Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 2:4–13, Hebrews 13:1–8, 15–16 & Luke 14:1, 7–14
I grew up in West Footscray; very much in a working class family. My Dad drove a furniture delivery truck, and in later years worked as a store-man, while my Mum worked as an Accounts Clerk. We were not particularly well off, but in saying that, I don’t ever recall us going without anything. I do remember though that there were certain times when my parents couldn’t afford to buy me the same things my friends had. Two particular instances still stand out clearly in my mind to this day.
First, while most of the other kids were wearing Levi, Lee or Wrangler jeans, which were the “cool” brands of the day, my mum would always buy me Four Star jeans, which were the jeans the “losers” wore. Second, the “cool” kids at school wore Bata Scout shoes, but again my mum only ever bought me the cheaper, “daggy” alternative.
These are the earliest recollections I have of being worried about appearances, and what other people thought. I was not satisfied with what I had, but wanted what other people had. That notion of being worried about appearances and what other people might think is still alive and well today. I would suggest that it is actually even more prevalent today than it was when I was young.
One way in which I see it commonly manifested today is in relation to childrens birthday parties. I can’t believe how much money parents spend today on birthday parties for their children. I personally know of several parties that have cost many hundreds, and even thousands, of dollars on something their child will not even remember! But they’re not doing it for the children. They’re doing it for themselves.
They are trying to keep up appearances. They are competing against their friends, or against the parents of children their child is connected with, whether that be through a Mother’s group, a playgroup or perhaps a childcare centre. Why is it that human beings have this need to be different than they really are? Why can’t they be grateful for who they are and what they have?
This is not a phenomenon that is unique to the modern era. The people of Ancient Israel were a perfect example of this too. In today’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah, we hear God bemoaning the fact that He rescued the people of Israel from Egypt, led them through the desert and wilderness for forty years, and settled them in the land of “milk and honey” in Canaan, where they had “fruits and good things to eat”, only to see them and their descendants switch their allegiance to foreign gods, who were not really gods at all but idols made by human hands, and to seek after the things that the other ethnic peoples had. They were incredibly ungrateful to God, especially considering everything that God had done for them and given them.
In our second reading this morning, from the Letter to the Hebrews, the author encourages their audience to be grateful; to be content with what they have, reminding them that God has promised them that He will never leave them or forsake them, which, in and of itself, should be enough to satisfy them. They are encouraged to be confident, safe in the knowledge that Jesus is there helping them, and if he is with them, then what do they have to be afraid of? The audience is exhorted to offer a sacrifice of praise to God, to be thankful for what they have, and to share what they have, where possible, with others who are less fortunate.
And in today’s gospel passage, from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses the parable of a wedding banquet to warn people against this desire to appear to be more important than they really are. Society in first century Palestine was very much concerned with the values of honour and shame, and Jesus taps into this aspect of everyday life to make his point.
Meals were very important occasions in this society, and there was a definite etiquette involved, both with meals in one’s own home and also public meals, such as a wedding banquet, which is the setting for Jesus’ parable. This was a world in which social status was an important consideration in how a person ordered their life, with their status based on the social estimation of their honour relative to other people.
For example, where somebody sat at a meal in relation to the host, was a public statement of that person’s status. As a result, the matter of seating arrangements was carefully tended to and, in this competitive society, a person might try to claim a more honourable or prestigious seat with the hope that it (and the honour that went with it) might be granted.
So to claim such a seat, and then be publicly forced to move from that seat to a seat of lesser prestige or honour, would have been an occasion of great shame and humiliation for a person. Which is exactly the situation that Jesus explains in his parable. But Jesus is not merely trying to make a point about the moral implications of such an action, what he is doing is highlighting one of the significant implications of the gospel of the good news.
One of the major themes of the Gospel of Luke is that of reversal, where the social norms of the day are turned on their head. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52–53 NRSV) This is just one of many examples of reversal in Luke’s Gospel.
If everything is to be reversed when the kingdom of God is established, then those who choose to sit with the poor and weak will be more highly valued in the eyes of God, than those who choose to sit with the rich and powerful. So what Jesus is really saying, is that if the shame of being asked to take a seat of less honour at a wedding banquet is bad, how much worse will it be for that person at the end of time if they are shamed before everyone on the Day of Judgement.
In today’s passage, Jesus also follows up on a related point, which is that of issuing invitations to a public meal such as a wedding banquet. It was customary at the time that if you received an invitation to a public meal, you were then obliged to extend a comparable invitation, a practice that restricted the list of people to whom somebody might extend an invitation. The rich and powerful would not invite the poor to their meals, because this would not only damage the social status of the host; but would also be a wasted invitation, since the self-interests of the elite could never be served by an invitation that could not be reciprocated.
So once again Jesus reverses the social norms of the day, telling people not to invite their friends, relatives or rich neighbours, who would then simply repay the obligation by inviting them in return, but instead they should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. These people obviously have no way of returning the favour, but the point Jesus makes is that whoever extends an invitation of hospitality to people such as this, will in turn be invited to share in the hospitality of God.
One message then from the gospel of the good news, is that we should not be worried about how others perceive us, but instead we should concern ourselves with how God sees us.