Generally, the Sunday after Easter is something that we in the church call “low Sunday,” but this past year, the Sunday after Easter was the Sunday that we hosted the Bishop. So, on the Sunday that typically sees the lowest attendance in the year, Christ Church was buzzing with activity. Those being Confirmed were excitedly preparing for this important moment in their life of faith and the committee that was working on the Bishop’s reception was busy at work in Moore Hall getting ready. If you will recall, at this time in our parish life, our doors on Sunday were still open and functioning as a defacto drop in center for our unhoused neighbors; many of these neighbors had developed deep relationships with us as we worked to seek and serve Christ in all persons, specifically with those sleeping in our Cloister. This particular morning, as the wonderful reception was being set and the preparations were being made and the Bishop was milling about, one of our unhoused friends came to Father Steve at breakfast and said, “It looks like y’all have a special guest today. We can leave; we wouldn’t want to embarrass you.”
In this heartbreaking exchange, our friend pointed out how much of the structures Jesus highlights in todays gospel are still at play in our world today. In our gospel passage, Jesus was at one of the Pharisee leaders’ homes to eat a meal on the sabbath, and everyone was keenly aware of every move Jesus made. A man with dropsy appears in front Jesus, and he heals him on the Sabbath and is, again, questioned about his motivations and justification for healing on this holy day. Jesus turns the question around on them and places not a stranger in the role of those needing healing on the Sabbath, but their own children or their oxen, upon which their lives depended, and all fell silent. Then, as everyone began taking their seats at the table, Jesus noted that the guests began choosing seats of honor and he told a parable about what to do when invited to wedding banquet. Choose a lower position so as to be publicly honored, not embarrassed. After the parable, Jesus turns to the Pharisee leader who invited him and told him not invited those who can reciprocate an invitation to their own house, but rather to invite those who won’t be able to return the favor; in the kingdom of God, the reward will come in heaven, not on earth.
The first few times I read and prayed through the text, it read to me like a boring set of table manners. And no offense to any big fans of Emily Post, but this just isn’t something that I care deeply about and I don’t really like throwing parties anyway. But the question that I couldn’t shake was what is the connection between the healing and the table? This can’t just simply be a story about seeing those often unseen and where to sit at the table, because in Luke’s gospel, the narrative of the cross looms and casts a shadow, even on this table. This scenario isn’t unfolding devoid of connection to the path that Jesus is walking toward the cross.
When we think of the cross, it is easy to view it as a transaction; it is not uncommon in Christianity to see the cross as the wrath of God being satisfied, and that Jesus sacrificed himself to save our souls. When reading through this at-first-glance boring parable, I remembered that that’s not the whole of the story. Because it wasn’t the wrath of God that was satisfied on the cross, but the wrath of humanity. I remembered that the life of our Lord and Savior doesn’t jump from the manager to the cross, but that it’s entirely normal situations like this that filled his days. It was situations like this where he was being watched and questioned and where he pointed out the ways in which our systems are built to keep people out and about how where we sit at the table shows that we still fall short of the kingdom of God. In our gospel passage today, Jesus shines a light on who we cure, where we sit, and who we invite and upsets every social norm in the process. The connection between curing on the Sabbath and where we sit at the table and who we invite to the party are all interconnected, and Jesus invites us to a different way of being in the world.
Because the truth is this parable isn’t about table manners, it isn’t even really a parable about your next guest list. It’s a parable about how we see ourselves and how we see others in light of the kingdom of God. The way we see ourselves and the way we see others is intrinsically tied up in all of the messages that we take on as we walk through this world. Our worth is what we own or who we know or how others see us; these are the lies that each of us have to wade through not only for how we view ourselves, but for how we view others. The transactional nature of the invitation of the host in today’s gospel may seem like an easy thing for us as the church to take a step back from. But this sort of transaction happens all the time in our churches because it is how the world around us is structured. When we invite others in, we may not expect a reciprocal invitation, but maybe we demand their gratitude or that they change their lives or that they let us give to them without us receiving anything from them as well. What we see as we, too, watch Jesus closely as he gathers others around the table is that there is no quid pro quo in the kingdom of God. There is no exchange of goods and services in the kingdom of God, only grace and love.
In our own lives, it is not the cross that foreshadows what is to come, but rather paves the way that we must walk. We must see the unseen, we must invite the uninvited, and we must sit with those who are different than us. But we must do this not because we want to get them in the pews or to make their problems go away or to feel good about how we helped those that we see as helpless. No, we must do this because, quite simply, it is what Jesus invites us to do.
We are invited to a different way of being in the world, and in this holy invitation, we are challenged to shift how we see ourselves and others in light of the kingdom of God. We must constantly change who we want to heal, where we choose to sit, and who we invite as we are continually formed by the crucified and resurrected Messiah who sat around ordinary tables and invites us to function in a way that goes against all the systems that surround us. There are many ways to go about this; whether it’s taking the Seeking Shalom course at HOTEL, INC. or beginning to have conversations to have our eyes opened or to simply be honest in our prayers that perhaps we don’t know what the next step ought to be, what is important is that we take up Christ’s holy invitation to navigate this world differently, and that we rest in the knowledge that we can see the unseen, invite those uninvited, and sit with those different than us, but only in the light of the kingdom of God.