The Dinner Party
In the world that Jesus grew up and lived in, status was more important than we might think. Or at least important in different ways than we think. Today, we might be tempted to think that status can be defined just as much by who we don’t interact with as about what we have or don’t have. To have status in our world means that we can isolate and separate ourselves from certain kinds of people–we can create distance between ourselves and those that we do not want to be associated with. Now, of course, that is painted with a very broad brush, but I think that there is some truth in what I have just said. But status was not conceived in the same way when Jesus lived and taught on this earth 2000 years ago.
Status was different. How we conceived of it was different. And the people that were involved were more different than we assume.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is often invited to eat dinner with a Pharisee or other teacher of the Law. And one thing that has always confounded me is that Jesus usually takes them up on the offer. Simon (or whoever) are throwing a dinner party, and inviting Jesus seems to be a good social move for the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Their party will be more popular and more widely regarded if the traveling teacher who has hundreds (if not more) of followers everywhere he goes.
To me, this is bizarre for a couple of reasons. First, Jesus always seems to be at odds with the Pharisees. It seems like they are the “bad guys” in many of the stories in the Gospels, and yet Jesus accepts their invitation! Over and over again. This is bizarre because we have conceived of status and interaction with one another in an altogether different way. Have a problem with someone? Don’t like their politics? Are uncomfortable with their habits and practices? Don’t want to be confronted with the guilt you feel? (On and on the list could go.) Simply put some distance between you and them. Move to the other side of town. Don’t watch those news channels. Remove them from your “friends” list on Facebook. But not so with Jesus. The Pharisees, after all, aren’t the true enemy. They are just as sick as the rest of us, they just aren’t fully aware of that fact (Luke 5:31-32). Rather than ignoring them or distancing himself from them, he goes towards them.
The second thing that I find bizarre in these types of stories are the other guests who are invited to these dinner parties (or sometimes who aren’t invited but who show up anyway). Look at stories like the one in Luke 7:36-50, or in 14:1-24. There are “sinners,” “sick,” and guests of obviously lower status than the host or other guests. This seems odd to us. When we invite guests to a dinner party, we tend to invite our friends and the people we know that we get along with. But something different seems to be happening here. And again, something that was not uncommon for how they understood the world to work. Take a look at this diagram:
Our tables certainly don’t look like this. And we typically don’t plan our guests lists this way either (I don’t think). But in the ancient world, it was common practice to invite people from across the social status spectrum.*
Which offers Jesus the perfect opportunity to say something about Hope. Or really, to show us what Hope can do.
Because as these stories come to an end, it is not the host or the guests who sit at the table of honor who are elevated. It is instead the people who we probably wouldn’t invite to our parties today. It is the people who, ironically, sit at the high table. (High, middle, and low couches were not designated for people of the same status at these parties, they were instead simply referring to the height of the couch. Yet, for our purposes, we can see how the lowly in status have been literally lifted up–something Mary predicted was taking place as a result of the birth of Jesus.)
Hope comes to the “lowly.”
But that still isn’t the full picture. Because part of what Jesus is trying to help us understand is that the designations of status that we have conceived of are really quite arbitrary. That there is something more important going on than where we place ourselves in the seating arrangement.
It has been said that “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” It’s a beautiful phrase, and it communicates something important to us. That the work of Jesus, the very work of our God, is not limited to one group or another. It is for all. That’s why Jesus is always accepting these invitations. These dinner parties are closer in make-up to who is invited to the table of our Lord than we think. We have simply found a way to divide ourselves up and to keep ourselves distant from one another. And yet, Jesus offers hope to us all, if we will have eyes to see it, ears to hear it, and the willingness to trust that Jesus can, in fact, bring us all into the presence of God.
These parties typically end how we might suspect. Jesus lifts up the “lowly,” and he rebukes/chastises/critiques the Pharisees and those who have “high” status. Jesus doesn’t do this because there is no hope for them. He does it precisely because there is hope for them–they just seem to preoccupied with something else to notice it.
So, this week, may we notice the hope that Jesus offers us. May we declare with one of the dinner guests in Luke 14:15, “Happy are those who will feast in God’s Kingdom.”
*(This has a lot to do with the roles of Clients and Patrons. For more information on this, I would recommend reading the book “Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity” by David deSilva.)