This morning’s gospel text starts out reading a little like Emily Post, doesn’t it? Jesus offering his disciples this basic ground rule of politeness when dining at another’s home: don’t start out in the seat of honor, because you’ll be mortified if someone of higher status comes in and your host has to move you down a few seats. Start out in the lowest place; your host can always move you up higher, but at least you will be showing humility this way. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
Pretty quickly, though, we find ourselves well outside the land of Emily Post and Miss Manners, when in verse 12 Jesus flips the whole concept of dinner invitation reciprocity on its head. “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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…” (Luke 14:12-13) Seriously messing with wedding guest lists everywhere, Jesus points out that extending invitations simply because we have been, or wish to be, invited by these same people, is not all that impressive. True hospitality means looking around for the people no one invites, and inviting them instead. And I didn’t hear him say just slip them a few leftover bites of your Dick’s cheeseburger. He said: “when you give a banquet…”
A seminary friend of mine named Kevin Finch has really taken this gospel lesson to heart, founding a ministry called “Big Table” about 5 years ago to reach out specifically to those working in the restaurant and hospitality industry: waiters and waitresses, cooks and dishwashers, hotel maids and janitors. While working for a time himself as a restaurant critic, Kevin came face to face with their needs – needs often invisible to anyone who is not cooking, serving, or elbow-deep in dish water. It turns out the industry posts the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse as well as stunningly high rates of divorce and broken relationships. Long hours and constantly changing schedules create incredible stress that is compounded by a limited (or absent) financial safety net for most frontline employees and even a number of managers and owners. Those working in restaurants and hotels make up the largest single employment group in the nation and the industry is the #1 catch basin for the most vulnerable.
So here is what Kevin and his team do. Every eight weeks or so, “Big Table” hosts a huge multiple course dinner at an actual big table –seating about 48 people – for these individuals who would never otherwise have the opportunity to be served. Top chefs come in and prepare an amazing meal. The table is set elegantly, and those who spend their lives waiting on others are for once in their lives waited on themselves, by community members who step up to volunteer. The entire evening is a gift to the hotel maids and restaurant servers and dishwashers who attend, and near the end of the night Kevin and his team share the vision of “Big Table,” and guests are invited to write down the name of someone they work with who is in crisis or needs help. Follow up care then becomes the heart of what “Big Table” does between these big meals, responding personally to these needs on almost a daily basis. The response can be as simple as providing diapers for a single dad barely paying his bills or as big as providing a car for a mom trying to work, go to school, and raise three kids on her own. But it all starts with that meal, and with showing hospitality to a group of people most of us don’t spend much time thinking about. “Big Table” invites to a grand banquet precisely those who wouldn’t be on most people’s guest lists.
I’ve really been impressed by the work that “Big Table” is doing, which is why I included the group’s logo, mission statement, and website in the bulletin today (p. 10) for any of you who would like to learn more about them. Though they are based in Spokane, the website offers all kinds of simple, concrete suggestions for those of us living elsewhere to reach out with grace, kindness, and hospitality to those in the hospitality industry, too.
And again, all it took to imagine a beautiful ministry like this was something as simple as rethinking who is invited to God’s kingdom feast.
Now remember, we’ve left out one final portion of this morning’s gospel text, which is that parable of the great dinner. Jesus says someone gave an amazing dinner party and sent a servant out to gather all those who’d been on the A-list, all those expected to attend, and it turns out they all had excuses.
Fred Craddock cautions us to keep in mind: “We are not here listening to worn-out stories about faulty alarm clocks, [or] misplaced calendars… The economic pressures felt by the first two and the recent wedding of the third… were excuses honored in most societies… The forces against which God’s offer contends are reasonable and well argued, but God’s offer has priority not simply over our worst but also over our best agendas.”
So the host is angry that they offer these excuses, however culturally acceptable they would have been, but then quickly realizes he might as well then invite those who would not normally have a chance to attend such a lavish feast. So he sends the servant out to the highways and byways to compel people to come in and fill up the house, again invoking categories of people who at that time would have all been considered outsiders: the poor, the lame, the blind. With or without that original guest list, it turns out it’s still going to be one heck of a party.
All of this begs the question, of course: where do we see ourselves in this parable? My fear is that we who are fortunate enough not only to have the luxury of plenty of actual food and drink, but also the luxury of freedom to worship, to sit at Jesus’ table, can pretty easily come up with excuses on any given day for not being part of the celebration. Worship is, after all, a ‘get to’ not a ‘have to.’ So it can easily be crowded out. And many of our excuses make total sense in our culture – of course we would prioritize our work, our families, our friends.
But if this parable is to be believed, then however legitimate we may feel our reasons to be, God’s not going to call off the party; it’s going to go ahead with or without us. Our host is simply going to invite others to join him around the banquet table, in our absence.
Again, in Craddock’s words, “the forces against which God’s offer contends are reasonable and well argued, but God’s offer has priority not simply over our worst but also over our best agendas.”
I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that churches can struggle in neighborhoods like ours where people are on the whole fairly well off, and where there are thousands of other options for ways to spend our time. And at the same time the Church is absolutely thriving in places around the world where physical and material needs can make it easier for folks to recognize their total dependence on God. The Church thrives even – sometimes especially - in places where people of faith face tremendous persecution for gathering for worship. In fact, we’ll hear some of those stories next week from our guest preacher, Dr. Binh Nguyen of Vietnam. All over Asia and Africa and Latin America, God’s children are thrilled to be invited to God’s great kingdom banquet table.
But I don’t want to be on the outside looking in. That’s a party I want to join! So how do we join in?
Well, dinner rules according to Jesus include finding a nice low-key place at the end of the table, rather than insisting on being the center of attention. And we’re not simply to invite those able to repay us with lavish feasts of their own. Instead, we should invite those who can truly appreciate the feast, and show them every form of hospitality we can.
To get really concrete, we can for instance live out this morning’s Scripture lesson by helping to put on a generous spread at one of our monthly meals for homeless guests at Operation Nightwatch. “Big Table” Ministries suggests we can live it out, too, when we’re traveling or dining out, by surprising a waitress or a hotel maid with a tip generous enough to make a real difference in their lives. We can even live it out simply by treating someone no one thinks much about, the way we ought to treat any fellow guest at Jesus’ table.
You may, like me, wonder how literally we are meant to take Jesus’ words about inviting into our actual homes those who are not normally welcomed at dinner parties. Is there too great a cultural disconnect from the first century world for this part of what he asks to be realistic anymore? Is it enough to host feasts elsewhere for those on the margins, rather than inviting them to sit around our own dining room tables? I don’t know exactly how Jesus would answer that question today.
But I’m confident that a good starting point is to do something.
For God’s banquet table is surely big enough that there’s plenty of room for all of us to join in, both in fellowship and in service. Where might Jesus be calling you to take your particular place?
 Fred Craddock, Luke (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), p. 179.
 Craddock, p. 179.