So it is no surprise that our gospel reading describes Jesus at a meal.
At this meal, Jesus notices people jockeying for position, trying to get the best seats. Today, we are a little more subtle than the Pharisees at this party. But it remains true that meals are a place where we work out who belongs and who doesn’t.
I experienced that last week at the Regional Convocation of the Third Order Franciscans. There were about thirty of us, and most of the group seemed to know each other. It was my first time, so going in I did not feel much like part of the group. Most of the time, that was no problem. But who was I supposed to sit with at meals?
At one meal, I was chatting with two other people as we walked in. I was in front. None of the tables with people had three available seats, so I sat at an empty table, assuming that the three of us would sit together. But the man behind me went to a different table. There I was, sitting all by myself, and feeling a little bit like a loser. I had a momentary fear that I would have to eat lunch all alone in the midst of a big happy group. At that moment, I wished I had been a little more aggressive about getting one of the good seats!
In fact, it all worked out fine. But for the minute or so that I sat by myself, I glimpsed the social dynamic Jesus was talking about in our gospel reading. We all want to sit in a place that shows we belong, that we are part of the group, that other people accept us, that other people like us. None of us want to be stuck at a table by ourselves.
As is so often the case, Jesus sees it all clearly and offers a different way.
First, Jesus tells us not to worry about our place at the table. He tells us to just sit at the end, at the lowest place, by ourselves. Maybe the host will raise us up. Maybe not. Either way, we are OK because we have taken the lowest place by choice. We have checked out of the competition for status at the table.
Then Jesus turns to the host. Jesus tells him not to invite your people, the people you always sit with, the people you like to sit with, the people who can and will repay you. Instead invite the people you would not otherwise associate with, the people who do not normally have a place at your table. Jesus calls them the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. He means anybody you would not normally include.
Meals, it turns out, are not supposed to be a time when you to worry about your place in the social order. Meals are a time for you to make sure that others have a place.
That is where our gospel reading for this morning ends. But the story keeps going. Jesus launches into a parable. A man invited lots of guests to a dinner party. But when everything was ready, the guests refused to come. So the man sent his slave out into the streets to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14:21). Even then there was still room, so the man sent his slave out a second time to bring in still more people.
This is a parable of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a great dinner party. And the guests at the party are not the people you would expect, the original invitees. The guests who actually enter the kingdom are the lowly, the people without status.
In this parable of the kingdom, God does what Jesus is talking about in our reading. God does what Jesus says good hosts should do. God brings in the lowly. And God gives them a prominent place at the table.
In God’s kingdom, there will be no jockeying for position. And, ironically, the best way to ensure that you get a good seat is to be humble, to choose the lowest spot. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).
Now we come back to the regular meals we eat together. I come back to my moment of anxiety at lunchtime with the Franciscans. I picture Jesus telling me not to worry about sitting alone, Jesus telling me I should just choose the lowest place.
I might respond, “That is easy for you to say. You are Jesus! You know you belong.”
But Jesus’ whole point is that we belong, too. We belong no matter what happens at a dinner party, no matter what is happening in our lives. We belong to God. We will always belong to God. No one can take that away from us. We have a place at God’s table. As long as we remember that, we don’t need to worry too much about where we sit at all the other tables in our lives. That is good news!
And with that good news for us comes responsibility to others. Our task is to make sure that everyone has a place at the table, that those our society tends to leave behind are not excluded, that they, too, know they are beloved children of God and part of the household of God of which we are a part.
There are lots of ways we can help to include others at the table. Here at Saint David’s, our most regular effort is through our work with the Parish Cupboard and Church without walls.
But right now we are participating in another wonderful effort to help those who could use a little boost. Our Mums sale, which goes on for one more week, supports the work of Action Centered Tutoring (ACTS). ACTS’ mission is “to provide free one-to-one tutoring and mentoring to the elementary children of Springfield, in the Spirit of Christ,” to help “children thrive academically, relationally, and spiritually.” ACTS works to give struggling and at-risk children a place at the table in our society. And as they say, that is very much in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
I am thrilled that we can support ACTS. And I am proud of the work that we here at Saint David’s do to extend Christ’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope, in anticipation of the great party in the kingdom of God.
And so on this morning, I give thanks to God for giving us a place at God’s table. And I thank God for the opportunity to share that good news and to help make it real in the lives of our less fortunate brothers and sisters.
In the name of Christ, the great host of the divine party. Amen.