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I’m one of those rare people who have never watched an episode of the show Game of Thrones: all I know is context-free cultural references. But over the past eight years it’s been impossible not to hear about things like the Red Wedding, the White Walkers, dragons, armies, and a gripping mix of violence, intrigue, and high fantasy, all centered around the manipulations, alliances, and betrayals involved in jockeying for the right to sit on the Iron Throne.
Palace intrigue, jockeying for position: it’s a formula that seems to work for TV in general. It’s been at the heart of other recent series from The Tudors (set in 16th-century England) to House of Cards (set in modern-day Washington). The record-setting number of hirings and firings in the current presidential administration means we hear a lot about the game of power in real life too. It’s a game with lots of strategies. But false humility is often a good one. It pays to be visible, but not too visible. People in power don’t like to be outshined. You don’t want to overplay your hand. Better to bide your time, kiss up to the boss or king or president, and then bask in their praise when it comes your way.
Now Jesus’ parable about taking the lowest seat at a banquet seems a bit strange, in that it seems to fit right into this pattern. Don’t march right up and sit by the host only to be embarrassed; instead, act humble and then reap the rewards. It seems to have more in common with Game of Thrones than with the upside-down values of God’s kingdom. It’s conventional wisdom, all right. It actually echoes our first reading from Proverbs almost word for word. So there’s not much original that Jesus is saying here. Which probably means that we have to look deeper.
One important thing about this story is the situation in which Jesus tells it. Luke tells us he says this while at a banquet, watching the guests jockey for their seat positions. So this isn’t about abstract theoretical advice. Instead, it’s almost as if Jesus is naming the elephant in the room by describing exactly the behavior he’s seeing. It’s as if, while the guests sidle up to the head table while trying not to look too obvious, Jesus announces to the room, “You know what would work even better?” And then reminds them of this bit of canny folk wisdom from the book of Proverbs. It’s as if, perhaps, Jesus isn’t so much suggesting that false humility is the best way to get ahead, as exposing the absurdity of the entire game.
And now after exposing it, he doubles down by imagining a world beyond those games entirely, where the point isn’t to gain honor and respect in the eyes of others, but to give them away. “When you give a banquet, don’t invite your friends and neighbors who can repay you. When you give a banquet, invite those who are poor, those who can’t repay you.” Put it on God’s tab, Jesus says. You’ll be repaid all right, but not in the world’s currency. Not in job prospects or gossip-column mentions or Twitter likes. Not in this world’s terms, but those of the next.
How do we practice Jesus’ call to live like this, a life not based on status or reciprocation but on totally free, lavish grace?
One way we try, a little bit, here at Incarnation is our Sunday morning Open Table breakfast. Every week, before our 8:00 service, we serve a hot breakfast to all comers. It’s free. It’s good. You can have some, no matter who you are. It’s a small, imperfect, but real and meaningful sign of God’s kingdom. It’s a perfect counterpart to the other breakfast we celebrate each Sunday, the one in this room around this table. That one is a full meal, with plates and silverware and napkins. This one is ritualized, with a morsel and sip for all. Each of these two meals is a a symbol of the great wedding banquet we’re all invited to. And these two meals need each other, in a way. The Open Table breakfast is an invitation for all, offered freely in the name of Jesus. For those who find themselves drawn to Jesus by that invitation, there’s an invitation to join him in another way by sharing his body and blood at this table. But for those who share his body and blood at this table, the very life of Jesus we receive here catapults us back out to love and serve and seek our neighbors, maybe by serving at Open Table, among all the other ways we might find ourselves living out our call to follow Jesus in the world.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” says our second lesson this morning; “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” It’s a reference to an ancient story of Abraham and Sarah, who showed hospitality to three traveling strangers who turned out to be the angels of the LORD. But it’s also a reference for all of us, because each time we are generous, each time we offer kindness to a stranger, each time we give without thinking about the return, it’s to God that we are giving.
May God teach and train our hearts, day by day, to be soft and generous. May this eucharist fill us with the life of Jesus, and send us into the world to serve. May we live a life beyond status, beyond prestige, where all are welcome because all are guests of the one who gave everything for us.