When I was in seminary I had a professor who taught us a lesson about hospitality that I will never forget.
Some of you may know that I went to seminary in Europe with Baptists from all over the world. Occasionally we would travel for study trips into areas of Eastern Europe that had been cut off from the Western world for generations. In the tiny homes of Eastern European Baptists, homes with no indoor plumbing and little evidence of the kind of opulence with which we live, I—a total stranger—was welcomed in and offered the kind of hospitality that, obviously, cost these folks significantly.
This was a little strange for someone like me, enculturated in a world of Martha Stewart Living and scented guest soaps. And I think my professor knew some of us would be shocked the first time our class took a trip, so before we left on our first adventure, he told our class a story about an experience he’d had.
Over the course of his career, this professor traveled often into remote and dangerous areas that Westerners didn’t often risk; this was before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once he took to trip to a remote region of Romania to visit a small Baptist community. When he arrived he was shown to the home of the pastor and his wife, where he would stay during his visit. When the pastor showed him where he’d be sleeping and let him get settled, my professor noticed he had been given the biggest room in the house, the one with a double bed. Since the pastor and his wife had a rather large family, my professor knew this was a burden to them all and he protested that the room and the bed were too much.
But the pastor and his wife were appalled. They insisted that it was their honor to offer him the best room and the best bed in the house.
So the family served my professor a warm meal, showed him where the outhouse was, and gave him some water for washing. Then, tired from his traveling, he said goodnight and went to the room they’d prepared for him. He washed, changed into his pajamas and got into bed, where he quickly fell asleep.
It was a few hours later that his sleep was interrupted, when the pastor and his wife came quietly into the room, changed into their pajamas, and climbed right into bed . . . with him.
All night long he lay there, smushed in between the pastor and his wife, wide awake. This, my friends, is true hospitality.
Today Jesus has a lesson for us on hospitality…and a whole lot more. Jesus had been invited to dinner at the home of a leader of the Pharisees; that’s code for: super important guy. Jesus arrived at the dinner and began to watch what was going on. As people took their places at the table, he noticed them jockeying for positions. Everybody knew their place, based on their social status, and as they assembled at dinner a very clear power dynamic was playing out. As he watched all of this unfolding, Jesus, who obviously was never taught that you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics at a dinner party, decides to speak up. Imagine the scene; as everyone is getting settled, Jesus says something like: “It occurs to me that if you were to attend, say hypothetically, a wedding banquet, instead of trying to get the best spot at the table that you can, it would be better to come in and take the place with the lowest honor. That way, you won’t be embarrassed if you have to move when someone more important comes in. It’s just smart strategy: you’ll have nowhere to go but up!”
Well, you can imagine that everyone was squirming at the discomfort of Jesus’ comments, but then it got even worse.
Jesus turned to the leader of the Pharisees, the host, and said directly and loudly enough for everyone to hear: “You know, I think it’s a good policy not to invite just people you like when you throw a dinner party; I feel like it’s so obvious when you do that that you’re just trying to get a return invitation. I think whenever you throw a party you should make a point to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”
You know everybody there scanned the room quickly just to confirm what they already knew: that there was not one poor, crippled, lame or blind person there. And as we’d expect, some in the group shuffled their feet; a few coughed; several were looking down at their plates silent; and somebody stood up and said, “I need to visit the restroom; don’t talk about anything interesting while I’m gone…!”
In the middle of all that tension, Jesus ties up each saying with a sort of proverb—some moral advice about being humble and helping people who can’t repay you, but you and I are left scratching our heads, trying to figure out exactly what Jesus’ point was, and why he decided at just that moment to give a few lessons about hospitality.
If you think when you hear this text, as I did at first, that Jesus sounds a bit like “a progressive Miss Manners,” that’s okay. We modern folk are a bit clueless when we read this text because our concept of hospitality is different from what it was in Jesus’ day.
Hospitality to us is about creating a nice space where guests, preferably not family members, can come for a little while to visit us and be suitably impressed with our guest accommodations or magazine-worthy table settings. We want to have a good time, of course, and we want our guests to feel comfortable.
And then we want them to go home.
But hospitality in Jesus’ day was a completely different thing. A dinner party like this in the society in which Jesus lived was a vehicle for enforcing the social code in a culture where your status—where you fall in the pecking order—determined some very critical matters: your income, your profession, your health, your chances at marrying well, your power. Not surprisingly, what seems like advice from Jesus on how to be welcoming at a dinner party is something much, much more revolutionary than that.
It would be good to note that by the time Jesus got to dinner he was already in a little bit of trouble. Recall the passage from last week, where he was teaching in the temple on the Sabbath when he noticed a woman who needed healing. When he healed her, the temple leaders were outraged that he would break Sabbath rules and they started complaining about him to the crowd. Jesus went on to reprimand the temple leaders for their hypocrisy… and then he got to preaching!
He preached about mustard seeds…and yeast…and a narrow door, all of his parables describing in different ways what he always seemed to be talking about this concept called: the kingdom of God. God’s hope for the whole world, in which we live together in peace, with justice, showing what could happen in human community when we made it a point to love God and love our neighbors. So you can see how Luke chapter 14, immediately following Jesus’ fire and brimstone preaching in the temple, would begin with a verse that reads: “[W]hen Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.”
That’s when it gets worse. You’ll note that today’s reading skips over five verses that tell us about an incident that happened just on the way to dinner that Sabbath: Jesus meets a man who was sick and needed to be healed. Stopping along the road and turning to the Pharisees who were with him, Jesus asked them: “Are you going to tell me that this man shouldn’t be healed just because it’s the Sabbath?” When nobody said anything, Jesus went ahead and healed the man.
Then they all went on to the dinner party.
You can understand a little better now why things were tense around the table. And why we were right to suspect that when Jesus spoke up at dinner, he wasn’t just handing out advice for how to be a good host. The Pharisees knew immediately that Jesus was being fiercely critical of the social order that kept the them comfortable and powerful…and kept a lot of other people suffering.
Their society was a society ordered by a social construct that did not in any way resemble the kingdom of God that Jesus kept preaching and teaching about. It was a system of honor and shame, where an invisible tally was always being kept. It was about who you were and how you looked and what kind of power you wielded and who you knew. And everybody was busy trying to climb that social ladder, to accumulate as much as possible on that tally sheet; it didn’t much matter at all who you had to climb over to get there.
Jesus looked around the room and thought: this is not the kingdom of God. This is not at ALL God’s hope for the whole world, in which we live together in peace, with justice, showing what could happen in human community when we make it a point to love God and love our neighbors.
So maybe it was exasperation. Or maybe Jesus didn’t much care anymore to be polite. When he launched into his advice on hospitality, he really had two things to say.
First, we live in a world with systems that are broken and unjust. Every day, in fact, you and I wake up in a city with skyrocketing housing prices and unacceptable public schools and a minimum wage that nobody can live on. In our country, many children don’t have enough to eat; some cities don’t have safe drinking water; and healthcare is unavailable for many. Broken. Most days we feel there’s not much we can do except play along, do what we can to make sure we’re as secure as we can be in this difficult situation.
But Jesus would say no, no, no, as he did at dinner that night. There actually IS something you can do every day as you navigate your way in and out of situations where sexism and injustice and racism and a sick meritocracy are undeniably influencing our world. You can behave, not as the broken system expects and requires, but as if the kingdom of God were actually the order of the day.
Jesus told the people stepping over each other to get the best place at the table to instead go all the way to the end of the table and take the lowest place. Make room for others. Live with humility. In every single interaction we have we can choose whether we are demonstrating for others what the kingdom of God looks like.
And the second thing Jesus wanted to say he said directly to the Pharisees, the dinner hosts: those of you with power and influence, you have to change these broken systems. When you throw a dinner party, don’t just invite your friends, people who can give the favor back. Invite people who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise. Change the way the system works.
Jesus lived in a society where social institutions were “characterized by exploitation, political exclusion, and unequal access to resources, creating a system of winners and losers in which people became trapped, and structural violence resulted: power inequity, poverty, and the denial of basic human rights. Basic human needs went unmet, and groups suffered from inadequate access to resources and exclusion from institutional patterns of decision-making.” Sound familiar? It is familiar, because we live in a society like that, too.
Jesus wanted the unjust system changed then. And through his words in Luke’s gospel today, he’s offering the same challenge to us. Change the systems that break the backs of the poor and perpetuate generations of injustice. When you have power, it is your holy calling to dismantle systems that oppress people and to rebuild societal structures that make room for everybody.
When they set out to go to dinner tonight, the Pharisees were watching Jesus. But by the end of the night he had turned the spotlight on them. Are you going to behave like the kingdom of God is the real order of the day? Are you going to use your power and influence to change the systems that are hurting people?
We should be very careful if we read this passage from Luke’s gospel and assume that Jesus is giving us a lesson about hospitality, because Jesus would have these same questions for us. Are we willing to push back against unjust systems and live as if the kingdom of God is coming to be all around us? Will all of us with power dismantle unjust systems? If we say that we are followers of Jesus Christ, we’d better get busy.
Because people are watching.