The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 1, 2013
Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Preacher: Christopher Ashley, St. Michael’s Parishioner and Doctoral Candidate in Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary
“You will be honored in the presence of all.”
I sometimes think that, if Jesus hadn’t been the Messiah, he might have been a wedding and event planner. Think about it: He has a serious flair for the dramatic entrance. He can wine and dine a crowd on a budget like nobody’s business. And, in this morning’s gospel, we see he has a strong, unique concept of seating charts.
As a theologian who works on marriage, I’m painfully aware of how little Jesus has to say about the subject. But weddings, as opposed to marriages, are all over Jesus’ teaching and ministry. Remember the parable of the wedding banquet, with the groom who sends out into the highways and byways to fill up the guest list when the invited guests all blow him off. Or the parable of the groom whose late arrival makes the bridal party wait up all night with their oil lamps. And, in its own category, there’s John’s story of Jesus’ first miracle, the first sign of his anointing, at the wedding at Cana.
And yet: All of those stories set Jesus up very poorly to play Emily Post. The parables star two of the more spectacular Groomzillas of human literature: One of them is several hours late to his own reception. The other personally throws out a guest who shows up without a jacket. And, at Cana, Jesus speaks pretty horribly to his mother. That’s all in character, actually: Jesus never does respect his elders or give his hosts the benefit of the doubt. He’s got the right, of course—he’s the Power and the Wisdom of God and all that—but Mary must have despaired of the boy’s manners. All of which is to say, if Jesus is your wedding planner, be ready for the apocalypse.
Really! Because for Jesus, a wedding is never just a wedding, especially in the parables. Think of how Jesus sometimes introduces a parable: “To what shall I compare the realm, the reign, the kingdom of God?” The wedding feast, for Jesus, is a picture of the eschaton, the goal of history, the new world at hand. It’s a picture of apocalypsis, revelation, drapery pulled off the table to reveal the rich feast beneath. The wedding feast is where we see the truth about people, their essential character, in the truest light of all—the light of their relationship with God. And it’s where we see the truth about God and God’s purposes for the world.
So at this wedding banquet, to which God has invited us, what does God have to say? It’s one of my favorite sentences in Scripture: “Friend, come up higher.” God’s view of us, God’s desire for us, is that we are to be God’s friends. I read this verse in partnership with the Song of Songs: “God invited me to the banqueting table; and God’s intention toward me was love.” In this parable, everyone is already at the wedding. Everyone is already God’s friend. The invitations are out. Your own guests are with you, as many as you like. You are already in the reception venue, and the cider and Champagne are flowing.
So what’s the problem? The scenario Jesus is sketching doesn’t exactly translate to modern wedding etiquette, so let me pull in the bigger picture. In the social world of Galilee and Judea, there was nothing more precious than honor. Think of respect; think of pride, in the best sense, where you can hold your head high before the world. And, in Jesus’ day, this kind of honor was a finite currency. You were born with some, based on your family. Sin and failure could lose you your honor; success and study could gain it, but only at someone else’s expense. A rich man could only be patron to so many followers. A great rabbi could only take so many disciples. And there were only two seats next to the king—one on his right, and one on his left.
To me, that actually sounds all too familiar. The linkage of honor and shame to scarce material success is absolutely a feature of life in New York. Even in a wealthy, growing city, there aren’t enough good jobs to go around. Even among the gainfully employed and middle-class, there aren’t enough fulfilling and impressive jobs to go around: More Americans hate their jobs today than ever before, in part because, in most industries, the slack job market means there’s little hope of quitting to find a better one, let alone organizing for better working conditions. (Happy Labor Day!) For those on the outs, the odds look stacked against them, and with good reason. An unemployed friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a despairing headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion: “‘This would be perfect for me,’ say 1400 people looking at the same job posting.”
In our society, roughly as in Jesus’, honor and shame are each person’s responsibility. So it’s only natural that securing our status, guaranteeing our honor, is something we tend to take into our own hands. In so much of our lives, that’s how things work. If you’re unemployed, it’s either your fault, or at minimum something you need to work on, pronto. If you’re successful, on the other hand, it’s because you worked for it. Likewise, the the party guests around Jesus, before he starts the parable, are choosing the places of honor. It’s only natural, if your status in the world is at least partly the result of your choices.
That’s the premise that Jesus wants to challenge. In the life of the world to come, he says, there will be no need to compete for status or resources. God may love our good work, but God doesn’t love us because of our good work. God has regard for us, whether we have found ourselves close to God at the table or not. God has already invited us to the banquet, and wants to tell us, “Friend, come up higher.” Jesus ends his parable by saying “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In my hearing today, this is less about scolding people into humility than it is a statement of a new and strange kind of fact. The presumption of scarce honor, and the anxiety it provokes, are natural now; but they aren’t what God has in store.
What if it didn’t matter where you were seated at the banquet? What if being at the banquet were enough? Jesus is saying this morning that God wants to honor you, not only in the secret of your heart, but before the world. God wants you to be proud, in the best sense—proud of your heritage as God’s child. And it comes about freely, a gracious gift.
Let me close with a thought on Jesus’ last, strange invitation, echoed by the letter to the Hebrews. God has offered us radical hospitality. We’re at the wedding banquet, not because we give glory to God, but because God has chosen to glorify us. Jesus suggests that our own hospitality could take the same shape—that what God is doing for us in the new world at hand, we can do for others in the world right now.
If you’re not sure what that looks like for you, Jesus’ opening suggestion is that those of us who have homes and dinner tables open them to folks who don’t. I’ve been part of communities that operated on that kind of hospitality. It’s a rich and worthwhile life, and it’s not for everyone. But if it’s not for you, I do think Jesus wants to offer a challenge: What is? What costs would you incur, in generosity and hospitality, if you knew you had nothing to lose?
That’s the kind of safety Christ offers at his table, where all are welcome. At this table, we are worthy in Christ to stand before the God who calls us to it.