Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 28th August 2016 (Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Sirach 3:17-20; Psalm 68:4-7, 10-11; Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24; Luke 14:1, 7-14 (Find the readings here)
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a prominent religious leader. I can imagine him looking around when he arrives, wondering where he should sit. We’re told that he is being watched closely. That must feel awkward. And he is watching the other guests too, noticing what they are up to. It is a complicated game. Social occasions like this may ostensibly be about hospitality, about opening one’s home and one’s table to others, but there is often another dynamic at work. There are the insiders and the outsiders and those somewhere in between, those who know what to do and those who aren’t sure. Etiquette is only partly about good manners. It is as much about distinguishing between those who belong and those who don’t. And those who aren’t confident that they really belong are the ones who are trying the hardest to get everything right, to the snide amusement of the inner circle. When the host is someone important, guests want to be seen to be there, and some may be hoping for an opportunity to sneak up a rung on the social ladder.
What is Jesus’ response to all of this? He tells them a parable. A parable is a little story that may seem tame, if a little strange, when we hear it first. However, once it lodges in our imaginations it can suddenly explode and transform the way we see the world. Jesus’ parables are about the Kingdom of God. When we look through their strange lens, we see something of where and how God is at work, what kind of world God is inaugurating through Jesus of Nazareth. This parable sounds more like the advice of a sage than a story, but its effect is the same. Jesus isn’t just lecturing them on etiquette, like ben Sira is doing in the first reading. He is inviting them to see and to live into the truth of the Kingdom of God. Parables aren’t just a more flowery way of saying something that can be said more directly in a series of statements. That is why I’m not going to try to take the parable and unpack it for you – that isn’t how parables work. Instead, I invite you to notice what happens and sit with it, so that the story can open for you, a little piece of dynamite that can blow open a new way of being in the world.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honour. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, “Give your place to this man,” and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.” (Luke 14:8-10)
It is the Sabbath so Jesus, the host and the guests are all just back from the synagogue where they have recited some psalms, listened to scripture and reflected upon it. In all likelihood they had chanted words similar to today’s psalm. Perhaps, like us, they had affirmed that God makes a home for the poor. After all, one cannot go far in the Old Testament without coming face to face with God’s preferential option for the poor and with the observation that God exalts the humble and humbles the proud. Jesus invites his host to consider what that looks like in the here and now. God has modelled for us true hospitality. If we have some inkling of what it means to be invited to the celebration in the heavenly Jerusalem, with the angels and the saints and above all with Jesus, and to be made genuinely, fully welcome there in such august company, then our own practice of hospitality will open out into the spiritual practice of extravagant welcome.