By far the worst part of planning a wedding is the guest list. My peak stress level in wedding planning was the battle over who’s invited. Who gets priority? Do you prioritize the friends of the bride and groom? Your family and your future in-law’s family? The friends your parents have known for decades but who you couldn’t pick out of a lineup? Your parent’s college roommate whose daughter’s wedding they were invited to five years ago so you include them out of obligation?
And exactly how many people can you invite over capacity, hoping beyond hope that some of them don’t come? There are formulas for this, you know. And then there’s the guidance on how to build a B list to send a late invitation after some RSVP no. In my case, there was also the C list, which is the list of folks who you feel guilty about not inviting but who you don’t really want to attend because they’re, well, difficult.
And once you catch your breath after putting together the guest list and you send out the invitations, the RSVPs come flowing in. And the next worst part are the table assignments. Can you put those two couples together? After all, you’re pretty sure one voted for Trump and the other for Biden. Can your married gay friends from grad school sit at the table with your high school friends? What about that longtime best friend from childhood who isn’t going to know anyone but the bride – where should she sit? Do your bridesmaids get a plus one when they’re not dating anyone, and do the friends they bring along have to sit at the head table with you? What about your college friend who sends the awkward email and asks if her kids can come?
I’m stressed out again just thinking about it. As my husband and I were planning our wedding, we consulted Emily Post on more than one occasion to determine the “proper” course of action. We even bought the new edition of the Wedding Etiquette book by Emily Post’s great-great-granddaughters, who offer a fresh take on the traditions and etiquette for a modern bride. But in all our wedding party planning, we never once consulted the Bible.
And reading today’s Gospel passage, I am wondering if Jesus would’ve made our guest list. After all, he has a habit of causing a scene at parties. He clearly missed cotillion class in his teenage years. And last I checked, inviting him means you have to invite the 12 guys who travel with him. That’s like a table and a half at the wedding. And what about the women also journeying with him who, according to Luke, are underwriting his ministries? Do you know how much that is per plate?
According to Luke, Jesus did get at least one invite - to sit at table with the Pharisees. On the sabbath. And he was being watched. By now Jesus had a reputation, and the Pharisees were certain he would break some well-established rule - healing on the sabbath or eating with the wrong people. In their eyes, faithfulness was equated with law-abiding practices that were baked into the social and power structures of the day. The Pharisees would’ve appreciated Emily Post. Where the Pharisees were trying to be faithful by following the law, Jesus kept setting a wider and broader table for God’s people. And it was downright disruptive.
But just as the Pharisees were watching Jesus, Jesus was watching them. And what Jesus saw was a group of people whose assumptions spoke volumes. Their assumptions about where they do belong passively made assumptions about who doesn’t belong. Their assumed inclusion and importance communicated the exclusion and unworthiness of others. And so, Jesus did what he loves to do in those situations - he told a parable. A parable that reveals the divine reversal of the kingdom of God taking place right at their very dinner table.
In the midst of the Pharisees’ dinner party where everyone is just trying to follow the rules, Jesus asks us to look again at the rules themselves.
Where we’re concerned about elevating ourselves and our own sense of importance, Jesus says that those who sit at the lowest place are the ones who will be honored.
Where we want to invite those who invited us, Jesus says invite those who cannot repay – the poor, the crippled, the lame.
Where we value pride and prominence, Jesus values humility and humanity.
Tables set in the kingdom of God follow a different kind of rules than the etiquette book. The last shall be first; the lowest shall be highest. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
If you joined in binge watching sitcoms as a pandemic survival tactic like my spouse and I did, then you know the TV show about the rich couple, Johnnie and Moira Rose, who lost everything in an IRS raid after tax evasion, everything except their one remaining asset, a no-nothing town they had purchased as a joke for their son David’s birthday. In their search for a landing place, their family of societal prominence found themselves humbled, living in this small town in the Rosebud Motel. And they recovered their humanity amidst a quaint town of caring, simple locals. One evening, a set of old friends from their former rich life came to town and the Rose’s invited them out to dinner with their new friends, Roland, the town mayor, and his wife Jocelyn, a teacher. Where their old friends knew everything of class but nothing of love, their new friends were exactly the opposite.
Yet here these three couples sat around the dinner table at a one-star restaurant in town that was the fine dining experience of the area. And after enduring these rich friends demeaning jokes for one moment too long at dinner, Johnnie put down his glass of cheap wine, and said to his friends:
“You know what?… I thought we were having fun, but we’re not.” His old friend flippantly said, “C’mon John, it’s just a joke.” And Johnnie replies, “No, here’s the joke. I’m sitting here in a half decent restaurant with my wife and our friends and all you two have done is complain about the food and pretend you didn’t leave us high and dry when we lost everything… You wrote us off. Not a phone call, not an email, not a nickel. Roland and Jocelyn here could not have been more generous with what little they have. They found us a place to live. They’ve offered us a truck whenever we need. They’ve invited us to their parties. They even offered to take us out to dinner tonight… And that town you passed through, the one you’ve mocked? It’s not called Schittsville. it’s called Schitt’s Creek and it’s where we live.” [“Schitt’s Creek,” Season 2, Episode 13. “Happy Anniversary.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6j34v96HkQ]
As Johnnie took a sip of his cheap wine, his old friends looked down in shame. But at the ends of the table, Roland and Jocelyn quietly smiled as they realized that the Roses, these newcomers to town, were learning to be led, not by what will elevate them, but by a humility born from love.
For those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. When it comes to seeking the kingdom of God, it’s easy to think that what is needed are monumental changes – a God who will move mountains and make crooked paths straight, a God who will usher in a new king and with him a new kingdom through power and might. But Jesus’ parable reminds us that the transformation of the world and the ushering in of the kingdom of heaven begins at ordinary places like the dinner tables we gather around every day.
His parable is like a new etiquette book for the kingdom of God, one which is governed by grace that reminds us that none of us are worthy but all of us are welcome. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t depart from a system of honor, but he reverses the rules for who is to be honored. In a game of holy musical chairs, Jesus reorders the seating chart to humble the haughty and elevate the excluded. The place of prominence moves from the center to the margins. The seat of honor is offered not to those of assumed importance but those who weren’t invited in the first place. And in doing so, Jesus tells us what it will be like to sit at table in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells us what it’s like to come to a dinner party where he is the host.
The closest I have come to the dinner party that Jesus describes is communion – the joyful feast of the people of God, where Christ is the host and we all are his guests, where everyone is welcome from the largest giver to the man who walked in off the street, where everyone is invited not because they earned it, not because they deserve it, not even because it’s “proper etiquette.”
We’re all invited to the table of our Lord precisely because none of us are worthy. It’s a pure gift.
And so, I wonder what it would look like for all the tables we set to resemble the table we gather around every time we celebrate communion? I wonder what it would look like for our guest list to include Jesus?
Let us pray.
We long for you to sit at our table, Holy Christ. But even more than that, we long to sit at yours. Humble us, not so we feel ashamed but so that we can be blessed by the guests we will dine with when our tables look more like your table. For none of us are worthy; yet by your grace, all of us can be blessed. For we know that it is in the breaking of bread together that our eyes will be opened and we will come to know you. In the name of our Risen Lord, Jesus the Christ, Amen.