Title: Kingdom Table Manners
Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
Date: November 16, 2010
Place: Duke University Divinity School
Author: Mark C. Gorman
Jesus enters the house of a leader of the Pharisees for a Sabbath meal and starts to do something most of us would consider pretty rude. Looking around at all the other guests, he pokes fun at the way they jockey for the most important places at the table, and then he offers a little bit of tongue-in-cheek advice. First, to the guests: “Don’t choose the most honored place, or look out—someone better than you might show up, and you’ll suffer the embarrassment of being shown to the end of the line.” Then to his host: “You call this generosity? Isn’t it kind of a
cheapskate move to only invite people who can pay you back? Next time, invite the poor, lame, cripple, and blind—the ones who can’t pay you back. Then people will know how generous you are.”
Jesus enters this world of social status-checking and turns it upside down. His
instructions that guests should deliberately choose the places of lowest esteem, and that hosts should invite people who could never return the favor, would have been shocking. But Jesus is not just interested in social structures. Luke tells us that his words are a parable, so we know that Jesus is not just handing out any old sort of table manners. He’s giving out Kingdom Table Manners.
Jesus’ directions are a call to the people of Israel: first, look back at your past. Israel once was a nation of lowest esteem, but God called Israel from the lowest place to the highest, and set Israel apart as a light to the nations. Second, look ahead to the future. In Jesus’ day, Israel had returned to that place of low esteem, had become a nation in distress and with no respect. But, Jesus assures the Pharisees, God will again call Israel to the front of the line, to sit at the head of
the table. Restoration is coming! Third, act accordingly. You who have received mercy and favor from God, though you were of no account and could never repay it, carry that mercy and favor forward. Care for those God loves: the poor, the lame, the cripple, the blind. Show mercy, just as you have been shown mercy.
Jesus’ instructions to the Pharisees set up a pattern, a pattern that we reenact each time we come together to celebrate our own Sabbath meal, each time we gather for Eucharist. At the Eucharist, we look back to our own past, our sin and our unworthiness to come before God. We recall God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. We hear God’s invitation to come to the table of grace, the, “Friend, get up, go to this higher place, and feast on my generosity.”
At the Eucharist, we look ahead, savoring the foretaste of the feast to come, the heavenly banquet at the triumph of the last day, when God will restore all creation. At the Eucharist, we are told, “Go and do likewise. Show to others the mercy you have been shown. Care for those God loves. Become for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.” And by the Holy Spirit we are given the grace to follow this otherwise impossible ideal.
Yet so often we reject the work the Holy Spirit would do in us. We find ourselves in the same boat as the Pharisees. We jockey for position and status. We invite to our Sabbath meals friends, family, and people who either look like us or have something—wealth, a skill, a talent—to contribute. We break fellowship with the poor. We ignore anyone living at the margins.
Friends, many of the texts in Luke, including ours today, are broadened to express concern for various groups at the margins: racial, ethnic, gender. I am sympathetic to such tendencies, but I fear that all too often they have happened at the expense of care for the poor. In the past century, we have seen women and minorities gain increasing recognition and status, due in no small part to the efforts of those who embrace liberation and contextual theologies. But over the same span, in this country, the gap between wealthy and poor has only
increased, and today the wealthiest 1% of Americans control 24% of national income. A big-time CEO is likely to earn as much as 531 times what the average worker makes, up from 42 times the average worker in 1980. Dare to speak those statistics in most pulpits, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare.
The poor are not a focal instance of God’s love for humanity; they are not just some insignificant metaphor for God’s love. The poor are an indispensable part of the gospel. They are the heart of God’s love. They are the people of God.
So I want to talk about a particularly bleak instance of our own broken fellowship with the poor. In 2003, having already invaded one hapless country, the United States targeted the nation of Iraq in its quest for 9/11 vengeance. Many of us protested, by the thousands, the tens of thousands, and the millions, but nothing could deter the most powerful nation in the world.
From the cloud of lies we have been told about this war, yet one more falsehood has recently been exposed. All along we have been told that, while the United States keeps a body count for all soldiers who have died, there is no way to know how many Iraqis have been killed. Recent reports, however, show that in fact the US government has kept a very careful count of the Iraqis killed. Kyrie eleison.
Friends, war falls hardest on the poor. When the bombs begin to drop and the bullets begin to fly, it is the poor who are hit first, hardest, longest, and worst. In the US, military recruiters cynically tempt impoverished youths into battle as a way out of poverty, even though—if they survive the fight—nearly 40% of homeless people in this country are veterans.
The situation is even worse for Iraqis in poverty, living in the crosshairs of the world’s last superpower. They have no money to secure places in bomb shelters, no funds to use to escape the chaos. Their deaths do not make the front pages, because, after all, who even knew they were alive? Christe eleison.
When it became clear that the US would not halt its invasion of Iraq, we Christians just gave up. Rather than saying, No! we gave our tacit approval. Rather than standing up for the poor in Iraq, we sat down to watch embedded footage of them being blown to bits. Rather than crying out on their behalf, we said nothing. In our silence, we broke Eucharistic fellowship with the poor in Iraq, a crime much worse than the Pharisees’ “Sabbath rudeness” (Eugene Peterson). We commited a Sabbath abomination. Since the invasion nearly 110,000 people have been killed in Iraq, 66,000 of them civilians. How many poor? How many cripple? How many lame, or blind? Kyrie eleison.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, fellow preachers of the Gospel, to join me and others in rekindling our Eucharistic fellowship with the poor of Iraq. The “Proper 29 Project” is a call to preachers to address the gross harm done against Iraq in the name of our national security as we celebrate Proper 29, the final Sunday of the Church Year, the Sunday of Christ the King. You may have seen signs around the Div School; there’s also a website. Everyone in this room will have a chance to preach, in this pulpit and maybe also in a church, sometime near Proper 29, November 22nd. Seize this opportunity to declare that Christ our Lord is King, and that in the kingdom of our Lord, the poor matter. Use your God-given authority to speak out for the Godbeloved people of Iraq who have suffered from our broken Eucharistic fellowship. Preach the gospel—the whole gospel—in the name of Christ, our Prince of Peace.
As the details were released over the past few weeks of the true cost of the Iraq invasion, another disturbing news item found headlines here. Iraqi Christians are being targeted for their faith. Two weeks ago gunmen attacked and killed 51 members and 2 priests of Our Lady of Salvation, a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad. A week later a bomb went off in a neighborhood, killing more of the church’s members. Our Sabbath abomination has come full circle. The forces of evil and destruction unleashed by the US in Iraq have become the forces of
persecution against the body of Christ.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, but woe to you who are rich.” Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy. Amen.