In my earlier years I fear that I was not a particularly good dinner party guest. I’m not proud of it but I am a fan of looking truth straight in the eye. On one memorable occasion I fell asleep at the table during the pudding and on another I managed to start an argument within the 1st 15 minutes of sitting at table. This did not win me much favour at home as we were dining with my wife’s work colleagues and we found we were never invited again. I was an embarrassment.
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel begins with what seems like a social etiquette lesson, possibly one I would have done well to bear in mind if I had been a Christian in those earlier days.
Luke’s gospel features meal-times and parties more than any other. It is a picture of the social life and the vibrant relationships between people at the time. Perhaps also it is giving us a clue that the Christian journey has something of the party about it. If we become too serious or forget to feast and be with one another, then we miss out on many of the good things in life and many of the good things that God has for us.
The first part of the reading is a warning to us to not get above ourselves. It’s useful because pride is one of the great besetting sins. Indeed, Jesus speaks more about the problem of pride than just about any issue. And pride is behind so many of the things that go wrong for us. It seems to me that it’s important on the Christian journey to not have too high in opinion of ourselves; Not at low opinion or feeling depressed about ourselves but just to get ourselves into perspective, especially when compared to our God who walked among us and his example.
The first caution is that we need to make sure that we’re sitting in the right seat. The picture is of a wedding feast, and it would be a terrible embarrassment if we sat in a seat reserved for someone on the top table. It is good advice and I often wonder how it might be applied today. Perhaps at a special clergy meal managing to sit in the seat reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury would be an equivalent. The call is for due humility and that kind of humanity is very winning when we come across it.
Indeed humility is particularly winning when it is exhibited by great people – people in power. Thomas Hardy the great writer and poet showed great humility in many areas of his life. Even when he was a very famous poet and could have had his poems published anywhere and earned a great deal of money from them, he would always send them in with a return envelope, stamped and addressed in case they weren’t good enough. I like this.
The lesson I think behind the obvious here is that we’re called not to push ourselves forward in the sight of God. We don’t need to be forever saying look at me look at what I’ve done. I think it’s that is something of a relief that there’s no need to either show off or be needy with God.
God sees everything and in some ways our lives are played out in front of an audience of one; The great God of love and beauty fun and fellowship. God knows what we’re about and so we can relax we can relax and do his work the best we can with his help and know that he’s not looking to trip us up or point out our mistakes.
The second part of the reading is actual literal device and that’s rare from Jesus. So I think that when we get it we should take it and try to apply the advice.
Here we have the radical suggestion about who to invite to dinner parties; of course, in the village context everyone would have known everyone the doors would have been thrown open on many occasions so that anyone could come but it’s not quite the same for us here is it in London.
It takes a lot of preparation to put a dinner party together drawing up the list of who should be there is part of the fun of it who should sit next to whom who might be the best conversationalist and so on. I remember once going to a huge dinner event at the institute of marketing and I was so seated so far back the speakers were a mere speck.
But what if we were taught to draw up entirely new kinds of guest lists for parties? Behind this is an idea that is very very interesting. We are not called to do good to do social things or anything on the basis of you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. We don’t invite people because they might invite us back to an equally grand party. We don’t do good because we’ll get good done to us. Doctor Johnson who lived just around the corner from here of course, spoke about what we now call networking – when we do something for someone we have a ‘lively sense of favours to come’.
But what if we didn’t have a sense of favours to come and we just did good stuff because we can?
The call is to invite those who wouldn’t normally be invited, who no one else would really want to invite to your party in other words there’s nothing in it for you and everything in it for them and I think this is at the heart of the Christian life. It frees us from as Disraeli had it climbing the greasy pole. What if we didn’t need to climb and we could just invite the kind of people who we wouldn’t normally meet?
This I think is a picture, this dinner party invitation, of the great heavenly banquet that awaits us after our death. I often think we’d be very surprised by who we meet in heaven and I look forward to the great rogues gallery of people who might be there.
Behind the idea of not inviting the great and the good is a very strong Bible idea. That idea is that the last will be first. One day those of us of us who have had much will be at the back of the queue and that day I think is when the world is transformed and heaven beckons.
The heavenly banquet to me is a very happy idea because it turns the world upside down. The guests of honour are people who would not normally be guests of honour and I think it might be a great great great deal of fun.
I did once go to a party like this and I’d like to share it with you because it was such so brilliant and I’ve never been to anything like it before or since. It was a model of that great heavenly banquet full of odd people, strange happenings and wonderful hospitality.
I’d gone to Georgia the Russian ex Russian satellite with my friend Jonathan Aitken. You may know about Jonathan Aiken and his fall from grace and rise to extraordinary Christian glory and perhaps he isn’t someone that would be on the list of people to invite to a dinner party but that’s what happened.
In Georgia we were hosting a conference for leaders.
Georgia is an extraordinary country and on one evening we were told that we were going to go to a village feast. We got into our cavalcade complete with armed guards, beginning and end, and travelled further and further outside Tbilisi. The Soviet era tower blocks gave way to villages. The motorways gave way to small dirt tracks and eventually we came into a tiny village.
We were ushered into a pretty normal looking house and were welcomed in the most beautiful way. It was then that the feast began.
Seated at a long table surrounded by a huge variety of different people we were served course after course of the most delicious food cooked by different people in the village. At one point a man arrived on a donkey and brought us in some gorgeous wine that he made in his small vineyard. After each course we stopped to toast different aspects of life and the faith. At one point we were warned to be quiet because there was a wolf walking around in the garden. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so part of something and so part of something with people I wouldn’t normally have been with.
Those people were not going to get an invitation back to the UK for a party at my house in Ealing but it was as though we were proper family.
One day the world will be turned upside down. Jesus promises it. One day the last will be first. One day those who don’t normally get invited to the feast will be there in all their ragged glory and we will just be there in awe at what we missed while we were here.
O and by the way I am now safe to be invited to dinner parties of any kind because I’ve calmed down a lot and I no longer embarrass anyone. Amen to that.