The Great Equalizer: Our Bellies

Luke 14:1, 7-14

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. 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“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; 9and 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. 10But 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. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12He 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. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”


It is quite often the most consuming question of the day, literally.

“What are we going to eat?”

Well, it definitely is a constant question in our home – particularly late at night when Andy and I have both been gone all day because of meetings or on a Sunday afternoon after we have come home from church…and all we want is to take a nice long nap…Except that we realize we’re starving and neither of us has a clue what do about a late lunch or early dinner. Those are the moments when one of our moms suddenly materializing in our home would really come in handy…or one of you suddenly appearing on porch, too, that would be great.

“What are we going to eat?” Food is central to any culture, and especially to ours with all our obsession with food plans – the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the Lemon Juice diet – and recently with food movements – local food movements, eating seasonally, and of course, buying organic foods. We worry about how much to eat, what we are eating, and sometimes how our eating impacts others.

These are all complicated but interesting issues, and we could easily mine the Bible for many examples on how food is good and meant to be good for us at many levels. Food can represent so much more than mere sustenance for an individual. Eating – that most human and most necessary of activities – and all that we associate with it are entwined with our spiritual lives, so it’s no surprise that meals and food are significant themes in the Bible. As Fred Craddock observes: “Bread was important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present.”

And so this is what our text is about today – not so much what we are eating [that comes later in Romans – conflicts between meat eaters and vegetarians], but who is eating, and who we are eating with on a regular basis…for it has eternal implications.

This may seem a little odd. Why should Jesus care who sits at our table? Isn’t our plain hospitality enough?

In today’s passage, here we are, in the home of a Pharisee who has extended the honor of hospitality toward Jesus. And how does Jesus respond to the honor of being included in this social occasion? Not surprisingly, he does and says things that inevitably cause either dead silence or an uproar of protest. Setting the scene in the very first verse of this week’s passage, Luke writes that “they were watching him closely,” and he has, of course, already tipped us off that things are going to be tense: One commentator tells us that Luke’s word here “implies ‘hostile observation.’” And Jesus does not let them down:

“Don’t sit down in the best seats because the host might come to you and ask you to move to another seat in case someone better than you is at the dinner. Instead sit at a lower seat, and you won’t be asked to moved down, but there may be a chance for you to move to a better seat.”

You might think – What’s the big deal? Everyone has their seat at the table. I can think of growing up we all had our seats around the table – dad sat at the head, mom’s was nearest the kitchen, I sat across from my mom, and my brother sat across from him. Or you might think – How strange…and awkward – Can you imagine if you were hosting a dinner party and someone made that comment to everyone?

But he goes on, speaking directly to the host, and it gets even more bizarre: “When you have a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, family, or rich neighbors, instead invite those who are dirty, those you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, and those who would inconvenience you the most.”

Hm.

One pastor asks, “Are the Pharisees hopelessly prideful, and are they “the bad guys” here?” Maybe not. He goes on to touch a nerve when he “challenges us – the contemporary Christian audience – to identify with this group. The Pharisees were the good people of their day. They never missed a service – in fact, they sit in the same seat every week, they studied the Scriptures, they tithed, and they set the moral standard for their cultures. Today, we might consider them faithful, active church members.”

On the other hand, he says, “the people that Jesus holds up as worthy of inviting to dinner are the very people who would not be permitted in the homes of ‘the respectable,’ or in places of worship either, for they were considered ‘unclean’: ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.’ Today, we might have different names and designations for those on the margins” – the dayworkers, the homeless, the foreigners – but Jesus’ instructions are the same.

“Don’t seek to fill your stomach. Be fulfilled by filling others.”

And what greater way is there then to extend this kind of table fellowship to those who can in no way possibly repay you? It is one thing to do as the Jewish people naturally did at the time – which isn’t too foreign to us, I think – that is, to keep the wealth and resources in the same circle, and invite those who will reciprocate the hospitality, and return the favor back to us. It is another matter to fight the traffic at Wegman’s or slave over our stoves and grills for hours for those whose only gift to us will be to enjoy the meal.

So, we come back to the issue of hospitality, one that is a topic of conversation for many in our church. Kate Huey, a UCC pastor writes – sadly, “we have domesticated hospitality, shaped a kind of eco-system of inviting that keeps the welcome circulating among our own ‘kind’ of people, or at least those we can feel comfortable around. Our generosity toward strangers and all those we might consider ‘strange’ is often offered from a distance, without personal contact.”

She goes to remind us that the, “The Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, means ‘love of the stranger.” The list of those ‘strangers’ changes from one time and place to another, but Jesus’ challenge reaches across boundaries of place and time, calling us to be more aware of those from whom we are inclined to avert our eyes, and to follow him rather than those who baptize common prejudices as virtues – that is, we are to include at our tables ‘those who do not take an invitation for granted.’ In those moments, we will catch a glimpse of the way things will be in the reign of God, but not because we have condescended to welcome those “beneath” us; rather, we will understand that Jesus has changed ‘the rules’ for he ‘redefines’ both ‘honorable behavior’ and ‘honored guests.’”

As Anthony Bourdain has said a couple of times on his travel show “No Reservations,” – The table is the great equalizer.

Unfortunately, we forget that the table – or the necessity of food – levels the playing field. One commentator says, “We become consumed with accomplishment – even fame and honor. Spend a little time wandering around a bookstore provides some sense of the deep contradiction, or at least tension, in our culture: on the one hand, there are plenty of books to help a person “get ahead,” make it to the top (and maybe even the corner – office, that is), to succeed and be recognized and rewarded. I suspect that not one of those books advises the reader to make a habit of seeking the margins, the lowest places of invisibility and inconsequence, far from the “important” action…after all, how can one make one’s mark on the world from way out there? On the other hand, there’s also shelf after shelf of books and tapes that promise to help us find inner peace, wholeness, wellness – books that will tell us how to relax, to enjoy fulfilled, happy lives. Perhaps it depends on your definition of being fulfilled. Or at least of being filled.”

But when we discard the need to be filled or fulfilled by what the rules of the world, and we reject the rules of propriety and places of honor to sit down with those who seem to have no humanity…when we break bread with them and look in their eyes, we will not only see their humanity, but see and remember our own…our own need and fragility. When we hear only the familiar rumbling of stomachs indicating hunger all around the table, we will see that there is no difference between ourselves and those others, which will tie us together even more. And, we will eat and drink – banquet – together with hearts that are truly full. This is a taste of God’s kingdom – the truest blessing, and the deepest fulfillment.

Friends, this is more than gastronomics or economics for we were once strangers, even more, enemies to God, but God, the Heavenly Host, did not hesitate to break down those walls to eat and fellowship with us. May we have the love and courage to do so with others, and make it our first priority as we live and breathe, eat and drink in this world.