Friends in Low Places

Sabbath Day Thoughts — Luke 14:1, 7-14

A number of years ago, I invited Michael, a local homeless man, to come share Easter dinner with me and Duane.  Michael had worshipped with us some and even tried singing in the choir, sweating copiously in his blue choir robe and sometimes playing his African drum for us.  I tried on a number of occasions to persuade him to move into permanent housing, but he always resisted, choosing instead to couch surf, moving from home to home, crashing with friends until he wore out his welcome.  Michael seemed pleased with the Easter dinner invitation and promised to be there at two o’clock.

I was a little surprised on Easter Sunday when Michael wasn’t in church.  But on my way home, I ran into him coming out of Stewart’s.  He had a big bottle of Mountain Dew and an equally enormous bag of potato chips.  Looking at the chips and soda, I asked doubtfully, “Michael, you are coming to our house for dinner, aren’t you?”  He looked a little cagey but assured me that he wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I got home, I told Duane that the odds were fifty/fifty that the man would actually show.  But sure enough, Michael appeared at two, bearing his enormous bag of chips, unopened.  I put the chips in a big party bowl and added it to the spread: ham, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, rolls, crudité, salad, and Michael’s chips.  It was a feast.

Our lesson from Luke’s gospel describes a sabbath day feast hosted by Pharisees. In Jesus’ day, diners reclined on three low couches, called a triclinium.  Those three couches surrounded a low central table where food was placed.  Diners ate from common dishes, reaching with hands or pieces of bread to scoop up their dinner. 

Your place at the triclinium said a lot about who you were in society.  The guest of honor took the place of prominence next to the host with best access to food and conversation.  Then other guests, by virtue of their social standing, took places of descending prominence on the couches. Guests of least honor were pushed out to the margins, where food might be passed to them by another diner or a servant. Your place in first century society was worked out with table fellowship.  You invited guests of high standing to your banquet, hoping they would accept.  This increased your social status in the eyes of the community, especially when your high-status guest had to reciprocate by inviting you to dine at their table.

As Jesus watched this complex dance of social maneuvering around the triclinium, he shared a teaching that contradicted traditional practices of hospitality.  First, Jesus counseled diners to choose seats of humility, without any presumption of honor or status.  Then, he advised that they should rethink the guestlist.  Invite low-status guests who could not reciprocate their hospitality because they were poor or infirm.

Now, while righteous people like the Pharisees gave charitably for vulnerable neighbors, like widows, orphans, and refugees, the people whom Jesus described would never make the guestlist for the sabbath feast.  The poor, maimed, lame, and blind would have been a disgrace at the table of a high-status Pharisee, like his host.  Jesus’ words would have been incredibly offensive to everyone seated at the triclinium.  There would have been some major acid reflux around the banquet table.

Practicing the sort of hospitality that Jesus advocated wasn’t easy in the first century, and it isn’t easy today.  That Easter dinner with the homeless Michael was part of many interactions with him that were alternately funny, puzzling, and angering.  One morning, Michael called me before six o’clock, waking me up.  A doe had been hit and killed on the LePan Highway, near where he was couch surfing.  He had butchered the doe for meat, but he wanted to know if I was interested in the hide of the unborn fawn.  He thought I might like to tan it so that I could make a drum. Then, there was the day when Michael told me that God was calling him to work with children and youth at our church.  That blew up even before it started when I asked him to collaborate with others and follow church policies.  On another occasion, I returned home from a two-week vacation to learn that Michael had moved into the church basement in my absence.  Everyone knew about it, but no one wanted to deal with it, so it was left to me to have the “come-to-Jesus” talk with my homeless buddy. 

“Michael” I told him, “I wish you would let me help you get into an apartment.  You’ve got to go. No one gets to live at the church, not even me.”  He wasn’t happy, but he moved out, and he stopped coming to our church.

Jesus, do you understand what you are asking of us when you suggest that we invite our vulnerable, crippled, impoverished, crazy neighbors to be a real part of our lives?  Honestly, Lord. Do you realize the difficulty, frustration, and risk that come when we open ourselves up to those sorts of relationships? We’re not sure we really want to go there.  Can’t we, like the Pharisees, simply do our mitzvah and practice a little charitable giving, assuaging our conscience and maintaining the status quo?

Here is the rub.  Jesus chose to specially identify with his neighbors who were vulnerable, stigmatized, and excluded.  One of the reasons that Jesus was being carefully watched by the Pharisees was his practice of eating with sinners, tax collectors, and outcasts.  On the sabbath day, when all eyes should be on God Almighty, Jesus reached out to heal the lowly, from bent-over-women to men with dropsy and withered hands.  And while Jesus could have been building his social status by helping and healing the most prestigious households in the land, Jesus tended to blind beggars, demon-possessed boys, hemorrhaging women, and scabby unclean lepers.  When Jesus got to Jerusalem, he would die as many of the people whom he helped had lived: outcast, rejected, in pain, and humiliated. 

In the very last parable that Jesus shared with his friends, he exhorted them to see him in their most vulnerable and rejected of neighbors (Matt. 25:31-46).  On the far side of death, on the far side of the miracle of resurrection, Jesus would continue to walk this earth in the guise of people who are sick and hungry, destitute and outcast, thirsty and imprisoned. He called these hurting folks his “little brothers and sisters.”  Indeed, when disciples choose to welcome and serve these lowest-status neighbors, they are truly welcoming and serving the hidden Christ, who walks among us still.

In following the ethic of hospitality that Jesus taught, we dare to truly connect with our hurting and sometimes hard-to-love neighbors; and at the same time, we are playing host to Jesus.  We never know where we might find him: in line at the Food Pantry, pushing a shopping cart home from the Grand Union, in need a ride to a doctor’s appointment, eating goulash at the Community Lunchbox, camping out in the church basement.  When we encounter the hidden Jesus, it can be messy and uncomfortable. They may test our healthy boundaries with expectation for things we cannot give.  They may not follow our good advice. They may have demons that we cannot exorcise.  And still, we owe them a debt of love and a seat at the table.  Will we extend ourselves in humility, sharing the simplest gifts of hospitality?

My homeless friend Michael skipped town.  He was picked up in Lake Placid for possession of a small amount of marijuana, but because it was near a school, it was a big deal.  As his court date neared, Michael vanished.  Then, one early morning, almost a year later, Michael called me.  What a surprise!  True to form, Michael was using a borrowed cellphone, undoubtedly belonging to someone whose couch he was surfing. 

“How are you?!” I wanted to know.  “Where did you go? Is everything ok?” 

Michael assured me that he was fine.  He was back in the Midwest near family.  He still loved the Lord, and he was helping a lot of people.  We talked about life at the church and drumming.  After a while, there was just silence on the line. Not comfortable, but not really uncomfortable. Eventually Michael spoke up, “I just want you to know I’m ok, and I’m not mad at you.” I assured him that I wasn’t mad at him either.  We prayed and hung up. 

I never heard from Michael again, but I suspect that one day we just might meet up again—at that heavenly feast on the far better shore over a big bag of potato chips.

Resources:

Carolyn Sharp. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Jacobsen. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 28, 2016. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jeannine Brown. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Aug. 289, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Mitzi Smith. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14” in Preaching This Week, Sept. 1, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.


Luke 14:1, 7-14

1On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”


Photo by Yan Krukov on Pexels.com

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