Meadowbrook Congregational Church
August 28, 2022
The Guest List, by the Rev. Joel K. Boyd
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.” 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 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” (Lk 14: 1, 7-14; JANT).1
Making a guest list can be a both fun and stressful experience. Depending on what type of event you’re planning you could have a lot of people or a smaller, more intimate group. You could have a guest list for anything from a retirement party to a baby shower, but one of the biggest ones that come to mind is a wedding. Beyond the big, exciting questions of thinking about who will be in the wedding party for the ceremony, you have the order in which that party enters and stands and anything they do during the ceremony itself. (You also have the reception.)
[I am] not sure when ideas [began] changing around the different ways couples and people would be seated during a wedding reception, but Heidi and I had received some cool recommendations from people in the months leading up to our [2008 wedding]. Many people have a head table at [their] reception. That’s when you have the [newlywed] couple seated in the middle of a long table with their party seated next to them spread on down to the end of the table. The table is usually raised a bit, too, so people can see the couple [and] maybe have a place to look directly at when clinking their glasses for that special kiss the couple is traditionally obliged to share. (Although we know how many folks just love to get that clinking going when the couple is otherwise occupied greeting guests on opposite sides of the room.)
We had someone [give] us a bit of advice about the wedding day itself, encouraging Heidi and me to take mental pictures of the day to help us remember. The idea was to try to slow down just enough to glance over and see [one’s] grandparents and parents talking and smiling, or to see a cousin ask a college friend to dance. Heidi and I liked the idea of the mental picture, and we ended up going with what [is called] a “sweethearts’ table.” It’s a small table [for only the couple] to sit at. The hope was to be able to take mental pictures of everything, including listening to the live band comprised of our music friends; tasting a piece of the amazing cake, [and] opening [one’s] eyes to see the look on one another’s face afterward.
So, there we are enjoying our food, just feeling great that everyone could be there with us for this special day, when my colleague, the drummer, walks right up to our sweetheart table. He’s holding a plate of the food meant for other guests (which as you can understand are made and priced out at an exact count). Chewing and talking at the same time, he quickly looks back and forth, back, and forth, and says, “So, uh, where does the band sit, guys?” We almost fell out of our chairs laughing. As we pointed him back to where our other friends in the band were eating the food specifically labeled “for the band,” he kind of just shrugged his shoulders and returned to the band. Part of my mental picture of that moment will always be: “Was he going to sit with us at the sweethearts’ table?” Maybe you have some wacky guest list stories of your own.
In today’s reading, from the Gospel of Luke, we hear about two things that we might see as being related: humility and hospitality. We first learn that Jesus is eating a meal at the house of one of the Pharisees. Not just any Pharisee, though: [the author of Luke’s gospel] shows that Jesus is at the house of one of the leaders. After healing a sick man outside, we witness Jesus’s response to what he sees at this meal (which is taking place on the Sabbath.) He notices guests choosing places of honor, and this prompts him to tell them all a parable. Jesus offers a story to help them gain insight into what is spiritually at stake. He says: “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, 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. 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk 14:8-11). In so doing, Jesus [teaches] the guests there about humility.
[Whereas] what Jesus says about honor and disgrace certainly makes sense to us, this particular example might be a bit harder to grasp considering our own everyday experiences in the 21st century. We might ask ourselves if we even remember a time someone honored us well beyond our station [by asking us] to move our seat higher to a place of distinction. This may have occurred in ancient Israel, but it can be tricky for us to fully relate to in the same way today (despite my wacky wedding story before.) We have also seen [repeatedly] how the modest person does not get ahead; how the person who keeps a low profile might often be picked last. So, could there be more to this parable for us than this? I think so.
Jesus may be appealing to the understanding of honor and shame which was so culturally prevalent in the society of that time. We remind ourselves that this was in the days of the Roman Empire. Roman influence loomed largely, but Jesus shows that while we may live in one culture or another, we are invited to see it with the lens God provides us within scripture. Perhaps then the Pharisees present at that meal may have responded to something that [spoke] into the surrounding culture of honor and shame of their own time. In other words, Jesus is speaking the way people in that specific context could relate to. [Or], maybe we can see it in ways that relate to us today—in a different time and culture. Picture the way we glorify those who are popular on social media or who keep themselves before everyone in the news cycle. It’s like someone using all the air in the room: There’s not much space for other people. Jesus goes on to encourage us to serve those who cannot reciprocate and perhaps [need help most]. Yet, we do not do this for our glory in this life but rather we know that nothing is lost on God and that God will reward [anyone] who blesses people in such need in this life with eternal reward in the next.
In what ways do humility and hospitality challenge us in today’s culture? Why is it so difficult to lower ourselves and welcome others without feeling the need to draw attention to ourselves? We may be tripped up by all the pressure to excel or to look better than everyone around us in our culture. And this bleeds over into the way we treat one another as individuals and as groups of people. But what happens when we try to see things the way Jesus invites us to? What about when we approach the idea of the guest list through the lens that Jesus offers us in this parable? When we see it through Jesus’s lens, we begin to see that this list is not simply about who we invite to a party, over to our house, or to grab a meal with. No, this is about much more. Jesus is encouraging us to see others before if not above ourselves and calls on us to welcome people in the greatest need into the realm of our care. And friends, while he makes mention of the great spiritual reward the faithful receive in the afterlife, Jesus does not say that our reward is the primary reason for us to live as he calls us to here; to be humble and hospitable to those in need especially.
Sisters and brothers, we can see how Jesus is not only talking about seats at a table or the wealthy local businessperson being invited to the celebration at our house. Jesus is calling on his followers to lower themselves and to serve and welcome those in need as he calls us to. We are not hostage to the world’s expectations of the past, present, or future. Rather, we are called to serve to the glory of God in any time or place God puts us in. May we take great heart in knowing that God is with us in all the love we’re called to share. Amen. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.