Click here for the mp3 file of this sermon. I preach without notes, so the audio version and the manuscript are slightly different.  The mp3 file also has the entire illustration from Scott McKnight’s book, which I did not include in the manuscript. 

A Lesson in Kingdom Etiquette

Text:  Luke 14:1, 7-14

One of the most joyous occasions in the first century was a wedding, accompanied by the wedding feast. In our day of plenty, we are not impressed by large banquets of food and drink. We see it every day. But in the first century, in Jesus’ day, feasts were special because everyday was not. And no occasion was more special than a wedding. A wedding offered the promise of new alliances between families, of marrying well, of someone to care for parents who were aging, and most importantly, of grandchildren. The prospect of new life in a world filled with death and disease always brought hope.

So, a wedding and wedding feast was indeed a special occasion. Work stopped, everything was put in order, the best the family had to offer was on display and their reputation was on the line. You might remember that Jesus began his public ministry at a wedding in a little town called Cana of Galilee. There, much to the hosts’ embarassment, they ran out of wine. Wine, of course, was a common drink, but also a celebratory drink. Jesus was made aware of the shortage of wine, and then performed his first miracle, by turning water into wine.

Now, I often wondered why Jesus started with what amounted to a pretty good parlor trick — turning water into wine. After all, why didn’t he start by healing somebody, or feeding 5,000 poor people, or telling fishermen which side of the boat to cast their nets on for a huge catch? No, instead he turned water into wine. And, it was the best wine of the evening. Which is where we get our expression, “Saving the best for last.”

Well, to understand that wedding feast, we have to look at some biblical passages. These will show us that the ultimate banquet, the banquet to end all banquets, will be the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, to which the people of God are invited. Remember that point, because we’re coming back to it.

Do you think there will be a shortage of wine — or whatever Jesus will serve — at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb? Of course not. So, the first miracle Jesus performs is a miracle to show that there is plenty of wine at the wedding feast. A metaphor for his kingdom’s wedding feast to come. Here are descriptions of the wedding and feast:

Isaiah 61:10
“I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (NIV)

Revelation 19:7
“Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” (NIV)

Revelation 21:2
“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (NIV)

Revelation 22:17
“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (NIV)

So, there’s going to be a wedding feast, and there will be plenty there. No shortages, no embarassed host, no one left out.

But, back to our story today. Jesus, invited to a Pharisee’s house for Sabbath, sees the typical scramble for seats-of-honor at the banquet. Just like our culture today, a successful banquet in Jesus’ day depended on a guest list of important people.

With all the Paris Hilton hub-bub several weeks ago, I caught an article reporting that Paris Hilton had offered a Las Vegas casino — I think it was the Hard Rock Casino — the privilege of hosting her birthday bash. All the Hard Rock had to do was throw the party for free, and then pay Paris $50,000 to show up — at her own party! So, you get the idea.

But the first century version of this was, when the party doors were opened, everyone scrambled for the seat of honor. Kind of a musical chairs to see who would be closest to the host, making them the guest of honor.

When I traveled to Shanghai to meet the directors of various factories, the Chinese factory owner would always host a dinner — at least one, maybe more — while I was there. These dinners were 2-3 hours long, and involved 12-20 courses of the best Chinese dishes, starting with cold food, then warm food, then meat, fish, or shrimp, and finishing with rice. The president of the factory would always ask me to sit in the seat of honor, the seat next to the president. The second in command would take his seat on the left, and so on, until all were seated, arranged in order of importance in the factory.

In Jesus’ day, however, rather than waiting to be asked to sit in the seat of honor, there was a mad scramble for that seat. Sometimes the scramble resulted in a less important person being asked to move over, so a more important person could sit next to the host. Embarassing, to say the least, if that happened to you.

So, Jesus cautions the crowd there — don’t push to get the best seat. Rather wait to be asked, so that you will not be embarassed by being displaced.

But, then he says something else that is quite out of keeping with their culture. Better still, Jesus says, when you have a banquet, don’t invite the rich and powerful, instead invite those who are blind, poor, lame, outcast because they can never repay you. But, you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous. (In the first century, Jews believed that only the righteous would be resurrected to live forever; the unrighteous would simply be annihilated, never to be resurrected.)

So, we have a lesson in etiquette — be nice, don’t try to get the best seat, wait to be invited, and better still, invite someone to your party who cannot pay you back. Now, as important as humility is, and waiting your turn is, that is not really Jesus’ point.

Just as Jesus was making a point at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, by turning water into wine; he’s also making a point here. Who is Jesus eating with? Pharisees, religious leaders, those who know more about God, sacred scripture, and righteousness than anybody else in first century Judea. But Jesus word of caution about etiquette at a wedding banquet is a metaphor for the Kingdom of God.

“He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Sound familiar? It is etiquette in the Kingdom. If you humble yourself before God, God will exalt you. But, if like the Pharisees, you think you know it all, you are in for a big surprise! So, lesson number one is — humble yourself before God, and let God exalt you.

But, the real big lesson is here — “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14and you will be blessed.” Why? Because they can’t repay you. They can’t earn an invitation, they can’t afford to throw a banquet of equal value, or of any value. You’ll be blessed because you’re doing something for someone else, not to get paid back, but just to do something good.

This is exactly what God is doing in the Kingdom. Inviting folks who are poor, lame, and blind spiritually. People who do not have the spiritual wherewithal to do anything. Bankrupt, poor in spirit, mourners, outcasts, unrighteous, overlooked, ill-treated, powerless, and destitute. These are the guests at the wedding feast of the Lamb. And, guess who that list includes? Us — me, you, and all who respond to God’s invitation.

You and I have no means to come to the banquet. We have no standing spiritually, we are bankrupt, and incapable of finding our way, or redeeming ourselves or our nation. But God invites us anyway. We can’t repay him, but we are still invited. We can’t throw our own banquet, but we are still invited. We can’t reciprocate, but we are still invited.

Scott McKnight, professor in religious studies at North Park University in Chicago, just published A Community Called Atonement. In it, Scott tells the story of Dawn Husnick, an emergency room nurse at a hospital in Chicago. Here’s an example of what Jesus was talking about —

[see A Community Called Atonement, pages 3-4 for the story.] 

So, as we gather at this banquet table this morning, we are here by invitation. God has invited us to eat the bread of life, and drink the cup of salvation. We have been asked to sit at the head table, to be the guest of honor for we are the reason for the party. We are the prodigals who have returned, we are the hungry who will be filled, we are the poor who are called the children of God. As we come to this table, we know in our hearts that we cannot reciprocate. We cannot set a table like this because our death, our flesh, our shed blood, would not save anyone, including ourselves. No, we are guests here because we are poor, blind, lame, and hungry. Our response is not to pay God back, not to return the favor, not to throw a party — because we can’t. Our response is to invite others to join the party God is throwing. To be guests of honor, to eat the bread of life, to drink wine that does not run out, to sit by the King. Now and forever. Amen.