Not a Table Manners Manifesto

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Luke 14:1, 7-14

What’s the purpose of preaching?  Why do I stand before you, Sunday after Sunday, offering my reflections on and interpretation of the Word of God?  Is it simply to instruct?

So, here’s what happens when the purpose of preaching is simply to instruct.  The preacher generally gets to a point in the sermon where he or she says something like, “People, we’ve got problems.”

And our problems are whatever happens to have risen to the surface in the text.  We sin.  We despair.  We fear.  We don’t love our neighbor as we ought.  We don’t love God as we ought.  We hold grudges.  We aren’t as good in our discipleship as we should be.  We over-consume.  We ignore God’s mystery in our lives.  We condone injustice by allowing it to happen.  We whatever.  Are you with me?

And you sit there listening to the preacher go on and on about it all, and you think, “Yep, he’s nailed it.  That’s exactly what I do.”  And because we’ve read out of the Old Testament earlier in the service, you’re thinking, “And it’s exactly what people like me have been doing for thousands of years.”

And so the preacher goes on to explain how doing (or not doing) these ungodly actions harms you and all those around you and reinforces certain social conditions that end up harming all humanity.

And then, finally, the preacher provides answers, methods, or marching orders, telling you how then to live.  We preachers want to solve all the world’s problems and wrap up our solutions in nice, neat packages.

But here’s the problem.

You hear a preacher offer didactic instruction like this and you end up thinking, “Yep, she’s nailed it.  That’s what I do all right.  But, hey, I’m not Mother Theresa.  I’m just a guy like everyone else around me, kind of dysfunctional, just trying to live my life and have a little fun along the way.”

And your response to the preacher’s nice, neat package is something along the lines of, “Well, that sounds noble and all, but, c’mon, I can’t really do that”; or, “Hey, now, preacher, you’re taking it a little too far”; or, my favorite, “What in the world is he talking about?”

Now, have you noticed that Jesus very seldom offers instruction; that he rarely teaches didactically?  Instead, he tells parables, a kind of story laden with rich imagery; and he demonstrates life lessons through healings and miracles.

Rather than instruct, then, doesn’t Jesus instead disrupt?  He provokes his hearers to see things in new ways through imagery; and he evokes emotional responses.  He teaches not by instruction; but by disruption.

We preachers would do well to take note.

But then we come to today’s Gospel.  At our first hearing—and maybe at our second, third, fourth, and beyond—this reading sounds more like didactic instruction on table etiquette than it does a parable.  “When you are invited to a wedding banquet,” Jesus says, “do not sit down at the place of honor.”

Jesus is at a banquet.  People are entering and selfishly grabbing seats of honor.  Jesus seizes the moment and teaches.  “But when you are invited,” he continues, “go and sit down at the lowest place.”

This sure sounds like didactic instruction to me!

Yet, Luke tells us, his readers, that Jesus is telling a parable here—an image-laden story designed to provoke and evoke, not to instruct.

So could something more be going on here?  Is Jesus addressing something other than only the selfish manners he sees in front of him?  Could it be that he is seizing the moment at hand not to teach didactically but, rather, provocatively?

This was a meal on the Sabbath, the text tells us.  Yet Jesus says, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet.”

Hmm.  Not a Sabbath meal; but a wedding banquet.  This is a disconnection.

Does this disconnection provoke us?  Do Jesus’ words, which seem a little detached, evoke some kind of imagery for us?  Do we maybe come across wedding banquets elsewhere in the scriptures?

And so we begin to piece it together.  Jesus almost always teaches by disruption, not instruction.  Striking imagery is taking place right in front of Jesus’ face: at this Sabbath meal, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors are selfishly grabbing for the places of honor.  Noticeably absent from this Sabbath meal are the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Also absent from this meal, we should note, as was the custom of the day, are women.

No: this doesn’t look anything like a wedding feast.  And besides, what kind of wedding feast in wealthy Palestine would include the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?  Or, perhaps a better question to ask is, where would we find a wedding feast that includes the poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Contrary to what some scholars argue, Jesus is not offering here a table manners manifesto.  Rather, like he does seemingly everywhere else in the Gospels, Jesus is seizing the imagery right in front of him not to instruct but to disrupt; not to explain but to provoke.

In this particular case he paints a picture of his kingdom, the realm of God.  Except he uses the imagery in front of him to paint a picture of exactly what God’s realm is not.

There’s a lot of silliness going on before his face just now.  Brothers, relatives, friends, rich neighbors, business associates, maybe some patrons and clients, are all clamoring to grab for themselves a seat of honor.  They’re all clamoring to get ahead, to put themselves first.

And why, exactly?  So they will be noticed?  So they can sit next to someone who will be noticed?

We do this too.  It’s not just that crowd sitting around Jesus at that Sabbath meal.  And it’s not something found just in that day, time, and culture—something that those Romans struggled with but, hey, we’ve evolved.  No: self-centeredness, pushiness, greed, desire to be on top, getting ahead at someone else’s expense—these ambitions are part of the human condition.

We do these things all the time.  Just look around us!

How many CEOs got to their positions by acts of selflessness, or by being humble?

How many politicians can you name that exemplify the personality traits expressed in the beatitudes: blessed are the meek; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the peacemakers?

How many lawsuits, I wonder, are won by the people who actually deserve to win—from an ethical standpoint?

Nice guys finish last, the saying goes—for good reason.  We might as well just say, pushy people get their way.

And we shrug our shoulders and get on with life, saying to ourselves comforting aphorisms: “It is what it is.  It’s just the way things are.”

But why, exactly?  What is it in me that tells me I’m more important than any other person on the face of the planet?

I don’t know.  But it all seems kind of silly, doesn’t it?

Using provocative imagery, then, Jesus disrupts this Sabbath meal to make his point.  His kingdom isn’t anything like this silliness going on in front of his face.  In fact, his kingdom is the opposite.

In his realm, people don’t push and shove to be first, to grab honors for themselves, to get ahead of everyone else in the world.  In his realm it’s the forgotten people, the social outcasts, who sit in the places of honor at wedding banquets.

God’s realm is upside-down from the earthly realm.  Which leads me to wonder: maybe it’s the earthly realm that’s upside-down; and God’s realm is the one that’s right-side up.

So, let’s return now to my opening question: what’s the purpose of preaching?

Many people maintain that the purpose of preaching—why I stand up here before you Sunday after Sunday—is simply to instruct, or at least mostly to instruct.  Well, instruction happens, no doubt about it.  But it’s not the main purpose.  I hope I’ve effectively debunked this idea.

Jesus seldom instructed his hearers in a didactic way.  Rather, he most often disrupted them: their world, their common way of thinking.  We see this in today’s passage—and nearly everywhere else in the Gospels.

But is this the main purpose of preaching?  To disrupt?  Do I stand before you week after week mainly to call into question whatever I’ve seen you do or heard you say in the past week?  I don’t think so.  For that would make me a very contrary preacher.  And in short order I wouldn’t have many friends, let alone parishioners.

No, there’s more to it.  Why does Jesus teach by disruption?

His world wasn’t all too different from ours.  All around us, social conventions and institutions (yes, including religious institutions) prevent us from seeing things the way they really are.  Our earthly realm prevents us from seeing the greater reality of God’s realm.

And we get set in our ways.  We do things over and over the same way.  We get used to it all and say, “It is what it is.  This is just the way things are.”

And so, when you come to church and hear a preacher offer instruction about what’s wrong with your world and how you should fix it, you agree.  But you are also hardwired to go right back to the way you’ve always done things.  The preacher’s instruction doesn’t “stick.”

But disruption is more effective.  Disruption involves provocative imagery.  Disruption provokes you out of your comfort zone, your routine, much more effectively than straightforward didactic instruction.

But then what?  Once Jesus has effectively provoked his hearers; once Jesus has clapped them freshly awake out of their half-asleep stupor and they are suddenly aware of the greater reality of God’s realm, what does he do then?

He doesn’t give them a method or some kind of list for self-improvement.  He doesn’t give marching orders.  He doesn’t give them easy answers to be wrapped up in a nice, neat package.

Instead, Jesus most often leaves his hearers right where he’s taken them: to ponder his parables without any explanation at all.

Do you see?  Through disruption Jesus provokes his hearers out of a lesser reality into a greater reality, where he then leaves them to experience this greater reality; to draw their own conclusions; to wrap up their own not-so-nice, not-so-neat packages.  This is the preacher’s purpose.  Liberation!

Dear Christians, the lesser reality of this world holds you no longer.  You have been set free.  Experience the greater reality that is God’s realm.

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