, where we can explore what God’s new community looks like by acting it out.

Here we are called to explore friendship not just with people like us, but especially with those who are different. To be in community not just with people we like, but especially with people we find difficult.

That is why we gather each Sunday around this table, and share this meal of bread and wine. Whatever else it means – and it means a lot! – we are acting out the kingdom of God. We are called to that wedding banquet of the world and God, we are invited to the celebration of God reconciling the world with himself, and thereby reconciling us with each other. We are called to this table alongside people from all over the world, people in hundreds of thousands of churches, of every land and culture and language.

This table does not isolate us from others; it unifies us, and it challenges us to consider how good a job we are doing in our community of bearing witness.

And that is not just at this table, on a Sunday morning. When we gather around tables as we did last night, and invite the community in, we are practising that holy hospitality. Let us never fall into the trap of thinking of our parish dinners as just fund-raisers. They too are a way of celebrating the wedding banquet.

In fact, every meal we share is a wedding banquet. It’s never just a meal, it is always, also, a little parable of God’s radical kingdom.