Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Canon Donna G. Joy

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

This past year I discovered and started watching the series ‘Mad Men’, which is about the personal and professional lives of people involved in the advertising industry on Madison Avenue. The series begins in the 1960’s, and one of the major themes that runs throughout the storyline is people longing to move up the corporate ladder, along with the jockeying they are prepared to do in order to get to where they want to go. One of the more popular strategies used to achieve this goal was to host a dinner party, and exercise whatever manipulation it would take to get the right people to come and to seat them in such a way that the necessary people were elevated to the desired status. If you were young and just starting out and wanting to move up to a place of greater position and status, you would long for the day when Don Draper would accept a dinner invitation to your home.

I think we all know that although the series ‘Mad Men’ is defined as fiction, we also know that this way of elevating one’s position and status is rooted in the realities of everyday life. Our Gospel this morning, however, turns this way of jockeying for position upside down as Jesus gives some etiquette lessons according to the Kingdom of God, etiquette lessons for both those who are invited as well as the host.

Jesus had likely been invited to Sabbath dinner at the house of the leader of the Pharisees, an important person in the community. The Sabbath dinner was a special meal and it was common to invite a guest to this meal, just as we might invite a guest or guests to a Sunday dinner. Meals such as these were important as they could give you access to powerful people. Most meals were attended by people of the same social status; something that, as I have already pointed out, is not that much different today. It is interesting to note that even though Jesus may have been an invited guest, he was being watched and observed; his enemies had their eyes on him.

Jesus looked around and as he saw the guests jockeying for the best places to sit, he told the first parable.He moved the setting from the Sabbath dinner to a wedding feast.From the verses that follow our reading, we gather that Jesus is not just talking about any old earthly wedding feast.This is the wedding feast being prepared by the Father in honour of the Son.It is a royal dinner – the Messianic event that will welcome home the church – the bride of Christ.This is the great feast of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus responds to the questions, “who will sit at the head table?” and “Who should have the place of honour?” as he says, “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.’”It is humiliating to assume one has the place of honour, one of the most important seats in the house, only to be marched to the lowest place because someone more distinguished has been invited.

In the world of ‘Mad Men’ nobody – and I mean nobody – would have a more distinguished place than Don Draper.But Jesus seems to be suggesting that in the Kingdom of God, even Don Draper may find himself sitting in the lowest possible place.

Then Jesus goes on to say, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” Once again, this is not really a lesson in wedding etiquette.It is a teaching on the Kingdom of God and the values of the Kingdom.

We could simply conclude that Jesus was warning us to be humble and leave it at that.But there is more to this parable, as he continues, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”In the conclusion of this first parable, we hear Jesus turn the world’s values on their head.The parable illustrates Jesus’ teaching which is found in Luke’s previous chapter, “…those who are now last will be first, and those who are now first will be last.”

As we read through the Bible, we find many places where your ordinary way of thinking about things turns out to be the exact opposite in the Kingdom of God:The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of paradoxes.

  • The first will be last.
  • The last will be first.
  • There is strength in weakness.
  • He who finds his life will lose it while he who loses his life will find it.
  • The person who gives generously will be rich.
  • It is more blessed to give than to receive.
  • Love those who hate you.
  • Whoever wishes to become the greatest must be servant to all.

Indeed, in Jesus, we see the greatest example of worldly values turned upside down.We see the master take on the role of the servant as he kneels at the feet of his disciples and washes their feet.In his death on the cross, we see weakness turned to strength.The words of Paul to the Philippians are relevant today and illustrate Paul’s understanding of the paradoxical nature of the reign of God, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5)

So what is our claim on a place of honour? Well, we cannot depend on our own merit to claim a place at the head table. We have no right sitting at the head table, because of anything we have done, or accomplished – even if you are Don Draper, the revered, even idolized, top executive in the Advertising Industry on Madison Avenue. There cannot be a sense of entitlement and yet God has invited us from the lowest place to a place of honour, if we are to accept what Jesus has done for us through his death and resurrection. With this gift of acceptance, not only are we invited to the banquet but we have been invited to take a place of honour at the head table with God.

And who else is invited to sit at the head table?Well, the second parable in this morning’s Gospel reading gives us a little insight into that.Jesus tells the host, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, 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.”

Dr. Delmer Chilton puts it this way, “By inviting your friends and family and your neighbours, who are in your social class, you have made sure that you have lost nothing, risked nothing, spent nothing, ultimately, sacrificed nothing, actually done nothing that qualifies you as a host in the spiritual sense of the word. You have invited only people who can afford to return the favour and invite you to their house and feed you there. This is a nice social event, its good fellowship and, I would argue also important and necessary to do but it is not real hospitality in terms of hospitality within the Kingdom of God.

Jesus challenges us to see equality among the diversity of the people gathered around the table of God.Jesus has made our reservation.We are challenged to embrace and show hospitality to all people, despite social class, country of origin, despite language, or age, or sexual orientation, despite employment status, or gender, or religion . . .Like King Arthur, God reigns at the round table.

We are challenged as Christians to honour those whom the world identifies as the least because they are the ones who have been relegated to a lesser place unfairly.Think about who the poor and marginalized are throughout the community in which St. Peter’s is placed, throughout the city of Winnipeg and Canada, throughout our global community.And think about how our society’s values and systems keep the least in their place.Think about a man, identified as the least according to the standards of this world, who it seems remains uninvited to the table of mercy in an emergency ward for so many hours that he dies and still remains unnoticed.

Powerful people and powerful systems keep the world’s values in place, and the church is called to challenge them.We should be finding ourselves on the outs with our society more times than not, judging by the paradoxical nature of the gospel.When we have humbled ourselves to stand beside those people who are most negatively affected by greed and power, we are living according to the values of God – we are living according to the etiquette of the Kingdom of God.

In the words of Robert Capon, “Jesus comes and stands in the back of the line, behind the forgotten, behind those who are considered unimportant, far away from the VIP’s, and calls us to turn around. In Jesus, the back of the line is now the front.”


The Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton:

Robert Farrar Capon:

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus