Aug 16, 2006

Sermon Title: “Coming to the Feast”

Jack Turner
Columbia International University
Third Place, August 2006 Round

For those of you who may not be familiar with them, the core values of the US Navy and Marine Corps are “honor, courage, commitment.” My cousin learned them well as his Recruit Training Platoon shouted it, along with “Kill, kill, kill, Marine Corps,” each time they went for meals or performed exercises or sat down for mail call. I endured a similar experience as a young midshipman, often reflecting on theses core values whenever I was invited to perform physical training for punishment when I did something the upperclassmen disliked. Judging by how quickly I got in shape, I must have had ample opportunity to contemplate the meaning of honor. Honor is not something we talk much about in our society anymore. For many of us, there is probably no specific definition of honor that we have in mind, and so it simply becomes a word we toss about, if we use it at all, a word that is utterly devoid of tangible meaning. For those who are interested, the Navy’s definition of honor is uncompromising personal integrity.

In the ancient world, to say people were highly concerned with honor might be a bit of an understatement; obsessed is probably more accurate. However, the type of honor they were concerned with was not personal integrity, but with their own rights of birth or precedence. In short, one’s honor consisted of one’s fame, reputation, power, or precedence. While everyone was born with a certain level of dignity based on the rank of their parents and their gender, honor could be accrued in any number of ways, whether by winning a battle or war, sponsoring a civic event, or becoming successful in business and politics. Honor would be paid to an individual in a variety of ways, including allowing them right of way, granting them positions of authority, or awarding choice seats at banquets.

There is an old saying which I think is particularly relevant to the current text: “eat what is set before you.” As a little bit of historical background, from ancient times up until the last century, when one sat down for a meal, one had several dishes set down at different places at the table. At the head of the table one would find the meats and choice beverages whereas at the foot one would find less desirable vegetables and cheep drinks. Unlike the modern era where we pass dishes to one another so that each of us might receive a portion of everything on the table, in previous times one would eat only that which was in reach. Thus, one really did have to be content with what was set before them because there would be no opportunity to get anything better.

What Jesus is telling his audience in the parable about the banquet is to reduce their own self-perceived importance so that their real importance may be shown to all when they are taken to a better seat. More subtly, Jesus is also telling us that the one who can be content with less than what he deserves will nevertheless receive exactly what is coming to them and will be honored among his associates when he gets it. Thus, on the surface, Jesus is giving a lesson in good manners. To make it applicable to our situation, he might better have said, “When going to a congregational fellowship dinner, don’t bolt out of the church following the dismissal to make sure you can get a huge portion of macaroni and cheese.”

The first piece of advice would have struck a chord with his audience, and in all likelihood there would have been a few heads nodding in agreement since it is essentially a restatement of the advice given in the first lesson from Proverbs. However, Jesus’ second point about whom to invite to a dinner party would likely have turned everyone on their heads. It would have done so because it goes against the nature of what we think ought to be right. After all, who has a dinner party and doesn’t invite his or her friends and close associates? It’s a strange piece of advice, but it fits right in with Jesus’ concern for the poor and those neglected by society and his teachings about loving and serving those around us, especially those we consider to be of lesser status than we are.

At this point, we could stop the sermon and move on since a very important point about contentedness and humility has been made. However, I think there is a deeper meaning to both pieces of Jesus advice that will permit us some important insight into what salvation is all about, so perhaps you will indulge me a moment as I try to take us deeper into the text. In the parable, specifically concerning the wedding feast, we see the guests scrambling to acquire something; in this case, it is a better seat at the table and consequently a better selection of foods. In the parable, there are two people: the first one makes a mad dash to the head of the table to sit and eat the choice food, and another who sits at the end of the table where the least desirable dishes would have been served. In giving this example, I think Jesus is making a point not about good manners, a good a point about manners as it might be, but rather he is making point about the Kingdom itself.

The person who runs ahead could be accounted as the person who attempts to earn their place in heaven or to earn a better reward by their own efforts; the effort in this case is attempting to be quicker than others. But the host of the banquet quite literally puts this person back in his place, even though it causes him much embarrassment and shame. Herein, we see a subtle truth: one attends the banquet only because the host, who represents God in the story, has invited them. Nothing about either person, whether it be their great acts or place in society, has earned them a seat at the table, and certainly nothing of their own account, including speed, determined where they sat. Rather, it was the choice of the host to come to all the guests and extend the invitation to the banquet. The Greek word used here, keklemenoi, is better translated as “the elect” rather than our translation “guest” and only emphasizes the fact that those present were chosen to receive an invitation rather than thinking they could show up on their own.

Earlier, I mentioned that Jesus’ advice about inviting the lame and the sick would have struck his audience as illogical, and I said it was because it is counter-intuitive to invite someone to dinner who isn’t eventually going to invite you back or whom you do not owe an invitation to. But there is a deeper issue: in ancient Judean society, those whom Jesus mentions as being fitting guests in the house of a Pharisee, the poor, the lame, and the blind, were considered to be afflicted by G-d because they were sinners and thus were undesirable company for a supposedly righteous person; the Qumran community, the group that copied the Dead Sea Scrolls, believed that such people would be excluded from paradise. But this is not the way G-d thinks or how Jesus tells us to structure our interaction with people; far from it. Jesus is telling us to welcome the afflicted and the outcast and to have no fear of the social stigma attached to them. Our psalm reminds us that G-d gives his gifts specifically too the poor while the unrighteous, which might be read as the stingy rich, will waste away and come to nothing. It’s a pretty radical idea. This, of course, wasn’t the first time Jesus had gotten in trouble for associating himself with those whom society considered as being sinful, but it also goes along with what I was speaking of earlier about G-d’s prerogative in salvation. None of us have done anything deserving of being saved; in fact, all that the law required of us, we failed at miserably and on more than one occasion. The truth of the matter is that we are really no better off the Pharisees perceived the lame and the poor to be; only our supposed miserable status is one of perception rather than strict fact.

So what does any of this have to do with honor? Simply put, our honor is that of G-d rather than of ourselves. In his grace, he has chosen to honor humanity with his incarnation in Jesus Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit. The point Jesus is making in the second advice is really the support for understanding the first piece. As I said, we can do nothing on our own to earn our salvation: it is the free gift of Jesus Christ. On our own we were dishonorable, but through his mercy, G-d has chosen to give us a choice seat at his table, and not because we have or could do anything to deserve it, but because he simply chose to grant it to us. The disgrace that Jesus bore in Heb. 13.12 is actually our disgrace and our shame. All of our lessons in one way or another encourage us to honor those whom society ignores precisely because God could have ignored our sinfulness but instead chose to extend his mercy. I don’t think Jesus advice about inviting in the poor and the lame to a dinner party was meant to be taken allegorically, though there is certainly an allegorical element to it. I think he meant it quite literally, that we are to be willing to take in those whom society disregards and confront them with the incredible love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

While this parable is a warning against thinking we can or should earn our salvation, it nevertheless should not be used as an excuse to not help the poor. The author of Hebrews reminds us that doing good and sharing with others is a sacrifice that pleases G-d. Let us therefore cease doing good to earn our salvation, which will only end in our shame and disgrace, and let us seek to do good…for goodness’ sake.