Jesus had been invited for a meal – now who doesn’t like an invitation to a meal! Eating together gives us a chance to share in satisfying two of our body’s greatest needs, food and drink, and it’s a chance for social interaction, chat!, which creates a social bond, an important contributor to our mental wellbeing. So eating together should be a good thing! But if we look at v1 of the reading, although one of the Pharisees invited Jesus for a meal, it says Jesus was being carefully watched. The Pharisees were very wary of Jesus’ teaching, and concerned that he might be undermining their authority. So was this invitation a case of keep your friends close, but your enemies closer? We’re not actually told, but …
The focus in the first part of the reading today is Jesus’ teaching on our tendency to judge or rank ourselves and others, … do we do that, what does it say about us if we do, what difference does it make to think of it in terms of God’s kingdom?
You may remember back before the pandemic, we were looking at things in terms of the lower storey and the upper storey, earthly thinking and heavenly, or Kingdom, thinking. There are lessons for us on both levels today.
Imagine you’ve been invited to a big event like a wedding or maybe a works event. Walking into the room with a lot of people can be pretty daunting, especially if there’s no seating plan and you have to work out where to sit. Are you one of those that always goes to the front so you can hear and see better, or just to be near the action? Or do you head for the seats toward the back, so you can see what’s going on but not be in the shot when the photos come out, and definitely not be in the line of fire if a volunteer is needed! Neither is necessarily right or wrong.
But I’m sure we’ve all been to events, large or small, where someone comes in, assuming he or she knows exactly what’s going on, and where they’re to sit, but without actually having taken account of what host or hostess wants!
I think these are the ones Jesus is addressing here. He cautions against being like that, because where people sit is up to the host on every occasion! If the guest assumes their place is at the front, it may not have been the host’s plan! Then the guest runs the risk of being asked to move further away from the centre of action. Equally, someone sitting at the back may be the one the host wishes to have closer to the front. Disruption all round! Jesus says, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It’s really about humility, and being in obedience to the one in authority. For all of us, there will be times when our position is somewhere in the middle or at the back of the room, but there are also times when we are called to a more prominent position, something to be accepted with thanks and grace, because sometimes that’s not very comfortable if we’re not the sort of person to put ourselves forward, but it’s a recognition someone wants to make of you, it’s a kind of a gift. It’s all about not thinking ourselves better than we are, or others not being as good as we are. Jesus says in Matthew’s gospel, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” This isn’t very comfortable to think about. Our human nature – the lower storey – can be full of judgements if we’re not careful.
But it is a difficult thing. If I were to find myself in a situation where I felt uneasy, or I thought my family or friends might be threatened, I must make a judgement about who I think I will be safest with – I just hope I get those judgements right!
But the upper storey instruction gives us another way to view people – seeing people as Christ sees them, Christ in them and their lives, and hoping they can see something of Christ in us too. That puts things in a different perspective, and puts us all on an equal footing!
After all that, I just say thank you to everyone who’s organised an event I’ve been at where there is a seating plan, and I don’t have to make that call for myself!
But in the second part of the reading, Jesus does that thing that Jesus so often does, he ramps up the challenge to his listeners! He challenges them to consider what it would be like to be the host, responsible for the invitation list, not just one of the guests who comes along in response to an invitation. Jesus calls on them to put themselves out, to invite all kinds of people who are in need to share a meal with them. Sharing a meal with people who are struggling has the same elements as I spoke of at the beginning, there’s nourishment for the body and the mind, maybe even the soul. It could be said that as a Church, we did something like that when we had the summer fayre at the Old School House site, which quite a few of the tenants attended, along with us. It wasn’t a structured sit-down event, but it did give us the opportunity to chat with some of them as we met around food, which in this case, was probably the draw for the young people! Jess Paul and I shared pizza and a film with some of them a while back too. A Stephen King film wouldn’t have been my first choice, and though I love pizza it probably wasn’t the best thing I could have eaten for supper, but it was a chance just to be in the same room as some of the residents, to share their chat, to see the relationships that had begun to form, and hear some of the concerns they had, although typically, the more serious things only began to come up, very cautiously, at the very end, when we were tidying up and it was time to go.
As a society we have formalised many of these interactions – we might not invite homeless people to our homes, we might donate money to a charity which provides meals for the homeless. I remember a local college student coming home for the Christmas holiday one year, and going off to Birmingham to help on one of the Christmas soup runs that were provided in the City Centre, food and a chat, a step on the road.
We donate to the Food Bank and Hygiene Bank, and although it goes some way to satisfy the body’s needs of others, it doesn’t include social contact. And I admit, it can be a difficult thing, to just invite someone you don’t know for a meal. But sometimes God puts a sense of urgency on our hearts to do something as small as speaking to the person who’s selling The Big Issue or begging for money. A friend told me of a day when she wasn’t going to buy The Big Issue, but she did take the time to speak to the seller, who thanked her for taking the time simply to speak with her. Inviting someone we don’t know very well for a cuppa is a step in that direction, it opens us up to the possibility of doing other things that we might have not thought of before.
There is an upper storey dimension to these teachings too. Be hospitable at every turn, you may not know when you have entertained angels as Abraham did, you may not know when a very simple act of kindness has made a real difference to someone’s day. These acts, as Jesus says at the end of our reading, may not result in us getting anything back for ourselves, but we will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous, in the kingdom of God, which is an eternal consideration, it is a matter bigger than our earthly life.
The elephant in the room today is the incredible rise in energy prices we are all facing. But this may give us an opportunity to reach out to those around us in humility and thanks for what we have, and do it with hospitality and generosity.
What can we do this week or next to extend our hospitality by spending a little time with someone on their own, or squeeze a little more out of what we have to share with those who have only a little, or even nothing. Or God may have something in mind for you that had never occurred to you! It’s exciting with God if we let go and really share our concerns with him through prayer, and give him a chance to work a wonder in our lives, yes our lives here in Amington, this week. If we give our lives to Jesus, and follow him in the lower storey of our lives on earth, we will continue to live our lives with him in the upper storey, his Kingdom in heaven.
In these times when costs are going up for everyone, although we are called on to look after each other, our main responsibility is to and for our own family. But with God’s guidance, thought and planning, we may still find ways to be hospitable and generous. Humility, hospitality and generosity are the words to remember from today’s sermon. Humility, kind words, and sometimes hospitality, don’t cost anything. We pray for God’s guidance in these challenging times.