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Luke 14:1, 7-14

The ancient Greco-Roman world as a giant middle school cafeteria. What you wear, how you present yourself, what you eat, who you eat with means everything and tells you everything you need to know about a person. I suspect that if we asked the Middle Schoolers we know, they’d tell us that things haven’t changed a whole lot.

I suspect our grown up world hasn’t changed much either. This is how our environments are too: How we present ourselves in the world matters. We establish our brand through brands, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the associations we advertise. We all but trademark ourselves on social media platforms these days.

I once heard Bible and Preaching Professor Karoline Lewis tell a story that illustrates how often you’re reminded of how society puts you in your place, even though you choose not to live in certain ways, you have constant reminders. She was at the airport very early in the morning, and there was nobody waiting in line at security. There was the regular entrance, and then there was the faster, first class entrance. She said it was difficult to determine which entrance was which, and so she went up and asked, “Is this first class?” The attendant said, “Yes this is first class, you’ll have to go over there” She said ‘obviously I didn’t look very first class.” So he pointed her over to the other entrance. There was nobody in either line, but sure enough, she had to go through, back and forth, back and forth through those black divider things, nobody in line, and when she finally made her way through to the front of the security line, who did she see but the person she had asked previously about helping her.

The point being made was “you didn’t earn this, you didn’t pay for this, so you have to walk the long way.”

This is the right frame of mind for thinking about meals in the first century Greco-Roman world. Where a person was seated was a public advertisement of one’s status. Going to the good parties helped your status, likewise having the honorable guests helped you climb the social ladder. It’s like the motto of the old Chicago political machine: “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

And into that setting steps Jesus. Luke tells us this meal at the house of a Pharisee takes place on the Sabbath. Now, that’s not just a stray detail. Jesus has established the Sabbath as a day for particularly upsetting the status quo that holds these kinds of meals together. Beginning with his first sermon at Nazareth on a Sabbath: “I have been anointed to preach good news to the poor, release to the captive, recovery of sight to the blind . . . today (on the Sabbath) this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:16-30). Even as recently as last week’s text, where Jesus heals a woman who had been bent down for 18 years on the Sabbath (13:10-17).

And Luke tells us that the Pharisees are keeping him under close scrutiny (14:1). Apparently Jesus had a reputation for stirring up trouble on the Sabbath.

Into this meal, Luke tells us a man with dropsy wanders in. Was he invited? If so, I imagine he was invited by Jesus. When Jesus shows up at your table, guess who’s coming to dinner?He’s bringing others along with him, be prepared.

The way Luke presents the healing miracle here makes the miracle itself an afterthought. The same could be said for the controversy about healing on the Sabbath. Jesus is more interested in this as a teaching moment for banquets. He’s more interested in the presence of the man with dropsy, than he is with the miracle itself or the controversial theological topic. His advice for those navigating those Middle School Cafeteria-esque banquets might send chills down the spine of anyone who remembers how awkward those settings can be: When you attend, identify with the lowest. When you host, invite the lowest.

Jesus is not just giving good table manner advice, he’s calling for the toppling of their way of measuring and evaluating reality. This is Miss Manners meets the eschaton.

Essentially Jesus is asking his audience to ignore and abandon everything that held their society together. The way you carry yourself, the way you brand yourself in the world, what you wear, what you drive, who your friends and professional networks are. He’s asking us to reject the constant drive to elevate ourselves within our circles of peers. And he’s asking us to re-evaluate who we deem to be our peers. Instead of those with the same level of education, similar socio-economic status, similar political beliefs, he invites us to begin to tend to “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (14:21).

Jesus invites us to live this way because this is how God is: in Jesus we see a picture of God attending as the lowly guest. The incarnate God, the incomprehensibly glorious one who takes on the humble and unassuming crude flesh of a Galilean peasant.

Then someone from the crowd interjects “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!” (14:15). Jesus then tells a parable that evokes the eschatological banquet of God, but again subverts many of the expectations of how the guest list is arranged for that end-time feast. Many with status are invited but refuse to tend to other things on their social calendar. Instead, the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame, and many from “the roads and lanes” are called in to share in the feast. This is not how the Messianic eschatological banquet was usually pictured in Jesus’s day. In Qumran, the way the seating arrangement was ordered was each one seated “according to rank” (1qsa 2:11-22). The ones excluded or seated at the outer edge in those arrangements, are here in Jesus’s parable, the guests of honor![1]

And it’s crazy to even entertain living like this.[2] It will gain you nothing, no line on your CV, no prestige or influence among the powerful. It really begins to harm your five-year plan. Where do you see yourself in five years? Oh among, the poor, the lame, the crippled, and the blind. But when Jesus shows up at your table, guess who’s coming to dinner. Be prepared. The table visited by Jesus Christ can be a dangerous place, especially for your sense of status and prestige. But at the end of all things, when the invitations go out for the great banquet feast of God’s restoration of creation and reconciliation of humankind . . . guess who’s coming to dinner?

If my address isn’t at least in the neighborhood of the poor, the lame, the crippled, the blind, can I be sure I’ll get an invitation? [1] This is consistent with many passages across Luke, perhaps especially the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and Jesus’s sermon at Nazareth (4:16-30). [2] It may be crazy to live like this, but not impossible. Listen to the remarkable story of the Belgian city of Geel (pronounced hail) in the podcast Invisibilia, in episode “The Problem with the Solution,” July 1, 2016. https://www.npr.org/programs/invisibilia/483855073/the-problem-with-the-solution