The Guest List for the Party
Luke 14:1, 7-14
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.
7 When 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, 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 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 and sisters or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Imagine the preparation for a wedding. The time is getting close. The bride has been to Kleinfeld’s and picked out a beautiful gown that cost several thousand dollars so that she will be the most stunning bride ever seen. Cakes have been tested and the perfect one has been chosen. The cake decorators will make it elegant and like nothing anyone has ever seen before. The décor and decorations have been selected. Flowers for the bouquets, boutonnieres, and church have been chosen.
Then there’s the dinner. Will it be a buffet or sit-down dinner? What will it cost for each option. And then, the biggest question, how many people will be invited? Who will be on the guest list? All of our families near and far? After all, who wants to spend an entire day talking to Uncle Arthur and Aunt Bertie? Which members or the family ought to be invited – if certain ones are invited, then others have to be as well. Which friends should be invited? Close friends only or those we remember from childhood and school? Then, do the friends of our parents get invited and, if so, which ones? This guest list is huge! Do you know how much it costs to feed all of those people especially if the plan is for a sit-down dinner? Maybe some people need to be crossed off the guest list. Then again, this is going to be the wedding of the century. The cost doesn’t matter - $50k or 60k – because dad will pay for it all!
For most people, the challenge is deciding who you want to invite to the wedding. Who do you want to enjoy this special day with you? Once the guest list is finalized, then the seating arrangements have to be sorted out. Will there be ahead table? Choosing who will sit together is difficult. What happens if someone doesn’t like their table or those sitting at it with them or if they think they should have been seated at a table closer to the front? There can be repercussions for getting this wrong.
For a big party or special meal in Jesus’ day, the usual practice was to only invite people of the same social status as the host, thus making the preparation of the guest list easier. When the guests arrived, they would find a large table set up in a U-shape. The host always sat at the front in the middle. Others were assigned seats (small reclining couches) in order of importance. The most important sat at the head table and those at the far ends of the table were extremely low in the pecking order.
Jesus tells this parable to explain that there is another way of considering how one is seated at a party or banquet. Many of us know of or have heard of this parable – sit down at the lowest place and the host may come and invite you forward to a better seat. If one chooses to sit closer to the front and then someone else arrives who is higher in the pecking order than you, the host will move you to a lesser seat at the table. How embarrassing it would be as other guests watched you get up and walk down the table to a seat of less importance.
As is Jesus’ usual style, he leaves us with unanswered questions at the end of the parable. What happens if the host doesn’t ask the humble guest to move up to a more important seat? Does he (only men were allowed to sit at the table in Jesus’ day) sit there acting humble saying to himself that he is so glad that I got to stay at this place at the far end of the table where I could barely see the host and his guest. Or, he may be thinking, “Wait! Jesus, you said that if I’d get rewarded by being moved up to a better seat. What do I do now?” Now, he thinks, I am stuck here at the end of the table and will be one of the last to be served. The food will be cold, everyone will be done eating before my plate even arrives. I am trying to be humble but that didn’t pay off. Now what? A good question to consider. A good question to ask yourself. What is your expectation of what happens when you choose the humble position? Do you sit there fuming because being humble didn’t change the situation, didn’t get you recognized, or are you content to sit where you are knowing you have made the right decision.
Let’s move on and look at the second part of the parable. Jesus’ instructions are directed to the host, a leader of the Pharisees, on preparing his guest list. Looking at who is seated at the table, those the host would normally invite to such a meal, who do we see sitting there? What do they look like? They are well-dressed in their finest clothes and clean with trimmed beards. They are men held in high esteem in the community. Those who have the power to decide what everyone else do. These are the ones who have been honored to come to a meal to meet an important guest, the teacher Jesus. They will then be able to boast that they dined with Jesus, so they are more important than others.
Consider who isn’t at the table. The obvious answer is those who Jesus mentions: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. The needy who ought to be at a fine meal because they rarely get much food. Those who ought to have the places of honor because they are usually ignored by everyone. They are the people others walk by and ignore. The ones struggling to get to the pool when the waters are stirred. Those who hide out in the tombs because they are possessed by an evil spirit or are considered unclean by the religious community. These people are missing from the table.
The women are missing – a cultural norm. Their voices aren’t heard. What might they bring to the conversation? Would they add a richness and dimension? They might bring the perspective of building relationships while the men are talking about the upcoming NFL season or who will make the baseball playoffs or who will win the FedEx cup in golf and all the money that goes with it. The women might enter the conversation by asking how everyone is and what is going on in their lives. Of course, they might admire the dress one of the other women is wearing and ask where she purchased the dress – Macy’s or, aghast, from Walmart. But they aren’t at the table. We can also imagine other voices not at the table who would add a richness to the conversation, and the sharing of life experience.
The life experience of those who one would expect to be at the table of a rich leader would be narrowly focused on their status and social standing. Focused on those who, like themselves, have everything you can buy with money – cars, mansions, yachts, and whatever else they want even if they don’t need it.
Imagine the richness of the conversation if the voices of the women and those who don’t have everything (or anything) joined the table. These could share what their own experience of living and surviving in the world. They could share what it is like to live in the world barely able to eat from day to day. Think about what these people would add to the conversation if they were even allowed to be at the table.
With all this in mind, Jesus instructs the host to invite those who are missing. As we read in the text, we assume that the man sends out his servants with an open invitation to all in need to come into his home, to sit at the table and enjoy the feast.
Would really work? Open the doors and have the servants extend an invitation to come inside for dinner. How many of those outsiders would tromp up the long driveway to this rich man’s house, go inside and sit down? They would look at the clothes they were wearing, think about how they hadn’t had a bath in a long time and that their hair was unkempt. Would they really accept the invitation?
I wonder if it might work better to extend the invitation in another way. The host could walk up to a person, look them in the eye with love, saying, “I want you to come sit at my table. I want you to come and enjoy the feast. I want you to join me in walking up the driveway so you can sit and have conversation at my table. I want you to come and be my guest.”
Imagine the difference it would make if the host went to each person individually and told them that he wanted them to come just as they were to join him and the others at the party. It wouldn’t matter if they couldn’t reciprocate. It wouldn’t matter if they didn’t know the social standards or proper etiquette. They were invited.
If someone comes to you and says they want you to join the party and then offers their arm to escort you to the great hall and then pulls out the chair for you so you can sit at the table. Can you imagine how you would feel if the host of an elegant soirée came to you, called you by name, and said they want you to come? You are special. Come as you are. I’ll escort you in and seat you at my table.
How would you feel if you were extended an invitation in such a personal way? Would you feel welcomed and wanted? Would you feel loved and cared for? Are you more likely to go to the party if you received that type of invitation rather than a wide-open invitation: you all come if you need to eat.
Look around that table and note what you see. People with tattered clothing, dirty faces and hands, who came in with a crutch or were carried in, who can’t hear. People who scrape for food or are considered ritually unclean who people won’t touch. Ones of a variety of ethnic backgrounds, genders, or lifestyles. What would it be like to see these people at the table? Who would be missing then? Of course, it is the people who already have what they need, who already feel that they belong. The ones who are usually invited all the while checking their calendars to find a date to invite the host to their house for a meal.
The biggest question we might ask as we look around the table is “Where is the hope for these people? Those who are usually left out, feel all alone, or that they don’t belong. The ones who usually sit at their table alone eating a TV dinner or a meal dropped off at their door by Meals on Wheels. The people who hide behind their doors because they are being subjected to domestic violence. The single parent who is struggling to balance work, children, and school, barely able to pay the rent or buy food and clothing. The parent of a child with a disability who deals with doctor appointments and insurance claims, continually rearranging their schedule to bring their child to everywhere they need to be.
Where is the hope? It’s at the table. They are invited! Here they are told they are loved and that they matter regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what their life experiences are. They have a place at this table.
This is the kind of table Jesus is wants us to have. A table that is not only open to those who aren’t normally invited but also to those who are usually invited and to those who still need to be invited. All who need to know that they are loved and that they matter. An all-inclusive table where everyone participates in the conversation.
This is a table where each person is looked lovingly in their eyes and told, “I’m glad you are here. Let’s enjoy this meal together.”