Jesus was not an easy person to have at a dinner party and today we hear of a sabbath meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus was respected by the Pharisees, other wise they would not have invited him, but you never knew what might happen. Strange women might come in to anoint his feet, someone might even come in through the roof to ask for healing. At the very least, Jesus was likely to tell awkward parable, embarrassing and challenging to host and guests alike. It is no wonder that our gospel begins with a note that “they were watching him closely”.
And today the drama begins before the entrees have been served. Even before Jesus entered the house he cured a man of dropsy. The six verses are omitted from the gospel as printed; but they are there. No wonder the Pharisees were anxious about what he might do once inside.
And, sure enough, Jesus begins with a parable addressed to the guests. What Jesus saw was normal behaviour at a feast – the important guests claimed the best seats, and the lowly guests knew that they would be seated less advantageously. There was nothing vainglorious or discriminatory about it – people knew their place in society and this was reflected in the seating at meals. But Jesus uses this social custom to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Kingdom of Heaven, honour is not something we take for ourselves, but is something given as a gift from God. We might remember that James and John wanted the places of honour when Jesus was glorified, and Jesus replied, “To sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are to set aside thoughts of self-advantage, to behave rightly and to accept the honour God gives us.
Jesus’ parable is a warning about self serving pride among the guests, and that’s a good lesson to learn, but it also has a lesson for hosts. In Jewish society, as in ours, shared meals are a way of building community, strengthening relationships, and finding and recognising the places we have in our community. Then, as now, we invite those who are important to us as family, friends and people with influence in our lives. In this way we set up a network of mutual obligation and we can expect to be invited in return, or given some other special treatment in private life or in business. This is the way the world has worked for thousands of years – you have only to look at the guest lists to corporate functions to see how it works.
The Kingdom of Heaven does not work that way. Certainly it builds community, strengthens relationships and shows us our place among humanity. The difference is that the world works through self interest, and the kingdom of heaven works through love. If self interest says, “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”, then love says, “Do you want your back scratched?” Love is the reason that Jesus invites the poor, the crippled, the lame and blind to his feast – the ones who can never repay. These are the guests who would never be invited to the feasts of the proud and the great – you never see the unemployed at a corporate lunch – and why? Because the Macquarie Bank or BHP-Billiton will gain nothing from them. But Jesus says these are the very guests to be welcomed and honoured. The host gains no honour or advantage by inviting them except in the kingdom of heaven.
The writer to the Hebrews makes the same point. “Let mutual love continue”, not let mutual obligation flourish. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Angels, perhaps, but more often just refugees in search of a homeland, prisoners searching for freedom, the tortured in search of release from pain and anguish. And we welcome these guests not out of high-minded desire to do good, but out of solidarity with them, as if we shared their homelessness, their captivity, their torture. The hospitality talked about here has nothing to do with sharing our plenty with those who have little, but everything to do with meeting on equal terms at the table – letting mutual love continue – taking the lowest place at the feast.
Jesus’ parable might have troubled the Pharisees, but it is even more troubling for us. Jesus and the Pharisees lived two thousand years ago, on the other side of the world – and it’s easy to say that things have changed and we don’t have to invite the unemployed home with us today. I wonder. I find this parable, along with the Good Samaritan, one of the most challenging in the Gospels. I know that I could not invite anyone with whom I did not feel comfortable into my house, or to my table. I’m not sure that the poor would be comfortable at my table or in my house anyway – but there must be a way of being obedient to Christ’s call to radical table fellowship. I want to offer hospitality to strangers in a way that will respect everyone – I don’t want to make the guests feel patronised, and I don’t want the hosts to feel fearful.
I guess that you share my fears, so perhaps we can start practising, until we feel more confident to be as radical as Jesus. My first decision has been to declare that all people are welcome at the Lord’s Table. I will never refuse to give communion to anyone who asks. There are no conditions, neither baptism nor confirmation nor age no gender nor anything else in all the world can separate us from the love God in Christ Jesus.
I have noticed, too, in this parish, after the service in the Hall, no one is excluded from our fellowship. Anyone can have a cup of tea or coffee, and anyone can eat from our table. Obviously, those who abuse our hospitality will be asked to leave, but I am proud of the way we welcome strangers and include them.
But can we be as radical as Jesus and invite strangers into our homes? Perhaps our Dinners for Six can help us here. Maybe if we invited a stranger from the congregation – how about the lady who always sits three pews in front of us, or the man who always sits by himself. If we start with these familiar strangers we may feel confident enough to welcome newcomers to our table; and if newcomers, why not complete strangers?
There is no way of knowing how people would respond. They might be grateful, or angry, or they might be angels in disguise. But it has been done, and it is being done; it’s been done here, through Our Place and The Friendship Group, so we can be encouraged by these examples.
And we would have to do this out of commitment to the Kingdom of God, for those who cannot repay. This can be our only motivation. It would have to be done knowing that the only reward we may receive will be at the resurrection of the righteous in the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.
I wonder, do we dare?