The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17), Year C.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “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. 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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”Luke 14:1, 7-14
Perhaps the most important thing I ever learned in Seminary was the value of having guests over. For me, graduate school was the first time I truly lived on my own. Sure, I had lived by myself in single dorm rooms as an undergraduate, but that was with a meal plan, custodial staff that took care of the common areas, and frankly, before any of my friends and I had any real standards or understanding of decorum. Yet when I moved on to graduate school, suddenly I was truly on my own; fully responsible for my own care, and though I had many friends nearby, for the first time I had to live alone with the worst roommate imaginable: me.
While I’ve always been a social person, I had never truly appreciated guests and how to be a host until I lived on my own for the first time. While so often we think of the host and their generosity in welcoming someone into their home, I learned that it is the guest who is always more generous. More than fending off loneliness, more than intellectually stimulating conversation, more than all the polite and pious things we say about the benefits of guests, I learned the truth about the gift guests bestow upon their hosts. Were it not for company coming over, my house never would have been clean.
Despite being raised in a good Christian home, one where I was taught that cleanliness was next to godliness, in my early years living on my own the message never quite stuck, in ironic contrast to the grease stains on my cookware that I never quite knew how to get off. Despite preferring to live in a clean home, I learned that when left totally to my own devices, it was all too easy to make excuses, to lower standards, to accept “good enough” in place of “done right”. It became clear that if I were living only by and for myself, my discipline slipped, and I lived as a lesser version of myself. Yet when I knew I had guests coming, I transformed into a vengeful angel of tidiness. Though I clearly did not love myself enough to keep my home clean for me, out of love for my neighbors, or at least to keep up the illusion of being a functioning adult, being a host was the only thing that would make my home spotless.
It is this mutual love between guest and host that the author of Hebrews exhorts us to continue, and the subject of the parable Jesus teaches us today. The love expressed in hospitality is a fundamental human experience that transcends time, space, and culture. Hospitality is a need as basic as the food shared in the meal. In welcoming people into our home, or being welcomed into a home, we get a taste of the heavenly banquet that Jesus alludes to when He speaks of the “resurrection of the righteous”. Because hospitality is not about what the meal is, how the decorations are, or even how well the conversation goes, but truly loving your neighbor as yourself. And of course, in the desire to treat guests well, or to at least try to look like civilized human beings, it’s one of the most powerful motivators for us to clean our house, literally and spiritually.
The ancient world that Jesus and the author of Hebrews lived in was one steeped in a culture of hospitality, much like our own. While the basic principles of mutual love between guest and host have never changed, the world of the New Testament was dictated by a complex code of honor, hospitality, and hierarchy. It was a world run by the patriarchy and the needs of the family above the needs of any individual member. It was also a harsher world where without the collective, unified effort of the family and hospitality of the community, for most people destitution or death were one or two bad harvests away. For the wealthy, it was world of patronage and beneficiary. Where nearness to the patron would be difference between living and obscurity or being in the place of honor. Yet for both the poor and the rich there was a common understanding of what hospitality meant. When guests were in your care, they were not a stranger passing through, but a member of your family. It was expected that the hosts would do anything for their guests, honor them, feed them, wash their feet, give them a place to stay, protect them from harm, and in the most dire circumstances, die for them.
It is this world of complex social hierarchy paired with an ideal of radical welcome that Jesus gave His parable. At that dinner with the Pharisees watching, waiting to catch a slip in manners from either Jesus or His host, Jesus teaches us what hospitality really means. The table they were sitting at would have been shaped like a “U”, with the host at the center, the guest of honor at his right hand, and the servers or entertainers coming in and out of the opening at the center. The social standing of all the rest of the guests would be clearly communicated by their nearness to the host. If you sat in the wrong spot, you would be corrected. Which is why Jesus gives remarkably practical advice in the parable, better to be honored by the host inviting you nearer to him than face the shame of being sent further down the table.
But like all of Jesus’ parables, there’s more to this than a guide to good table manners. In His teaching that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” and that His hosts should invite the poor to their dinners rather than those who could return the favor, He is proclaiming how in God’s banquet, there is no complex social hierarchy with assigned seats. In the coming kingdom that Jesus preaches, all will share in the prosperity and generosity of God their host. Jesus’ teaching shows us how easily and often we forget what hospitality means. We worry about who sits in the place of honor, how we can keep up appearances, how we can match or even surpass the generosity of the host, missing that the point of hospitality is mutual love.
But how do we live out this hospitality? How can we embody the heavenly banquet that Jesus tells us of? Remember what hospitality is. Hospitality is inviting people into our homes, our hearts, our lives. Hospitality is welcoming someone to be a part of the family. It is honoring them, caring for them, providing for them, protecting them.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
I would go a step further than the author of Hebrews, it is not some that have entertained angels without knowing it, but rather all have entertained angels without knowing it. Of course, in his statement he has a particular story in mind, all the way back in Genesis where Abraham and Sarah host the angels. But angels aren’t people with wings, or incomprehensible beings covered with eyes and wheels within wheels, or chubby babies with wings. The word that we translate as “angel” simply means “messenger”. Angels are beings who deliver God’s message. The funny thing about the stories that Hebrews refers to, to Abraham and others who encountered them, the angels looked just like ordinary people. What distinguished them was that they carried with them a message from God, and of course, they were guests.
While it may not always be practical to constantly host lavish feasts, or expect all guests to be angels, or open your physical home to every person that passes by, we can still be a part of that heavenly banquet, right here, right now. Hospitality isn’t the meal, the seating arrangement, or the decorations, hospitality is mutual love. It’s inviting people into your family, your home, your mind, your heart. It’s being a place of refuge, welcome, and generosity to all people, especially God’s beloved that the world neglects. It’s remembering that no matter how ill-mannered the guest, by inviting them in, you are hearing God’s message. No matter how challenging they may be, you may be entertaining angels without even knowing it. Because in a hospitable heart that celebrates mutual love, all guests are gifts. And the one gift that guests always bring is the motivation to clean up our living space, our heart and our home. Amen.