TRINITY 13, Proper 17. Year C. Luke 1:14:1, 7-14.

The Best Seats

Last week I promised the brethren that there would be a spectacular show in the heavens tonight. As Mars moved to its closest proximity to earth in the history of our galaxy it would appear to the naked eye in form slightly smaller than our moon. Well, I hate to disappoint you but I was the victim of a hoax. You will be able to see Mars this evening if you look west just above the horizon just after sunset. You will see Venus glowing in splendour - with the exception of the moon she is the brightest of the heavenly bodies. If you look above and to the right of her you will see Mars. He appears to be small and he is red. Perhaps he is blushing with embarrassment after all the hype as he lurks behind his more glorious sister.

If so, he is not unlike those guests that Jesus speaks to in today’s Gospel:

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, 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".

Can you imagine it? – ‘Don’t sit on that seat. We are keeping that one for Mick Jagger but there is a nice pouffe down by the door. Hurry before someone else takes it'.

Jesus had some advice to the hosts of banquets. It is actually more beneficial to the soul if you invite those who have no place in the pecking order – the poor and the helpless and the outcast:

"When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous”.

When I was back in Northern Ireland recently, I cooked a meal for my nephew and his wife, Anne, my sister-in-law and myself. I think that because we so rarely get the opportunity to do so there is a great privilege in being able to entertain people to a meal. It is not that I am a great cook. In fact I believe that my culinary education was cut short by my joining CR. For most of my life I was institutionalised – my meals either being cooked by my mother or in the kitchens of the colleges in Dublin and London where I was a student. So I had barely learned to manage my own kitchen when I came here and, consequently, every opportunity to use a recipe book is a great adventure. There is the fun of shopping, the precariousness of spending, the danger of getting quantities and timing wrong. There is the wonderful moment of near disbelief when you sit down with your friends and think ‘I’ve done it.’

Of course the real pleasure of such an occasion is the converse, the happiness of talking with friends, remembering old times sharing interests, knowing love. I feel that there is a kinship between every convivial supper and the Last Supper and between every really happy party and the Messianic Banquet. If so, then why is Jesus so critical of the atmosphere of the banquet that he attends in today’s Gospel?

Is Jesus giving us a lesson in etiquette, or social and political correctness? The story says that when he saw the guests competing for the best seats he told them a parable but there is nothing in this passage that is anything like a parable. We were taught in Sunday School that a parable is ‘an earthly story with a heavenly meaning'. The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are such stories – we hear the story which Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’ and we recognise the spiritual message and how it applies to us. However, in today’s reading Jesus gives us no such story. Instead, he gives us a set of directions about how to behave at a party and who to invite to a party. When Jesus says ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’ it is always a statement of judgement – the kingdom of heaven is like… now how do you measure up to it? I think that that is how the Gospel writer understands the parable in this passage.

Jesus comes to us offering a place at the Father’s table. We have no right to be there except on account of his love for us. All is gift, all is grace. In such circumstances the whole idea of precedence and pecking order is nonsense. The banquet is the place where wounds are healed, sins forgiven, needs attended to and hungers satisfied. No one is to be excluded because they are ritually unclean, unpleasant or embarrassing. This is not a place for the survival of the fittest – the lame, the poor, the blind and the crippled will be there.

Jesus says ‘this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Now judge for yourselves; how do your banquets compare?’ Of course he was talking to the Pharisees and Lawyers and it was obvious that he was castigating them for their vanity, their lack of humility, their self-serving. That was two thousand years ago. He wasn’t talking about us, or was he? We don’t give a fig about the best place at parties do we? Do you sometimes feel slighted or that someone has threatened your position? Are you envious of someone else’s talent or success? Do you suspect anyone of favouritism or resent the privileges that others seem to enjoy? If the answer is yes to each of these questions – and I think that they will be for most of us – then I suspect that we would be looking for the best seats at the Pharisee’s meal.

What about the other half of the story? The cosy picture that I painted of my meal with my friends was a bit too cosy. We were like-minded, happy in each other’s company, friends and relations. How would we have felt if someone uncongenial had turned up? For some reason the Gospel passage that we are dealing with is Luke 14 v1 and then vv 7-14. In other words omitting vv 2-6 which records that as Jesus arrives there is a man in front of him afflicted with dropsy. The Pharisee’s watch Jesus, presumably to see if he will heal on the Sabbath but also possibly to see if he will render himself unclean and unfit to be at the meal by touching the man.

This too is the Kingdom of heaven. At the Father’s banquet there will be the unclean and untouchable, the sinner and the defiled, indeed they will get there first – the whores will go into the kingdom before the righteous. Now that you know who is going to be there, do you want to come?

The Pharisees and the Sadducees made up their minds. They couldn’t be party to this party and so they took council together.

What of ourselves, do we want to go to Jesus party? I think that we are there already. God’s grace has been given to us because of the saving act of his Son. We are surrounded by love and joy and beauty but we can only enjoy them as we divest ourselves of all that excludes others from the banquet. Am I ignoring anyone or holding a grudge? Do I look down on anyone because they hold a different religious or political view? Do I treat anyone as an outcast because of their sexual orientation, or race or gender? Do I care about the poor and underprivileged? If all these are already at the party do we want to stay?

My friends and brethren, as we work and pray to rebuild this house to God’s honour and glory let us ask him to make it a place where all will be honoured, everyone welcomed, a place where peace may be found and souls reconciled and Christ’s will be done.

John Gribben CR