How many of you have ever watched the show Blue Bloods? I’m a big fan of the series and have seen almost every episode of the show. It’s a police drama…but with a twist: nearly everyone in the Reagan family, is involved in law enforcement in one way or another. Tom Selleck, the patriarch of the family, is the Police Commissioner of New York City. His daughter is an Assistant DA. His oldest son is a detective. His youngest son is a policeman. And Grandpap is a retired policeman. Yes, I know it’s a RIDICULOUS premise, but it works!
My absolute favorite scenes in the show are when the Reagans sit down to Sunday dinner. The whole family is there. They are gathered around an enormous table. Candles are lit, wine is poured, and good food is being served. After saying grace, the family begins to talk about their week. There are moments that are happy and harmonious with smiles and laughter filling the room. And THEN, there are moments when differences of opinion are aired, tempers begin to flair, and arguments begin to break out.
Just about the time when someone is ready to slam their fork down on the table, scoot back their chair and walk out of the room, Tom Selleck intervenes in and makes them sit down and try to work things out. Their love for each other is the bond that keeps them at the table. It helps them to overcome whatever disagreements they may have at any given moment.
If that’s not a parable for what the Kingdom of God looks like, I don’t know what is! If that’s not a parable for what the Body of Christ should aspire to be, I don’t know what is We are the Reagans. We are one big, glorious, dysfunctional family who gather together each Sunday around the table to share a meal. No one has to earn a spot at this table. We’re family! All of us are invited by Jesus, and expected to show up, no matter what kind of week we’ve had! There are times when we are happy and harmonious with each other and smiles and laughter fill this holy space. There are times when differences of opinion are aired, tempers begin to flair, and arguments begin to break out.
Just about the time when someone is ready to slam their fork down on the table, scoot back their chair and walk away, Jesus intervenes and calls us to sit down and try to work things out. If we do Sunday dinners right, our love for one other is the bond that keeps us at the table. It helps us to overcome whatever disagreements we may have at any given moment.
This brings us to our gospel lesson where Jesus is invited by a leader of the Pharisees to join him for the Jewish equivalent of Sunday dinner. If we can picture the scene in our mind’s eye, it’s Friday night. The Shabbat candles have been lit. Many of the guests have already attended Friday night worship in the synagogue or plan to go Saturday morning. The room is buzzing with conversation and Jesus is reclining at a table in the back of the room. He’s watching how everyone is tripping over themselves to get one of the best seats in the house. The atmosphere is far from holy and reverent as one would expect a Shabbat to be.
If we’ve been paying attention to the lectionary readings from Luke this year, we already know how Jesus feels about table fellowship. He dined at the house of Levi, a tax collector, who would become one of Jesus disciples. When the Pharisees heard about this they grumbled “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” [Lk 5:27-31]
While dining at the house of a Pharisee, Jesus allowed a woman to anoint his feet, causing quite a controversy. The Pharisee who invited Jesus said, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” [Lk 7:36-50]
On a hillside near the city of Bethsaida, Jesus told the disciples to feed the large crowd who had gathered to hear him speak. The disciples thought Jesus was crazy and gave him the five loaves and two fish they had with them. We know the rest of the story. Jesus fed over 5,000 people with this meager offering and had leftovers to spare. He didn’t check to see if everyone was a devout Jew. He fed everyone who was gathered on that hillside. [Lk 9:10-17]
We know from stories such as these that Jesus’ table was a very large one indeed. He dined with the holy and not-so holy. Males and females. Jews and Gentiles. It’s just the way that Jesus rolled! Meals were a symbol of community and inclusiveness. They were a sign that the Kingdom of God is open to all who accept the invitation to come and dine.
So, when Jesus saw the Sabbath meal being turned into a schmooze-fest, he was not amused. As he watched the guests make fools of themselves in order to secure the most powerful seats in the house, Jesus couldn’t remain silent any longer.
At first, he sounded a bit like Miss Manners or a Dear Abbey column: “Let me tell you a story. 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; and 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. But 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.”
Jesus, saw many heads nodding in agreement. It made perfect sense and it made a few of the guests feel little embarrassed at their behavior. Then, Jesus continued, and left no doubt that he was talking about more than table manners. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” A few of those invited started getting a little nervous and began squirming in their seats.
Then Jesus turned to the Pharisee who had invited him and said, “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.” The host was seething with anger, and a collective gasp was heard across the room.
Jesus continued, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” Oh, no he didn’t! Oh, yes he did! Jesus brought this Sabbath meal to a screeching halt. He challenged the status game that had reared its ugly head that night.
Like the Reagan family in Blue Bloods, I suspect a number of people, including the host, were ready to slam their fork down on the table, scoot back their chairs and walk out of the room. While Luke doesn’t tell us what happened next, maybe, just maybe, Jesus summoned his inner Tom Select and made everyone sit down and try to work things out. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus pulled it off and everyone learned a valuable lesson that night. However, my sneaking suspicion is that the host and his guests felt like hurling Jesus off a cliff.
There is a similar story back in Luke 4 at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’s in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth. It’s the Sabbath and he’s invited to stand up and read the Torah. Jesus asks for the scroll of Isaiah. He unrolls it and begins to read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, and says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, God’s kingdom is among us now. The rules are being rewritten. God is exalting the humble and humbling the exalted. Then he gives those in the synagogue two examples of God doing a miracle for Gentiles but not for Jews.
Luke ends the story by saying, “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” [Lk 4:16-29]
Going back to our gospel lesson, I suspect the host and his guests had a similar reaction to what Jesus said. Let’s be honest, Jesus was not crucified for being a nice guy who spoke pious platitudes to the masses. His message was dangerous and controversial, at least to those in power who wanted to stay in power!
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, as a table where all were invited to come and dine, would become one of the central images of the Christian faith. It’s the reason why we come to the Table every week to share bread and wine. In Christian-Speak we call this a “foretaste of the feast to come.” However, I would argue that it’s a taste of how things ought to be. It’s a taste of the Kingdom of God. Right here. Right now.
My hope is that our gospel lesson challenges us to ask ourselves “How big is our table?” As a church? As a family? As individuals? Do we invite all to come and dine and be a part of our lives with no strings attached or pre-existing conditions? Is our circle of friends a closed one or an open one? Do all of our friends look and think exactly like us or do we welcome others into our lives whose beliefs and opinions might be quite different from our own?
Make no mistake about it. Our gospel lesson is more than a lesson in table manners or humility. It is a litmus test for us as followers of Christ. Jesus challenges us to have a very large table in life. It’s the kind of table that welcomes the homeless to Sunday breakfast at Pritchard Park. It’s the kind of table that includes non-Christians in our circle of friends. It’s the kind of table where all are welcome including those who criticize us for being too welcoming.
Make no mistake about it, our gospel lesson challenges us all to do a difficult thing. I can guarantee it will not be well received by everyone. Can we summon the courage to be visible signs of the Kingdom of God. Right here. Right now? I hope so. Because in an age where everyone is polarized and suspicious of the “other,” our witness of the welcoming table of Christ is needed now more than ever! Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck