a homily for Proper 17C
Text: Luke 14:1,7-14
The rude one
We have all had the common experience of the cell phone conversation at the checkout. We are patiently waiting in line for our turn, while the person in front of us is yacking away about somebody named Tiffany and how her daughter Jessica should not have been allowed to come back to dance class after that outburst…
“That’ll be $23.52,” the cashier patiently enunciates.
As the phone conversation continues, the woman slaps some money on the counter, right next to the cashier’s outstretched hand. Then she picks up her bags and walks out, conversation continuing.
Each time we see this, we all have the same thought: “how rude!” Then we descend into various criticisms of the culture (nobody understands manners anymore) and of millions of our neighbors (kids these days) and of the individual (she didn’t even acknowledge the cashier’s presence). And after the anger subsides, we realize that the cashier, the one treated so rudely, is smiling at us and has completed scanning our items. We just ignored the person we sought to pity.
We expect that Jesus cares about etiquette like we do. Never mind that in last week’s reading, Jesus broke Sabbath law on purpose, making the leader of the synagogue very uncomfortable. Or that this dinner is taking place on the Sabbath, and in verses 2-6, which we didn’t read, Jesus shows what he thinks of etiquette by healing a man on the way to dinner, in plain view of the host and his guests, potentially humiliating him.
We’re likely to hear Jesus’s teaching, while forgetting His behavior. If this were really a story about etiquette, then perhaps Jesus would not have been so rude to His host. Perhaps He would have demonstrated His own teaching, taking a humble place, rather than rebuking his host and the other guests in the middle of a dinner party.
Then He turns to the host and instructs him not to invite people to dinner parties that can repay him with an invitation. Because this is not a random teaching to the disciples as they walk along a deserted road, but a teaching to the Pharisees, in the home of a leader, at a dinner party, we can understand that this teaching means something more than it sounds; something different. Jesus is clearly assuming things about His host—that he was fishing for a return invite.
Jesus is making it really hard for us to hear this as just a little teaching about etiquette, because He doesn’t display it. And it is hard to call this a general teaching about behavior and gift-giving, because of the particularly charged and challenging environment that Jesus is in and is creating by His own behavior. And lastly, He proves this isn’t about hospitality as we know it, because his own behavior demonstrates a blatant disregard for his host’s comfort. So what, then is Jesus getting at?
I have a thought.
Not about us
The passage that is clipped from the lectionary, verses 2-6 have Jesus coming across a man on the way to this dinner. The man has an ailment that Scripture calls “dropsy” and Jesus quickly heals the man in front of the Pharisees. Then says to them:
“If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?”
Jesus enters into the dinner with a confrontational tone, but I don’t think it is a mean or disrespectful one. It is actually out of respect that He teaches them this lesson.
Then they sit down and Jesus observes their behavior. It is selfish. They are jockeying for position. They are sitting in the best seats. They are struggling to amass personal power and privilege. In other words, for each of the people in that room, this dinner is about them.
Jesus seems to be opening them up to the possibility that it isn’t always about them. Sometimes it is about us.
I think that is why Jesus directs the host’s attention to whom else might be invited to the party. Who isn’t there? Are the only people at the party the people who can pay you back? The people in their same social circle? The people that are ritually pure like we are?
It is easy for us to say that these Pharisees are being rude and deserve this treatment Jesus gives them, because we like to believe that we don’t invite people over specifically to get invited over to their house. But we do care about etiquette and we certainly know what it’s like to not invite someone over because we don’t want to have that obligation. What do we bring? What does Emily Post say about second weddings? Or about Christmas parties?
I think Jesus is trying to show us something powerful about discipleship.
Lauren Winner writes this week that there is something particularly worth exploring in the gift that cannot be reciprocated. She reflects on these people she sees in the grocery store, collecting food from which they will prepare dinner for a whole house. And in most houses they are the only one preparing dinner for the family. Channeling that internal angst, she writes:
You are cooking for them night after night, these relatives who are in fact your nearest neighbors, and who sometimes feel like your most intrusive guests. Those people who are at your table most often, but who are also – maddeningly? blessedly?—exempt from the normal guest-host code that would imply a return invitation.
Notice those two words she pairs: “maddeningly? blessedly?” That intense feeling of service and devotion that comes from putting all of your energy into something knowing and understanding that there is no dinner prepared for you—that bitter-sweetness. This is the character of discipleship.
I like to make bread for my family. What I like most about baking bread is that you use your muscles. Bread machines and mixers are for wimps. I knead the dough with my hands. My forearms burn with the constant resistance and these are the longest 10 minutes of the day, but they relax gratifyingly when the timer goes off. I put the dough in a greased bowl and wait for it to rise. It is powerful to serve my family this way.
Jesus’s teaching is simple; it is we who make it complicated. Jesus asks us to give. That’s it. Give. Give without expectation.
That means we get rid of the baggage and empty ourselves of the emotional hang-ups. Because we don’t do this to get anything. We do it for something; because of something; because we love. So we get rid of that animosity toward the cell phone person or the people that didn’t reciprocate our gifts and replace it with love. Give out of love. That’s how Jesus gives.