A Sermon for Proper 17(22)C
1 September 2019†
Hospitality, of various kinds, has been a constant theme in Christian writing and teaching and practice since the very beginning, as our readings for this Sunday show. Indeed they show that this concern with hospitality goes back to Jesus himself. And of course it is an important theme in the First Testament as well, testifying to Israelite roots in a nomadic culture in which hospitality to wanderers was highly valued. The first followers of Jesus were not nomads, but they did form a network of people scattered all across the Eastern Mediterranean (and slowly spreading west) who were dependent upon hospitality norms for the free passage of travelling apostles and elders and the circulation of letters and gospels that bound them together as a cohesive movement.
But despite the variety in our readings and the various faces of hospitality that the three principal readings reflect, only the gospel reading calls us to radical hospitality in its two parables. The reading from Proverbs touches upon one aspect of that hospitality - it is clearly connected with Jesus' first parable in the reading from Luke. Both concern the behaviour of a guest, specifically the guest at a wedding banquet in Jesus' story and at a royal entertainment in Proverbs. The message is the same in both cases: do not put yourself forward, or appear to think too highly of your own position. It is better to be invited to a higher place at the banquet than to be asked to give up your place to another guest. Jesus' listeners would have heard his story with ears conditioned by their culture, a culture in which honour and its inverse, shame, were the guiding principles for public behaviour. You should not open yourself to shame and disgrace by trying to go as high as you think you deserve, but you should take a lower place in hopes that your host will invite you higher when he comes.
This parable always puzzled me. I mean, was there no steward at this wedding banquet? I understand that the Sabbath dinner at which Luke says that the parables were spoken, to which Jesus was invited at a Pharisee's home, could be relatively informal, with guests selecting their own places, but a wedding banquet or a royal banquet is something different altogether! Perhaps, I said to myself, you are just overthinking this. But then it came to me that perhaps Jesus was not talking about earthly status and honour.
What if he was talking about the heavenly banquet? After all, many of Jesus' parables are about aspects of the reign of God, God's Kingdom on earth, and the heavenly banquet, to which we are all invited, is one of the symbols of that reign. At that point, the parable began to fall into place in a new way. When Jesus warns us against exalting ourselves, he is talking about the human values now used to establish status on earth. But, when God's reign is fully present among us, in this world, we will be judged by the values of the Kingdom, by God's values, not human ones.
When we pursue status based on human values, we exalt ourselves and are in danger of being humbled when all the guests arrive and the Divine Host seats us all! But those who pursue kingdom values, God's values, will likely be too busy putting other people forward, exalting others, to have time to exalt themselves. St Paul spoke in his letter to the Philippians about the way of thinking that we all need to cultivate if we are part of God's Kingdom on earth when he wrote, "If then encouragement in Christ is something worthwhile, if consolation in love is something worthwhile, if fellowship in the Spirit is something worthwhile, if compassion and pity are something worthwhile, fill up my joy by thinking the same thing, having the same love, being single-minded, thinking one thing -- nothing selfish, nor in the way of conceit, but in humility thinking of one another that they surpass oneself; each of you regarding not your situation but each regarding that of others."
According to the human values of the world around us, this kind of thinking would amount to humbling ourselves. But Jesus says it's the other way around - that this is the way to be exalted. So our response to God's hospitality, to God's invitation to the heavenly banquet, is to change ourselves radically. We should not be concerned for our own situation but concern ourselves with the situations of our fellow guests, joined with them in one mind, one thought, and one love, freed from selfish considerations. This is radical hospitality not simply from the point of view of the guest, but from the inside.
The epistle reading is full of direction about how to live and how to have faith as a Christian. It begins with the most important direction of all: "Let mutual love continue". As our writer continues, the first aspect of mutual love he touches on is hospitality. But here it's hospitality from the outside: it's about our hospitality to strangers. We are reminded not to neglect hospitality to strangers and warned that by that kind of hospitality some have entertained angels without realising it. This is an allusion to Abraham, who (in a story we have recently heard from Genesis) entertained what he thought were three travellers on their way to the Cities of the Plain. Instead they turned out to be angels, that is, divine messengers, bringing with them a promise to Abraham and Sarah about the birth of their son Isaac. This hospitality is no casual affair, if it has the power to bring us unexpectedly, as Abraham was that day, into the presence of one of God's messengers! Sounds like potentially radical hospitality indeed.
In the second of the two parables in the Gospel reading we see exactly how radical this outward-directed hospitality is. Here Jesus turns the focus of the first parable right around, just as the reading from Hebrews does, and looks at hospitality from the other direction -- instead of talking about hospitality from the point of view of a guest, here we are looking at hospitality from the point of view of a host. To make his point that hospitality is not for what we can get out of it by obligating people to ask us back, Jesus encouraged us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to lunch or dinner parties, rather than our friends or relatives. Why? Because they can't invite us back, so we are not angling for return invitations. Instead we are offering hospitality in a pure form, expecting nothing in return, at least until the Kingdom comes.
There's a danger here, that we will misunderstand what Jesus is asking us to do here -- that we'll respond as if we were some kind of Lord and Lady Bountifuls, taking pride in our ability to offer to poor unfortunates invitations they can't return. Certainly this is the exact opposite of what Jesus means! Instead he is calling upon us to show the most radical of all Christian virtues, the one that tops the list in our epistle reading: mutual love. It is radical love, love that is without boundaries or limits, that transforms an action that could be ambiguous or even hurtful into a joyful welcome of newly-recognised friends and relatives not to our table but to the LORD's Table, both in this liturgy and through our Kingdom-labours in the world.
It takes radical love to create radical hospitality, and that is what Jesus is describing in these parables, challenging us to look at those we encounter day-by-day, as well as those who seek the heavenly banquet with us, with new eyes. Eyes that allow us to see them for who they are, our beloved as much as they are the Lord's. May God give us grace to see with new eyes and welcome all our fellow-children of God to share our place in the Kingdom, without concern for whose place may be high or low. Amen.
† You won't find this sermon along with other recent ones in the parish's repository of audio files of sermons preached at Redeemer. I never actually preached it! I swapped preaching dates as a favour to a fellow-preacher, but since the sermon was almost finished at that time, I've decided to put it up anyway.