Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 29, 2004
The Gospel: Luke 14: 1,7-14
Sermon: "Humility and Hospitality"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
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 honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, 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 honored 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 neighbors, 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."
Luke 14: 1,7-14
Humility and Hospitality
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - August 29, 2004
The occasion was a state dinner in the small country in the North of Africa. Even though the country was small no expense had been spared. The room was beautifully furnished. The table was exquisitely set. The best wines and the best foods had been prepared for the important guests. When it came time for the meal everyone found their place by the engraved cards at their places.
As everyone took their places comments could be heard about how wonderful everything was. The guests were impressed with the host's attention to detail. After everyone was seated a small bowl of water with lemon and a pure white hand towel were passed around the table. Each guest dipped their fingers into the bowl and then used the towel for drying. Every guest participated in the ritual but one. The wife of one of the ambassadors invited to the dinner passed the bowl by her place along with the towel. No one said a word about her action. The bowl of water and the towel continued around the table. When the bowl and towel had finished the circuit they were removed.
During the rest of the dinner everyone had a grand time; everyone except the woman who passed the bowl by. After she passed the bowl, she found the only person who would speak to her was her husband. For the rest of the evening no one would engage with her in conversation. The reason for the apparent snub was the bowl. In passing the bowl without participating in the ritual she had committed a grievous faux pas. In this country washing one's hands at the table was not about cleanliness. Everyone's hands were assumed to be clean. The ritual was about inclusiveness. If a person did not participate they implied to everyone at the table that they were above washing their hands with others. When the ambassador's wife passed the bowl she told everyone that she thought she was better than they were. She elevated herself above everyone else. In response to her faux pas the guests followed another custom. One did not speak to someone of higher position without being addressed first. Therefore, no one initiated any conversation with her for the entire evening. I imagine her husband had a difficult time as well.
I realize we might believe these customs to be petty and insignificant. However, customs at the table are very important. Go to someone's house for dinner and you will see what customs they observe. One example is prayer. Some families pray with heads bowed. One person usually leads the prayer. If it is a special occasion it is often the host or hostess. Sometimes the prayer may be led by a child of the family. Some families hold hands and others do not. Regardless of the custom a guest participates with the family. One would not presume to tell the host how to bless the food.
Table manners were very important in Jesus' day as well. Jesus uses these manners to teach us about the kingdom of God. In Jesus' day, the seating around the table was assigned according to the importance of the guest to the host. The most important guests were seated close to the host. They also received the best selections of wine, meat, cheeses and bread. If you were seated near the head of the table then you were considered very important. If you were at the far end of the table then you were seated with the house servants. Your food would be whatever they were eating. Your importance in the community according to this host would be viewed by the guests accordingly. The system was very hierarchical and very corporate.
This system is alive and well still today. After all it isn't what we know, it is who we know that is important in this world. How else do we get to be invited to all the proper functions? How else do we get noticed and placed above our position? How else do we get to look down on others and proclaim them less fortunate? While these habits might have started in antiquity they are very much alive and well in this day and age. They are very much alive in this county. They are very much alive in this community.
In fact, the other day I was having a discussion with a lady and we were talking about helping people. I explained to her how much outreach we do. She asked me where I was the preacher. I told her St. Thomas' and I explained where we were located. Immediately, she looked at the ground. Then she looked at me and very directly asked, "Would I be welcome there?" The question took me by surprise and I asked her, "Why would you believe you wouldn't be welcome at St. Thomas'?" Her reply was quite simple. "Well, I don't have a lot of money and I don't know if I would fit in at one of the downtown churches." I invited her to come and see. This brief encounter does give us some idea of how some churches are perceived. It also tells us how we tend to look at ourselves. Sometimes we see ourselves as being unworthy.
Jesus uses the table manners to teach about the system and about the kingdom of God. The system is corrupt. It is manufactured and maintained by us. We developed it. We sustain it. We can break it down. As guests we do not take seats of honor. We practice humility and do not think more highly of ourselves than we ought. In fact, we might watch the circles in which we live corporately and socially. How do they treat other people? Would they invite someone off the street or would they pass them by?
As hosts do we practice true hospitality equally to all? Who do we invite to our gatherings? Where do we seat them? In this church is everyone invited to come this table and treated with respect and dignity as a fellow human being? Do we converse people equally as fellow travelers on the Christian journey?
Jesus' teaching on the way we practice humility and hospitality here helps us see what the kingdom is like. The kingdom of God is open to all. Rich and poor, sick and well, man and woman, everybody is welcome to come. However, just because we say we know Jesus does not mean our seat of honor is assured. Name-dropping doesn't work at this banquet. In God's kingdom seating arrangements might be assigned by how well we practiced humility and hospitality here. At God's banquet table the seating arrangements are not based on power but on servanthood and hospitality to all.