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Readings: 14th Sunday after Trinity

23 August 2013


Proper 17: Ecclesiasticus 10.12-18 or Proverbs 25.6-7; Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16; Luke 14.7-14

Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THIS week's readings begin by sounding a little like Miss Manners's book of etiquette, but they have a distinct sting in the tail.

Luke asks us to imagine a banquet with no seating plan. Where people sat was dictated by their estimation of themselves in relation to the other people present, and, tantalisingly, Luke does not say where Jesus was seated. His parable would be heard differently by those coming from the lowest place rather than from the place of honour.

By referring to a wedding banquet, Jesus was alluding to the Kingdom of God, which alerts us that some unexpected distinguished guests have been invited. Exploring this, R. S. Thomas's poem "The Kingdom" vividly describes festivals in which the poor man is king.

Like last week's story, this happened on a sabbath. The fact that Jesus was invited to a Pharisee's house for the sabbath, when meals were essentially family occasions, and that he had recently been warned by some Pharisees about Herod's violent intentions towards him (Luke 13.31) sheds light on Jesus's recognition in pharisaic society. Certainly, Luke paints Pharisees in a kinder light than do the other Gospel-writers, and this host was not just a Pharisee, but a leader of the Pharisees.

There were, however, underlying tensions, and Luke tells us that "they were watching Jesus closely." Jesus adopted a trusted rabbinic method of teaching by illustrating a scriptural saying with a memorable story. Essentially, Proverbs and the first half of the Gospel say the same thing about how to behave when invited to a banquet, except that Jesus brought Proverbs' principles from the royal court down to earth with plain good sense about avoiding humiliation.

With the bit between his teeth, Jesus then turned on his host, and made a bold criticism of his guest list. We can imagine heads turning, as a shocked silence descended, and, were we to read on, we might hear one of the guests break it with a pious statement. That simply gave Jesus a platform for another parable about people who refused hospitality, before he again commended his socially bizarre guest list of the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, who could not repay the hospitality they experienced - as he himself could not, since he was travelling to Jerusalem.

It appears that his message was not heard, because one of the criticisms that the Pharisees made of Jesus, soon after this incident (Luke 15.2), was his astonishing choice of dining companions, which included tax-collectors and sinners - the religious scum of the earth at the time.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews were instructed to show hospitality to strangers, and to remember those in prison as though in prison with them. Durham has three jails, and once the Dean and I were in a Victorian cell-block in Durham Prison, with excellent views (through barbed wire) of the cathedral. Prisoners kept inviting us: "Come and see the view from my cell."

The story goes that, at the cathedral's behest, the prison was designed with cathedral views rather than blank walls, as a humanitarian gesture. Whether or not this is true, the prisoners certainly remember us, and we remember them in our prayers, and through various contacts, including the choir men's singing evensong in their chapel.

Even without going into prison, offering hospitality is something we can all do. Years ago, I moved to a new area, and on the first Sunday I attended the local church, I was invited to lunch with a family. Rarely in all the years I lived there did I eat Sunday lunch on my own, because hospitality was a way of life in that church. Not surprisingly, it was a growing congregation.

Recently, a family arrived at Durham Cathedral after evensong in distress; on receiving tragic news, they had dropped everything to drive 15 miles to the cathedral. It was a hot day, and the father apologised for not being properly dressed; so I reassured him that his presence was more important than his clothing.

We prayed and lit candles. It was a small gesture, but it restored some peace for them, and his tearful thanks were profuse. He called me an angel. But perhaps he was an angel for me.

In our churches, we have a banquet to offer people in need, and God appears to have no seating plan for his extraordinary guest list.

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