Jesus is a bad dinner guest. His paraphrase of Proverbs 25 is sound advice for any dinner guest, because nobody in those days throws a dinner party because they are hungry or wants to see friends, but because they want to codify social status. The more honored your guests or the closer you got to sit to a powerful, honorable person, the more honor you had. Honor was more important than money. On the flip side, you could incur shame, for example, if you got tossed from the head table. Shame was like debt. While you get the sense that Jesus is talking about more than just banquette etiquette, he isn’t saying anything too radical, yet. Even when he starts in with instructions for hosts and says they should invite the poor, he is covering well-known material. Deuteronomy 14 instructs the Israelites to set aside a third of their tithe to feed the resident aliens, orphans, and widows. The Law recognized inequality, and tried to address it.
Think of it, in contemporary terms, like our Olympics coverage. You had Gabby Douglass win gymnastics gold, and receive her medal with her arms at her side, and not her hand on her heart during “The Star Spangled Banner.” People (who apparently have less to do than I do) immediately and viciously attacked her on social media. Then, you had Ryan Lochte, first claiming to have been robbed at gunpoint, then admitting that he and two buddies had vandalized a gas station. (It’s easy get those two confused.) The response was “boys will be boys.” Torah says, “That’s not fair.” Deuteronomy 14 calls for a fair distribution of justice. As orphans, widows, and resident aliens were “less than” normal people in Israel, in America black women are treated as “less than” white men. Torah says, “Your job as God’s people is to stick up for the black woman who is being treated as ‘less than’ the white man.” People may not like it, might squirm when they hear it, but any expert in Torah would tell them, “Yeah, it says that.” That’s kind of what Jesus does up to this point.
Then, Jesus gut-punches society. The Pharisees (who are at dinner with him) applied priestly Temple regulations to daily living. Leviticus 14 listed all sorts of conditions which would knock you out of priestly service: blind, lame, cuts on face, limbs of unequal length, broken foot, broken hand, hunchback, dwarf, cataracts, rash, scabs, genital deformities or injuries. By Jesus’ day, this is the list of everyone who is less than…human. These people are not fit to be God’s priestly people. In fact, being near them pollutes you. So, Jesus says, “When you have a banquet, invite the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Luke does not report it, but I am sure that at that point you could hear jaws hitting the floor and stomachs churning. Jesus has just told his audience to bring in the disgusting and the polluted.
As we’ve already talked about the Olympics, let’s keep our examples there. Jesus is like the Chinese swimmer, Fu Yuanhui. Fu got attention first for being highly animated when she found out she had won a bronze medal. Then, when she finished fourth in a subsequent event and was being interviewed, she was clearly in a lot of pain. The reporter asked her why she was doubled over, and Fu simply said, “I started my period today.” Now, I grew up in a house where bodily functions were largely not spoken about. But you could talk about them if you had to. In China, some basic feminine hygiene products even the most squeamish man would take for granted don’t exist because Chinese culture barely acknowledges that the need for them exists. Fu broke a huge taboo. Jesus’ invitation for the crippled, blind, and lame is frankly along the lines of Fu’s acknowledgement of what time of the month it was.
Needless to say, this is not the way dinner conversation was supposed to go.
The dinner was meant to help rationalize things. Its function is to justify why things are the way they are, and to reinforce that they are this way and are supposed to be this way. In his book, Subliminal, Leonard Mlodinow describes studies in which people were told scenarios and pick a response. Outcomes to the responses were assigned wholly at random. Success or failure had nothing to do with anything anyone did. The successful quickly rationalized why they had succeeded and why they deserved to succeed, and why the unsuccessful had failed and deserved it even if they had done things exactly the way the successful had done them! There have been many variations on this experiment. They all show people rationalizing outcomes for the sake up lifting up the successful, the “in group,” as right, smart, and deserving, and denigrating the “out group” as wrong, stupid, and undeserving. Things happen, and then the ones who wind up with power make up the reasons why they did.
At Jesus’ Sabbath dinner party, in groups and out groups are in full force. The host would never invite blind, lame, or crippled people. They are out. Why? Well, the host would say it is because they are unfit for service as God’s priestly people and might pollute him by being there. Jesus knows that is a rationalization. It is a rationalization by someone who can see and walk and has no broken bones. People who are not blind, lame, or crippled have the power and have rationalized that their physical condition is better suited for God than are other physical conditions. The presence of a blind man might make them have to face the fact that they, too, could go blind. The presence of a woman with a broken bone would remind them that they are just one accident away from being in the out group.
People seem to need such rationalizations. We cannot live without them. God knows this. It’s why God shows up in our rationalizations! Scripture, in a lot of ways, is a rationalization. The miracle of scripture is that despite its imposing on the world a story that is clearly biased, sometimes ridiculous, and unavoidably bound to a certain time and place that is forever receding further beyond our grasp, God manages to communicate through it. But God is always threatening the structure. God is always challenging the meanings we impose. God says, “You want to write in your book that the lame, blind, and crippled are somehow less than those who aren’t? Okay, okay. In that same book I will show up at dinner and make you invite them, anyway.” Our meanings, our rationalizations, our rules, our taboos, are all only temporary. God is permanent.
I said earlier that you get the feeling Jesus is talking about more than just banquet etiquette, and he is. He’s talking about the resurrection. (Again, he knows people need rationalizations and stories and meanings, so he’s talking at a banquet about banquets, but he’s really talking about the resurrection.) If Jesus is challenging the seating chart and the guest list now, it is because Jesus knows that the seating chart at the resurrection puts everyone in the seat of honor next to God, and that the guest list leaves off no one.
We do not operate with honor and shame the way Jesus’ contemporaries did; we use money instead. And we definitely keep track of how much we have and are always aiming for more. God says, “You know, I can work with that, but it’s not ultimately the way things will be.” Similarly, Torah is not our civil law and First Century Palestinian culture is not our culture; we have laws and culture, though. We distinguish between black and white, between women’s bodies and men’s bodies. In some instances, laws and culture attempt to enforce equality, while in other instances laws and culture attempt to enforce inequality. God says, “You know, I can work with that, but it’s not ultimately the way things will be.” God treasures these differences that make us unique, and God sticks with us through some seriously weird stuff that we do, but ultimately at God’s banquet everyone is in the seat of honor.
Jesus’ unpleasant dinner conversation calls us to enact God’s banquet. By reminding us of the temporary nature of our rules, Jesus calls us to embrace now what awaits us in the future. His words to us are, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This is not a reward for inviting guests who turn your stomach, but a promise made to you when Jesus rose from the dead and sealed to you in baptism. A seat of honor awaits. Period. Jesus’ unpleasant dinner conversation asks, “Why wait? Why not have the banquet, now?” So, we do. We’re doing it, now. It is mealtime. You’re in the seat of honor. You’re as close to God as you can get: if you’re eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, you’re as close to God as you can get. At this meal, the distinctions our laws and culture make do not factor into anything. When this meal ends, Christ sends us out to live in the world like this meal is still happening in us. Christ sends us…to be bad dinner guests, to call those the world shuns to sit in seats of honor: seats of honor at this banquet, seats of honor in the business of the world beyond this place, and ultimately at seats of honor in the feast that knows no end.