Luke 14:1, 7-14
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
August 28, 2022
Billy Lewis and Emily Bugg were so madly in love that they spared no expense in creating their dream wedding and a lavish reception afterward. But in 2020 the COVID lockdowns ruined their plans. They had to downsize their wedding to a modest ceremony at city hall with just a few witnesses present. They also had to cancel the reception; and, to make matters worse, the caterers were refusing to refund their $5,000 deposit. Billy and Emily considered suing or seeking arbitration to get their money back, but that wasn’t everything they considered.
In today’s scripture lesson, Jesus was headed toward Jerusalem, where He knew in just a few days He’d be tortured and killed. But He was resolved to meet His destiny there in order to bear the crushing weight of all the evil human beings have ever done.
Now Jesus loved even those who were plotting His death. So, when “a leader of the Pharisees” invited Him over for dinner at his house, He accepted the offer, no doubt in the hope that such a setting would give Him a chance to win over an enemy or two and save them.
Watching the other guests arrive, Jesus noticed how they maneuvered for seats of honor. Their jockeying for prestige moved Him to tell one of His parables, but He introduced this parable in a way foreign to Him. He set it up by giving a piece of advice: in this case, about how to advance one’s standing in society. I’d bet that Jesus, whose only concern was to teach people about how to advance their standing with God, approached the real issue at hand by this unusual, counter-intuitive path so as to catch the ear of those status seekers and perhaps get them to think about whose high regard it’s important to have and how they might obtain it.
On the surface Jesus was simply Jesus making two common sense observations: First, if you want to pursue recognition but avoid possible embarrassment, you’d do well to refrain from overreaching in your self-assertion, lest you end up being publicly humiliated and put in your place with no seat left to you but way in the back by the kitchen door. Second, if you refrain from too aggressively pushing your way forward, you might receive the very public glory of being moved up to a still more prestigious seat—while looking humble in the process! (We all know it’s a win-win situation if you look important without looking like you’re trying to look important!)
It was anything but a priority for Jesus to teach sensible strategies for advancing one’s standing in society. Rather Jesus was all about teaching wise strategies for advancing one’s good standing with God. Moreover, Jesus understood that God’s sense of what deserves honor turns the world’s sense on its head. Jesus saw how God honors the overlooked and the dismissed, puts the last first, and makes so-called “losers” the biggest winners! Jesus saw that, to put your life right-side up, you have to put your life upside down – and humbly serve others!
It is significant that, right after giving what might seem to be just a clever tip for being smart in putting yourself forward, He gave a warning with a promise, saying, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It is also significant that, right after saying that, Jesus told His dinner host to put his life right-side up by turning His guest list upside-down. Jesus told the man that, for his next dinner party, he should work on reorienting himself by throwing it just for the needy – not inviting family members, friends and rich neighbors, but only the poor and the disabled: people who have no standing in this world and thus no capacity to repay the host either materially or socially.
Jesus’ telling this Pharisee to forget about those nearest and dearest to him so as to prioritize strangers who are impoverished or handicapped does not imply a universal principle. Jesus’ counsel applies in particular to that specific man – and to anyone else at the same stage of their ethical and spiritual development. After all, any of us may need – at a crucial moment in our soul’s formation – to do something radical to turn our previously upside-down life right-side up.
The universal principle here is that the only lasting good is goodness of heart – and that goodness of heart requires greatness of outreach, hospitality and humble service, especially to those who otherwise might have no place at any table.
Our gracious and generous kindness toward the needy might never enhance our standing with our fellow mortal, but it will always enhance our standing with God “at the resurrection of the righteous”. For God makes the world of how we act toward those whom Jesus called, with deep affection and loving concern, “the least of these my brothers and sisters.”
Jesus here was not criticizing the seeking of recognition. (Good thing since we can’t stop doing it! Why, even those who avoid recognition want to be recognized for seeking no recognition!) No, Jesus faults no one for wanting recognition, but He challenges everyone to choose carefully from whom they seek recognition. The honor we receive from our fellow mortals matters little compared to the honor we might receive from God. Of what significance is a prominent place at a big shot’s dinner party, compared to eternal recognition at the Messiah’s feast in glory?
Thus, the only standing that now counts is standing ready and raring to go to answer the call of love and make a place for those whom many exclude from the party of God’s extravagant grace.
Our disappointed couple in love, Billy and Emily, prayed about what to do; and felt led, not to try to get their money back, but to turn their personal disappointment into a blessing for others. So Billy and Emily paid the remainder of what they owed the caterer after the deposit, and designated that all the delicious reception food they’d ordered go to a local nonprofit mental health service provider who’d pass all that expensive fare on to their neediest clients.
Let us live in the topsy-turvy way of God’s grace and get our lives right-side up by living upside-down with extravagant and inclusive love, as we share our hearts and our abundance with the overlooked and the dismissed, with the poor and the disabled. At God’s table of grace there’s plenty enough for everyone!