Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Who should pay for the food provided at Farnham Foodbank? Or for the homeless shelters in Woking and Guildford?
There’s a growing trend which says that people should only get what they pay for. Yet the Foodbank and the night shelters can only happen through the generosity of people giving food and money, and through the hospitality of churches and community centres.
What Jesus’ has to say in today’s Gospel reading completely overturns this mentality of people should only get what they pay for. Instead, Jesus uses the simple setting of a meal to teach, not just about a good social practice with regard to seating, but about a way of living that is rooted in God’s generous love, freely poured out upon all people, without any thought of position or status.
This story in Luke’s Gospel is set in the context of a meal, a meal shared with those folk that Jesus was so often at odds with: the Pharisees and the lawyers. It strikes me that Jesus doesn’t care one jot about the social conventions, what’s expected and what’s the done thing, and certainly doesn’t care about not bringing up controversial issues when he’s a guest. In fact, it seems to be nothing but religion and politics! When Jesus is there, the meal becomes a place of both feeding the mind as much as the body.
While he’s at the table, Jesus, sees people jostling for the highest places at the table, and his response is what you might think of as a piece of good old fashioned common sense:
Watch out for going to sit in the higher places, because you could be really embarrassed by being asked to sit down lower. So it’s much better to start at the bottom, and wait and see if you will be invited up higher.
But, as we know Jesus teaches using parables, what seems to be worldly wisdom has a deeper meaning. This meaning is about the kind of regard that people have for themselves, and the way in which we can each be tempted to want more for ourselves in terms of status and position. I think this can become a real danger when we think we can push ourselves forward in God’s eyes, and line ourselves up, as it were, at the top of the queue for the heavenly banquet. Instead we’re to be humble recipients of God’s generosity, waiting on God who always has more than enough to give us for whatever we might need.
The second part of this passage from Luke also has this same two levels of meaning. On the one level, the invitation is to be open hearted and generous when inviting people for meals. Don’t just look for those who will invite you back. Make a point of inviting those who don’t have a chance of inviting you back. It’s interesting that at this point, Jesus names the crippled, the lame and the blind, a list of people who were excluded from the priesthood because of their disabilities. These double excluded people, on the fringes of society, and unable to hold office, were at the top of the invitation list. The first level of meaning is the one about good practice.
The second, and deeper, level of meaning is again about God’s generosity. We each receive from God as those who are humble and poor, bringing so little of ourselves in comparison with the bountiful love that God offer us. As we have received, so we are to give. If we only invite those to our table from whom we expect an invitation back, we are not entering into the fullness of God’s kingdom. Instead we are to look for those who at any one time are on the edges of our society and invite them in. It might be people with physical or mental disabilities. Or it might be asylum seekers and refugees. Jesus’ teaching was as subversive in his day as it is in ours. He was operating in a world that was all about knowing your place, about hierarchy and position, and Jesus was overturning that.
The Pharisees were often seen as those in particular positions of spiritual power. In this passage, Jesus was taking them on in a double way. First, he was in the house of a Pharisee, but he didn’t hold back in speaking out. Second, what he was saying would be construed as being critical of established practice.
I think these teachings are just as subversive for us today. First, about the significance of humility. We live in an age in which there’s an increasing emphasis on the need to see what each person can get for themselves. This means less attention is given to seeing what the other person needs. Jesus comes to overturn a self-centred, worldly way of thinking and living. He asks us to live generously, as God has given generously of himself for us. In this way of living, seeking out the poor and the oppressed becomes a natural and joy-filled consequence of what we have already received from God. We can be content with the lowest seat, because we know that we already live in God’s high regard.
Second, about the priority of generosity over financial return. Some years ago Radio 4 broadcast a ‘prayer for today’ at 6.50 a.m. on the Today programme. This was then moved to 5.30 a.m. and replaced with ‘financial news today’ at 6.50 a.m. It felt like a sign of the movement of the times. God is often pushed to the side-lines, and replaced by market forces, which often seem much more mysterious, unaccountable, and powerful than we could have imagined in our wildest dreams that God would be.
While finance and the economy are a significant part of life, and areas in which it is important for Christians and the church to be involved, our attitude to them flows out of our prior understanding about more basic meanings of the way life is meant to be lived in God’s economy. In God’s economy, generosity sets the scene, not personal accumulation of wealth.
The words from Luke are echoed in the passage from Proverbs in relation to being in the presence of the king: for it is better to be told “come up here” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. They’re expanded by the list of practical injunctions in Hebrews, which also give us another slant on offering hospitality to the poor and the lame: for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. It’s not just out of pity that we are called to seek out those who are in particular need, it’s also because we will receive from them, in unexpected ways.
The passage from Hebrews ends with words that draw together the meanings that flow out of Jesus’ teaching in Luke: let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise. Praise is what results from our encounter with the generous God. Out of this encounter, we give ourselves in love and service. Our sacrifice is joyful, it’s with our lips and through our lives.