My mother lived for over 20 years in a beautiful continuing care retirement community in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. She and my father moved into the community together and had a marvelous time taking advantage of the plentiful amenities and activities. When Dad died Mother bravely carried on and created a social life for herself with a number of other single or widowed people. One of the important routines was eating breakfast every morning with the same group—a retired missionary, social worker, businesswoman, and cartoonist for the New Yorker.
Apparently there was an unspoken rule that the group was not open to new members so I was surprised when our son, Tim, told me the following story. A number of years ago when he was visiting my mother, whom we all called Mimi, a gentleman approached him and asked if she was his grandmother. When he said that she was, the man began to gush about what a wonderful woman Mimi was and what a lucky young man Tim was to have such a wonderful grandmother. His lavish praise culminated in his explaining that Mimi had welcomed him and his wife into the community with great kindness and had even invited them to sit one day with the little breakfast club. “This,” the old man gestured, pointing at the hallowed table where they all sat, “this is the table of privilege. And your grandmother invited us to come sit here with her.”
At first our son considered the possibility that his grandmother might actually be a mafia boss who was wielding power from a round table in the cafeteria. He couldn’t resist telling us in his own droll style that there was a good chance Mimi was running the joint by doling out favors and engendering great loyalties and many debts. His alternative comic riff was that this table had been claimed by the “cool kids,” who though now in their 80’s and 90’s, still possessed some kind of “it” factor that made their table the table of privilege. All of this was said in good fun as my son loved my mother very much and even companioned her through the process of dying years later.
All joking aside, the story evokes thoughts about inclusion and welcome, hospitality and grace. The image of a table of privilege can jerk us back to junior high or high school or any other time in our lives when we faced the awful realities of rigid pecking orders and status symbols. And those social realities seem to endure for a long time, apparently even in geriatric communities.
Today’s Gospel turns the whole idea of pecking orders and status symbols on its head. Jesus has been invited to eat at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. We are told that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely, especially as he healed a man on the Sabbath. But then the tables are turned as Jesus begins to watch the Pharisees closely. He notices how the guests choose their places of honor and is inspired to tell a parable that encourages them to choose less honorable seats and wait in humility to be called up to more exalted positions. Jesus turns next to the host and really upsets the apple cart by saying, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, 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. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Since when did Jesus become a party planner or an expert on etiquette? At first glance we might think that this is a boring lesson about good manners but it’s much bigger than that. It’s really radical stuff. This is Jesus giving us a glimpse of Kingdom values, of what life is like in the realm of God where we don’t invite people so we get an invitation back, or do things for others in order to climb up the social ladder, or boost our own ratings by manipulating public opinion. Kingdom living calls us to live righteously and trust in God’s abundant grace, period. No strings attached.
David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary and a professor of preaching, aptly notes that Jesus lived in an honor-and-shame culture, “where status is pretty much everything, and one of the key places where status was displayed is mealtimes.” Guests of honor were seated near the host and less celebrated guests were seated farther and farther away based on their levels of importance to the host and their social standing. Because one’s very economic success depended on one’s perceived rank keeping score was the rule of life—keeping score of who had given what to whom and who was owed an invitation or a favor. “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” was more than just a cliché in an honor-and-shame culture—it was the order of the day. So for Jesus to suggest that a host should invite poor and disabled people to dinner is scandalous and offensive. How would people of no account ever repay their debts?
Are we that different from Jesus’ honor-and-shame culture? We hear about people who are frantic to get their young children into the “right” preschool so they will eventually end up at a prestigious college where they will make all the “right” connections and be set for life. We hear of people entering into relationships, maybe even joining a church, in search of what they can get out of those relationships and networks rather than what they can give. Our kids know about honor-and-shame culture—in the cafeteria or in social settings where affiliation with anyone who is considered undesirable can insure years of public scorn and rejection. And of course, we hear far too many stories of people being rejected or persecuted because they don’t fit some arbitrary standard of wealth, class, race, lifestyle or appearance.
We all yearn to feel worthy and welcomed and loved. Community is a basic human need. Speaking in evolutionary terms, being part of a community was essential to our ancient forbears since going it alone pretty much sealed one’s fate as dinner for a wild beast. And yet, somehow along the way we humans have forgotten how bound we are to one another. We’ve grown afraid and built walls that shut others out. Sometimes those barriers are huge like the Berlin Wall or one of our presidential candidate’s proposed wall between the US and Mexico. On a much subtler level, we build walls every day in small but equally divisive ways. We grow resentful of people who disagree with us. We look down on people who don’t do things the way we think they ought to be done. We judge people’s motives and actions even though we don’t have a clue what their lives are really like. And we consciously or unconsciously distance ourselves from those who we imagine have little or nothing to offer us. We hide from our fears in transactional relationships where we scratch one another’s backs and give in order to get.
But here’s the great, good news—we were not created to love conditionally or live quid pro quo. God’s love for us has never been transactional. Stop and think about the countless times we’ve screwed up, failing to be the people we were created to be, and God has met us, not with rejection, but with amazing grace. God sees us as the persons we were created to be and loves us without condition. God looks deep into our souls, past the shell of our all-too-human flaws, and says, “I love you. You are mine! Come sit at my table!”
And so our relationships, imperfect as they are, can aim towards God’s vision of communities that are built not on what others can do for us or what their status is, but on what God has already done for us. To paraphrase I John 4:19, “We are able to love because God first loved us.” Because God’s love is freely given our identities are based on love, not on status, hierarchies, or paybacks. God’s love brings human hierarchies and pecking orders to nothing. We all are sinners and, wonder of wonders, we are all offered redemption, all the time, by God’s extravagant love.
So I’m back to thinking of the “table of privilege” where my mother ate breakfast with her friends in her last years of life. I think there was probably a little bit of human pride in that group. I think they probably were considered the “cool kids” of the retirement community. Still, my mother, who was also the model of hospitality invited a newcomer to sit with them.
I wonder about the places of privilege where we all live, where our better angels wrestle with the parts of us that want to shut people out in a misbegotten attempt to feel good about ourselves.
And I’m praying that we will increasingly create places of welcome for others, because God welcomes us regardless of rank or worldly power.
I’m praying that we will, despite our flaws and vulnerabilities, continue to grow so we more and more accept and welcome others who are flawed, vulnerable, and very different from ourselves.
I am praying that our hearts will become tables of privilege to which we joyfully invite God’s people out of sheer gratitude for the boundless love we ourselves have been privileged to receive.