TEXTS: Luke 14:1, 7-14 and Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” Jesus said, “go and sit down at the lowest place.”
Weddings are interesting things. Sometimes they’re hair-raising things. Get a group of preachers together, and chances are you’ll hear some pretty outrageous stories about wedding ceremonies at which they’ve officiated: anxious brides; nervous grooms; fighting in-laws-to-be; rehearsal chaos; groomsmen who—on the wedding day—somehow end up at the wrong church (even though they were in the correct one just the evening before); and all kinds of people who are crying their eyes out because this is such a happy occasion!
Of course, weddings are also wonderful, meaningful things, too. Thankfully, those of us who officiate at them have many more stories like that to tell: about estranged families which were reconciled and reunited at the wedding of a son or daughter; about a great-grandmother’s tears of joy as she watched the next generation of her family grow to adulthood and wed; or about a young bride in a wheelchair who has discovered that true love is stronger even than disability.
Weddings just seem somehow to bring out the best—and sometimes the worst—in people. And I guess that’s because of the kind of occasions they are. No matter how blasé we think we are about rituals—or how cynical we consider ourselves to be about the institution of marriage—weddings make us sit up and take notice. A certain level of propriety is demanded at a wedding. It’s a time when how we behave—and how we appear—become extremely important. At weddings, most of us—for better or for worse—think and act in ways that are not our usual ways of thinking and acting.
Preachers all know that. And in our gospel lesson today, we see that Jesus knows it, too. It’s not for nothing that he sets his parable at a wedding feast where everyone is already anxious—trying their hardest to look and act their best, and jockeying for the best seats and positions.
At first glance, this story appears to be nothing more than a straightforward, practical lesson in the twin virtues of courtesy and hospitality. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “do not sit down at the place of honour.” After all, there may well be other, more distinguished, guests who outrank you. Instead, Jesus’ advice is to “go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.’”
Well, that’s just common sense, right? That’s just good manners.
But Jesus has far more important things in mind here than simple table etiquette and protocol. He knows that our selfish instincts are not confined to wedding banquets and the dinner table. In every age and culture, it has been part of human nature for people to act in their own self-interest—sometimes even while pretending to care about the needs and wants of others. We do it all the time, often without even thinking about it.
Whole economies are based on the principle of rugged individualism and self-reliance. And our culture surely promotes the notion that we are much better off if we depend on our own initiative and enterprise—if we act in our own self-interest. It’s called “looking out for number one.”
There are those who would have us believe that this is actually a good thing—part of the natural process of evolution (“survival of the fittest,” and all that). And, let’s face it: all creatures have a natural inclination to foster and advance their own survival. We are no exception to that. As one bumper sticker puts it: “IT’S ALL ABOUT ME.” That pretty much says it all.
Now, on a certain level, this kind of thinking makes perfectly good sense. Flight attendants warn us to secure our own oxygen masks first before assisting others—and for fairly obvious reasons. Therapists urge clients to be sure they are “getting their own needs met” before trying to reach out to others. And we certainly need to recognize the importance of self-care—of taking responsibility for our own health and well-being.
But what takes place at the wedding banquet in Jesus’ parable is about something very different.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
This is not the practical experience of the workaday world we know so well. No. Suddenly this has become a parable about the kingdom of heaven, where the ordinary rules of human engagement no longer apply. In the upside-down, topsy-turvy world of the gospel, everything gets shaken up. The humble are the exalted ones. The poor are the rich. The crippled and lame are the healthy ones. The blind are the ones who see. And it is not “all about me,” after all.
The world turns out to be not as solid and real as we had imagined. Ultimately, our self-reliance turns out to be an illusion. For we all depend upon one another—whether we recognize it or not. And whether we like it or not, we all depend upon God. More than that, according to Jesus, it is only by emptying ourselves of our selfish impulses and pride that we come to understand our true worth; only by accepting our utter dependence upon God do we find our real freedom. Only by humbling ourselves can we approach the One who humbled himself on the cross.
This is the paradox—and the challenge—of the gospel. The kingdom of which Christ speaks is a realm at odds with the norms and values of this everyday world of ours. In the spiritual realm of God’s kingdom, “survival of the fittest” takes on a whole new meaning. And the second law of thermodynamics* no longer applies: there is no limit—there is no end—to the energy of God’s love; it goes on forever. At the “resurrection of the righteous” we will be repaid—not with higher salaries and more exalted titles—but in the only currency that matters: the love God has for us, and which we share with one another.
Any bride and groom who survive the wedding and go on to a happy married life soon enough learn first-hand the important lesson of Jesus’ parable. They soon enough come to know the true meaning of selfless giving. They soon enough glimpse the kingdom at work in spouse and children and family life. But you do not have to be married to find God and his “angels” masquerading as “strangers” in your midst. The kingdom, after all, is close at hand.
And the key to that kingdom? Well, we catch a glimpse of it dangling from its chain when we listen to the words written so long ago by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue.”
Now, that would make an awesome bumper sticker, wouldn’t it?
*The second law of thermodynamics states that a closed system will remain the same or become more disordered over time, i.e. its entropy will always increase.