Ancient Dinner Parties & Middle School Lunches - Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
In the Gospel lesson today Jesus is at a dinner party and then tells a parable about a dinner party. Dinner party etiquette was a big thing back then. It may not be as much today, but dinner party etiquette itself is not really the point of this lesson. Neither is the idea of earning points with God by doing something nice for someone. Whenever it sounds like Jesus is encouraging us to seek a reward from God, we Lutherans know there’s gotta be something deeper going on. You see, the point of this parable goes deeper than dinner parties; it’s the breaking down of the social hierarchy that lies behind those dinner parties. The cut-throat social norms that ostracize many. Jesus says that if you’re invited to a party take the lowest seat. And if you’re hosting a party invite the people of lowest status. Neither of those things will make you look good. They go against social norms and would make a person look bad. And looking bad in that honor/shame society was perhaps the worst thing imaginable.
We 21st century Christians might not understand first century dinner parties so I wanted to try to think of a modern example. And then I thought about lunch period during middle school. Middle school social norms are probably the closest thing I can think of to the first century honor/shame culture Jesus found himself in.
So let’s imagine Jesus is a 12 year old boy and is the new kid at school. He gets to know some people and is invited to sit at the popular table during lunch. Then he tells those potential new friends that if they really want to be cool they should make an effort to hang out with the unpopular crowd. Sit at tables with the un-cool kids, invite the least popular students to your birthday party. Hang out with the awkward kids, the social outcasts, the ones nobody else wants to be seen talking to. How do you think that would be received? Well that’s the kind of risk Jesus is encouraging people to take when he tells this parable today.
And it’s understandable that if you’re an insecure middle schooler yourself, you wouldn’t possibly want to listen to him. There’s so much cut-throat social pressure in schools that it’s no wonder so many teens suffer from anxiety and depression. And it's not just middle schoolers. Everyone from elementary schoolers to senior citizens find themselves in some kind of peculiar social hierarchy.
Undoing society’s cut-throat social norms seems to have been a major part of Jesus’ mission in the world. To shine light on how sin has corrupted human interactions and to demonstrate a better path forward. Jesus is offering a solution to the cut-throat social norms of his society and our own. That solution is replacing our cut-throat social hierarchy with the Kingdom way-of-being Jesus taught.
God desires a world where no one has low social status, where no one is considered awkward, or a loser, or an outcast. God desires middle schools and high schools and workplaces where no one is left out and everyone is popular. Because God thinks everyone is cool. And everyone deserves to be accepted and affirmed and appreciated and valued for who they are.
But clearly, that’s not the way the world is. And so Jesus taught his followers to be the beginning of such a movement. To be a community where all are welcome. A community where all people regardless of social status are accepted, affirmed, and valued. To be a community that lives into that Kingdom way-of-being and reflects God’s intention for society at large.
That community came to be called the church. And from day one, the church intended to welcome all people and be a community where social hierarchy didn’t exist. As we will sing in a moment during our Hymn of the Day: “Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face; let us bring an end to fear and danger: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place!”
Over the first few hundred years of Christianity, the church attracted many outcasts and strangers and people of low status. Along with wealthier people and respected members of society too. The movement was egalitarian with many women as leaders, with poor people and slaves treated as equals to the wealthy, high-status Christians. They focused on alleviating poverty, sharing what they had, and spreading this movement that sought to truly manifest the Kingdom way-of-being in their own little communities. They didn’t always do this perfectly (as evident in Paul’s letters) but they never lost sight of their purpose to be a lunch table where anyone was welcome.
But then a funny thing happened. With the legalization of Christianity, it seemed the church became the popular kid in school. And the church wasn’t so welcoming to the outcast and the stranger. They didn’t sit at the table with the un-cool kids anymore. They didn’t really wanna be seen with them. And by the middle ages, the church even turned into a bully. Wars and persecution and corruption took hold. And the word "church" came to represent something totally different from its original intention. Of course we Lutherans know that story, and we know how Martin Luther set out to change things. And he was successful in many ways. But even today, Christians have considerable social and economic power and the church struggles just as much as society at large (maybe even more than society at large) to manifest the Kingdom way-of-being in our communities.
Christianity’s history of exclusivism reveals that many Christians don’t understand that essential part of our mission. Many don’t even know that this overturning of social norms was the church’s original purpose. To be a community that manifested the Kingdom way-of-being in the world. To live into the reality of the Kingdom now. To be what MLK called a Beloved Community. A reality that the world wasn’t ready for, but that the church was called to be a model of.
And so we need to be reminded over and over again that our calling is to welcome to the unpopular ones, welcome those who are outcasts, welcome those who are looked down on by society. Use our influence to make the world a better place. And to make our faith communities models for the rest of the world of Jesus’ status destroying movement.
We may not have the kind of socially structured dinners parties that Jesus’ world had. But we still have social structures that weigh people down immensely. Whether it is our compliance with wealth inequality, systemic racism, and the military industrial complex or Christianity’s all too common rejection of LGBT people or women in leadership roles, our world still has cut-throat social norms that need to be challenged.
And the best way to challenge them is to live differently. Like Richard Rohr says, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” And that’s what the church has always been called to do. To be a community where all those cut-throat social norms disappear. A community where the outcast and stranger are welcomed. A community where all people have a place at the lunch table. A community where all are truly welcome. And so let’s sing about it! And let’s also live it! Amen.
Pastor Brian, 8/28/22