Sirach 10:12-18+Psalm 112+Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16+Luke 14:1, 7-14
This will not come as a surprise to most of you, but I am not a scientist or an anthropologist or a student of much of anything other than God and Church…and baseball. But based solely on my own observations, it seems to me that members of the animal kingdom are pretty much hard-wired to seek personal advantage. I don’t care if it’s a litter of puppies when their mama returns to them after taking a break, and they scramble for the nearest food source, with the biggest and most aggressive taking the prime position. Or it could be kids in school when the recess bell or lunch bell rings, who scramble to be first in line. Now, maybe our primitive brains believe that we have to be first or be strongest to survive. Didn’t Darwin have something to say about that?
Well, this is not the way of Jesus, apparently. He’s fond of saying that the last shall be first and the first last, and in today’s gospel, he has something to say about table etiquette. In the Jewish culture of his time, shame and honor played an important role, so the very idea that someone would be asked to relinquish a seat of honor was an unthinkable fate. At first blush, it makes sense that he advises not to seek the seat of honor, but the really shocking part is when he admonishes them not to invite the important and the well-heeled to their dinner parties at all. No, go invite the people in the streets who you normally would not be caught dead allowing to cross your threshold. Jesus certainly had a way of scandalizing polite society.
In addition to having an insatiable need to have enough, to be the first at the trough, we humans have a tendency to keep count – our bank accounts, our debts, our gains and losses. We keep track of social obligations, of who last invited us to dinner and how best to repay that debt. And Jesus is saying that we have it all wrong. We shouldn’t worry about keeping tabs because we are inviting the wrong people to our parties.
Last spring, around the time of the NCAA’s March Madness, a YouTube video made its way around social media. It was about a somewhat less illustrious game of hoops, this one between a bunch of 9- and 10-year old’s, and the headline on this video was, “Be Like #50.” Now, #50 was a man among boys on this basketball court, had clearly hit an early growth spurt, so he towered above his teammates and those on the opposing team. Yet, in this video clip, #50, who could have taken every shot and rebounded every miss, instead is seen handing the ball off to #0. #0 was named Austin, and he has cerebral palsy, and #50 seems determined that Austin is going to make a shot. So when #50 gets the ball, he gives it to Austin and helps him loft an underhand shot, but it misses. Another kid gets the rebound, shoots and misses, and another boy gets that rebound. #50 clearly uses his size and talent to his advantage, and he motions for the ball to the one who had rebounded it. That kid passes it to #50, and again he gives it to #0 and helps him put up another underhand shot that goes through with nothing but net. Young Austin might as well have won the NCAA championship the way he runs down the court, pumping his fists in the air and with a smile that lit up his whole face. And of course, the crowd went wild.
I imagine that #50 could have taken every shot and brought down every rebound, but for whatever reason, he sacrificed his own privilege, his own talent, his own ability, his own desire to be the star, for #0, Austin, the one who would never be invited to sit at that table.
#50 knew something about using his privilege to provide opportunity to someone without it. Jesus did a lot of that, too. From before his birth, the story that Luke has told about Jesus has been as the one who “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). And when he says to the host of the dinner party in our gospel today to invite those who can’t return the favor, it is not so much a rebuke or admonishment as it is an invitation, perhaps to “show hospitality to strangers” and “entertain angels” (Hebrew 13:2). Hosting a dinner party for those who were never included in such soirees is the path to blessing. The expectation of nothing in return is the way to resurrection.
We hear a lot these days about privilege, specifically white privilege. For many, it’s easy to see how our identification as white has made our path easier. For some, especially those who feel like they are at the bottom of the heap economically, educationally, and in opportunity, white privilege seems like an absurd idea. Yet it is easy to see that, no matter how poor or underprivileged one might be, the one thing not working against you if you are classified as white is the color of your skin. It will take all of us with that unearned privilege of light skin to change the way racism serves to marginalize people of color. It’s our responsibility.
And what does this have to do with Jesus and this dinner party? If we are taking a seat at a table with limited seating, maybe we could give up our seat for someone who has never had a seat at that table. If we are the one who is asked to make a public appearance that will bring us attention we may or may not have earned, is there someone who has never been asked to do this who might be as, if not more, effective? Do we have opportunities that we can share with those who have not had such opportunities?
It is a very human desire to want to be recognized, to be near the popular party host, to be first in line. That’s not the world Jesus has in mind for us, but he isn’t scolding here; he’s inviting us to imagine a world in which those opportunities are available to all people; he’s inviting us to do our part to make that a reality.