Scripture: Luke: 14:1,7-14
Back in 2013 one of the groups that I led was called IGGY. No one actually knew why it was called that, but it was the youth group for 5th and 6th graders. I distinctly remember during one of the devotions for this group I asked the kids to share what they wanted to be when they grow up. There were some of the expected answers like doctor, teacher, or solider. However, the overwhelmingly popular answer, the job that half the group wanted, was YouTube star. In the past six years that number has only increased. A study done last year reported that 75% of children ages 6-17 want to be a YouTube star, with almost one-third choosing that as the career path they are most likely to pursue. Now, as someone who is not a 6-17 year old I understand the urge that many of you are feeling to roll your eyes at that. However, I also kind of get it. There are YouTubers who have managed to make millions of dollars doing things like playing video games. For younger children, one of the most popular channels is Ryan’s Toys where an eight year old boy makes millions of dollars for opening and talking about toys that are sent to him. I get the appeal, it looks like that through YouTube you can make money and get famous just by simply doing something you love.
When we look at it from that angle the desire to be on YouTube stars makes sense. The same survey that identified that 3/4ths of children want to be on YouTube also asked about their motivations. Creating something they love was number one, but the second motivation was to be famous. In looking up articles about YouTube this week, I also found older articles from around 2007-2009 that was also about how kids were obsessed with being famous, only instead of YouTube it was about how they wanted to be on reality TV like American Idol. I am guessing if I went looking through old magazines from the 1980’s, I could find similar articles about how all kids want to do is be famous by getting on MTV. YouTube might be the vehicle of choice today, but the desire for fame is not anything new.
In fact I think we can boil it down even more, the desire for fame has underlying driving motivators behind it. The desire for fame is really the desire to be recognized, to achieve status, to be understood as special. Today this desire is measured in likes, subscribes, and thumbed up post but this morning’s scripture shows that self-promotion and seeking status has always been a human temptation. This morning’s scripture shows that humanity has long measured success by who can get to the head of the table and be number one. Even from before the time of Jesus that may be how the world has worked, but Jesus makes clear that the kingdom of heaven is the exact opposite.
I think we can get a basic understanding of what is going on in this scripture when it talks about picking a place of honor at the table. However, I think at first glance we do not grasp the cultural weight behind what is going on in this scripture. While it is lessening some in this modern era, the Middle Eastern culture is one that is highly based on the concept of honor and shame. The Jewish culture of first century Israel is one that was completely defined by honor and shame. Honestly the closest modern analogy we have in American culture to this ancient concept of honor is fame. Fame is an unseen cultural currency that is just understood, and the more fame one is understood to have the better they tend to be treated by everyone else. Honor in the first century worked much the same way. Honor was an invisible cultural currency. It was understood and culturally assumed that the more honor one had the more respect and deference was to be automatically given to them. This culture was full of social rules that would garner people more honor and taboos that, if broken, would bring shame and cause people to lose honor. It was impossible to put a numeric amount on how much honor someone had, but everyone in this era had a decent idea of how much honor they had in comparison to other people. Measuring each other up and qualifying one’s level of honor is the dynamic that is at play in this morning’s scripture.
In this honor and shame culture it was the tradition that the person of highest honor would have the best seat. The person with the second most honor, would be to this person’s right, the third most respected to the left. It would go on like this back and forth as people took their seats. When it was all said and done people would be sitting in ranking of honor, and everyone gathered knew it. As Jesus was observing people taking seats, he was observing people jockeying for position. He was watching people trying to see just how good of a seat they could grasp, how much honor they could claim to have compared to everyone else without getting called out on it.
In response to this Jesus offers up two teachings. First, he offers a piece of practical advice on being humble. Jesus observed people claiming and fighting for position, essentially bragging by virtue of the seat they claimed how honorable they are. However, Jesus urged them not to play that game. He urged them not to get caught up in keeping up appearances. Jesus pointed out instead of seeking to build oneself up, we should live authentically and when we do others will notice our virtues. This wise advice, but it also goes a bit against the way thing were normally done.
I think Jesus led off with that wisdom, because his next teaching completely turns social convention on its head. When someone held a banquet for any reason, one of the ways they increased their own personal honor was to invite the honorable. Extending hospitality was in some ways a social contract as Jesus points out in verse 12 when he states “do not invite your friends. . .your relatives or your rich neighbors; if you do they may invite you back and you will be repaid.” Instead Jesus advocates inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Jesus advocates inviting the people who were culturally devoid of honor and were full of shame. In the culture of the day doing this would honor those outcast and on the margins, because the host would literally be giving their honor away by inviting them. It was the socially acceptable thing at the time to do all one good to build up their status and personal honor, but Jesus advocated that instead of hoarding honor and privilege it should be given away through having compassion on the least of these.
We can look at the obsession with standing in an honor and shame culture as the cruel product of an ancient and more uncivilized culture. However, for all of our advancements, for all of the ways we are culturally different than first century Israel, so much has not changed. We may not automatically think in terms of honor and shame anymore, but the basic premise is still deeply embedded into our culture. For instance, have you noticed that just because someone has fame, we culturally give them the authority to talk about whatever they want? Cable news and TV talk shows are especially bad about this. They will have guests on who really are not truly qualified to opine about whatever the topic of the day is, but they are given the platform to speak with authority solely based on their fame. Much like honor in the first century, fame is a social currency today. Culturally the way we grant this social currency is through recognizing success. Culturally we tend define success as bigger is better and winning is everything. The general attitude today is that winning is the only thing worth pursuing. Winning is defined by having more: more money, more thumbs up, more followers, bigger crowds, bigger buildings, the list goes on and on. There is a strong cultural undercurrent in our society to try to divide people into winners and losers, much like there was between the honored and shamed. We define the winners as the ones who have the most, and we define the losers as those try-hards who just do not have it what takes to make it. Much like the people of the first century jockeyed for positions, we spend a lot of mental, emotional, and relational energy to do all we can to be viewed as a winner and not a loser.
Jesus taught that we should not play this game. Jesus taught that we should embrace the people that society defines as losers, and that as people of faith we should be willing to say “losers welcomed here.” However, this “winners first” mentality has also infected the body of Christ. We can see this a variety of ways. For instance, whenever someone finds out what I do, the very next question they tend to ask is, “so how big is the church?” Now preachers tend to count heads the way that fishermen measure the size of a fish, but that is because we know that we are going to get asked that question! Either consciously or subconsciously this question is fed by the cultural assumption that bigger is better or more people equals more success.
In the same way, every church in the world wants to grow. Every church wants more people in the pews on Sunday. But why do we? This question is a bit harder to answer. Often churches get stuck here because the reason they want to grow is because that is what they feel they are supposed to do. More people means they are more successful, fuller pews means that at least compared to that church down the street they are winning.
May we not be that kind of church. Wanting to grow is fine, but may we have the right reasons. May we want to grow for growth’s sake but may our desire to grow be based in sharing the gospel with people and making disciples of Jesus Christ. May we not ever be that kind of church so concerned with the cultural idea of winning and pursuing bigger is better that we forget Jesus and what Jesus taught. Jesus taught a much different definition of winning. In our cultural winning is defined about how much we can get for ourselves and how much we garner, but in Jesus’ definition winning is defined by what we give away and how much we love others by putting them first. May we follow the example of Jesus. Jesus also taught that when we hold a banquet we should invite those that society has forgotten, those who are vulnerable, those who can not help themselves, those who are mistreated, and those who are unloved. In other words, Jesus taught that when we hold a banquet we should invite those that our society deems losers.
Well friends, we do hold a banquet regularly. We gather at the table of Christ for a most holy meal. The bread and the wine that we share was never meant to be a banquet that only the honored, the distinguished, and the famous are invited to. Our communion liturgy says it best, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, and who earnestly repent of their sin.” That is the only qualifier. It does not say that Christ invites only those who have their lives together, it does not say Christ invites only those who are willing to help themselves, and it does not say Christ invites only the winners. The only real qualification is love Jesus. There is no jockeying for position at Christ table, because all who gather there are sinners in need of grace. The ground at the foot of the cross is level. Losers are welcome at Christ table, thanks be to God.
So may that radical acceptance of the marginalized and the cast out come to define our everyday faith. In this morning’s scripture Jesus encouraged people to reach out and invite the people on the fringes of society, to the people the culture considers losers, and invite them. May that define our personal experience as well, may we be willing to reach out and invite in the least of these found in our society today. May we leave behind the worldly thinking of winners and losers, and may we strive to be a place that when someone hears the words “Christ invites to his table all who love them,” they know that invitation includes them, because they have already experienced that everyone is welcomed and invited here. May we truly be a place that is defined by the fact that everyone, is welcomed here without qualification or reservation and may we celebrate that the invitation to the table is open to all.