The story of Jesus under scrutiny at a dinner party (Luke 14:1, 7-14) certainly is not a guide for how to prepare a seating chart for guests, nor is it an example of how not to speak to your hosts if you expect to be invited back again. It’s an invitation, I think, to consider the role we play in God’s ongoing creation and to live in harmony with everyone else who also plays a role in creation. Which is to say, it’s a story about what we Christians call “love.”
It’s hard to talk about love, even for us Christians, although it’s the subject of some of our favorite scriptures. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11). “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). You can hardly watch a football game without seeing a reference to John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
And who can attend a Christian wedding without remembering Paul’s words about love? “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:1, 13) – appropriate to remember since the story here takes place at a wedding banquet, perhaps the gospel writers’ favorite metaphor for the kingdom of God and the abundant life we’re invited to share.
The problem is not in finding a place to start talking about love. There are so many of them, so many clanging cymbals! The challenge is to get love, at least the Christian meaning of it, unstuck from the many ways it has been misunderstood, romanticized, overused, misused, and abused. And we Christians can be the worst offenders. One of the most common complaints against the church in general, by people who stay far away from the church, is that we who profess to be God’s love in the world are so ineffective at practicing God’s love in the world. We can be nice enough to ourselves on a good day, but we’re perceived by those outside the church as being too focused on ourselves and too judgmental of others. We talk a good game, they say, but so often don’t practice what we preach.
But fair is fair, after all. I’ve got my place at the table at God’s wedding banquet. It may not be a very good place, but it’s my place, and it’s as a good as I can get. Now let everyone else scramble for their own places. I’ve got my job, my pension, my home, my health care, my few toys and pleasures in life. Meager though it may be, it’s as good a place as I’ve been able to get my hands on. I may have a little extra that I can let trickle down to those below me in the cheaper seats, but don’t ask me to compromise my lifestyle for someone who has earned less, don’t ask me to give up my place at the table for others, don’t ask me to take the lowest place so someone below me can move up higher, don’t ask me to use my few resources to support those who have less and probably deserve less. It’s a heavy indictment.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” Jesus said (Luke 14:8), when you’re invited to a place in the kingdom of God, when you’re invited to take hold of more and better life than you ever dreamed of (John 10:10 The Message), “go and sit down at the lowest place” (Luke 14:10), take the least you can, the least you need. Take care that you don’t overreach. You may find that God, your host, has other plans. You may find that those below you are invited higher. You may find that the least, the last, and the lost really will be the greatest, the first, and the found.
Well, the world, as my grandmother used to say, is in a “mell of a hess” where the rich get richer and the poor are getting poorer at a rate of separation never before seen by anyone here, where those who have the best seats at the table seem to do everything they can to hold onto their places and even get better ones. They seem to enjoy the differences. Some even want to build a wall in the banquet room to keep the best for themselves and keep those in the cheap seats at a safe distance.
And the terrible good news is that Jesus came to upset all of that. According to the story line Luke sets out, he came to scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts, to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53). He came to bring good news to those with the worst seats in the house (Luke 4:18-19). And if we are who we claim to be, if we are the church, if we are the body of Christ, if we are the incarnation of God today, then that’s what we are here to do, also.
Now, as good as that news may be to those who need to hear it, there are two reasons why it doesn’t sound much like good news to me. The first is, because I have a good job and the benefits it provides, I’ve got a better seat at the table than most people in the world and even a lot of my neighbors right here. Because I live in a good house, have enough nutritious food to eat, have a good education, decent health care, and a better-than-average retirement account, I can expect God the host to come to me arm-in-arm with someone else who has less advantage in life and say to me, “Give this person your place” (Luke 14:9). I like that news in theory. I’m just not sure I’m ready to hear it spoken to me.
The second reason why it doesn’t sound like good news is because it seems overwhelming. How can I be part of the body of Christ and be doing the work of making that good news real when the task is so great and I am so small? It sounds like a prescription for frustration and failure, until I remember that this is not my work. It’s God’s work, and I am merely one participant in it, one player in the divine drama that is unfolding among us.
My role is not to change the world and make it conform to God’s vision. My role is to allow God to change me until I conform to my unique role in God’s vision. As Theresa of Calcutta said, I cannot do great things; I can only do small things with great love. I cannot change the imbalance of wealth and power between the rich and the poor, but I can change the dynamic of my relationship with the person standing right in front of me.
The one thing it is in my power to do is make an offering of love to each person I meet. I can value that person as somehow having an essential role in God’s unfolding will for creation, even though I know nothing of what that role may be. I can recognize that without that person, whoever he or she is, my own life and all of creation would be essentially diminished. And I can begin to act toward that person accordingly, treating that person with respect and dignity and integrity – with love.
In India there’s a word of greeting that captures such a relationship. It’s “namaste,” and it means, “I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace. I honor that of you where, when you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”
Namaste. It’s another way, and maybe a better way, to say “I love you” in the Christian sense. It would be a good word to use – you don’t even have to say it aloud – with every person you meet. And it might go a long way toward changing the seating arrangements in the kingdom of God.