The Welcome Table
There is an old spiritual with verses that start with these words:
I’m gonna sit at the welcome table, hallelujah!
I’m gonna feast on milk and honey, hallelujah!
I’m gonna tell God how you treat me, hallelujah!
All God’s children gonna sit together, hallelujah!
This song originated among those who believed that they were God’s honored guests,even though they were not welcome at the tables where they were. After all, Jesus himself was not exactly embraced with open arms at some of the dinner parties he attended. In today’s gospel story, the invitation to the meal at the house of the Pharisees was not motivated by welcome and hospitality so much as by wariness and hostility. In one of their most bitter condemnations of him, the Pharisees observed that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” This was a serious matter. But Jesus did not seem to worry about who should be in and who should be out. No, he acted as if there was a place at the table for everyone and everyone was welcome there.
For the religious leaders of the day, this was more than they could stomach. What was the use of being in if no one was out? How could you consider yourself one of the haves if there were no have-nots? If love was not limited, how could the religious leaders have any special claim on it.
Well, Jesus had little patience for those kinds of views. As far as he was concerned, everybody was in, there should be no have-nots, and love, his love, could never be limited. Yes, as far as Jesus was concerned, unlike the Pharisees, everybody had a place at the table.
And maybe they could have coped with that. Maybe it would not have seemed too bad if Jesus had stuck to at least some of the rules of protocol. Maybe it would be okay for everyone to come the dinner as long as the really important people got to sit at the head table. But Jesus would not allow even that. He told them a parable, one that might be entitled “the humiliated guest”.
When you are invited to a fancy dinner party, he said to them, do not take it upon yourself to choose the best seat in the house because you might be embarrassed when the host comes and says “You have to move to the children’s table. Someone more important has arrived and needs to sit here.”
Jesus told them that it was better to seat yourself at the children’s table to start with than to presume on a seat of honor. Besides, there was always the chance that the host would relocate you to the head table.
And the teaching of the parable is this: Everyone who humbles himself will be exalted, but everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. It is a kind of double reversal. Not only will the lowly be raised up, but also the high and mighty will be brought down.
I like to think that Jesus learned this teaching from his mother. After all, she proclaimed it before he did, before he was even born, in that wonderful song that is known in the church as the Magnificat. Listen to the words of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. … He has shown strength with his arm: he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Mary knew from before the beginning that her boy-child would turn things upside down. His cousin John knew it, too. He proclaimed that this one would fulfill the ancient prophesy: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”
The hungry fed and rich dismissed, the lowly lifted and the powerful dethroned, mountains leveled and valleys filled: This was the good news that Jesus would proclaim, did proclaim, the good news of the gospel. But whether it seems like good news to those who hear it might depend on where they sit. If you are used to sitting at the head table your whole life, you might have a hard time giving up your seat, especially for one you don’t think belongs at the dinner party in the first place. But remember Jesus’ teaching: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The Pharisees heard this as a loss of privilege and status, and certainly it was. And I suppose they found all this even more offensive because it went hand in hand with the elevation of those they saw as unworthy. In their eyes, it must have seemed that their loss was another’s gain. But I don’t think it felt like that to Jesus. I think he was telling them something very different. I think he was saying to them: “You are all made in the image of God. You are all equal in the sight of your creator. “ Those who had placed themselves above others had forgotten this, and those who had been stuck at the bottom never had a chance to understand it. What Jesus was doing was bringing about equality: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” These two groups shall find themselves face to face, equal in the sight of the world and in the sight of God, equal in the sight of each other.
That is what Jesus had in mind, I think, and it made folks down-right uncomfortable, at least the folks who were accustomed to the reserved seats. I suspect some of them would just as soon not even come to the table if they had to do it that way.
Whether it is the Pharisees of long ago, or the Pharisees of our own times, there have always been some who will not accept the invitation Jesus offers because it comes on his terms, not theirs. They are the ones who think they can be holier than the Lord – imagine that -- but what happens is that they are not holy at all. I suppose they think the party won’t happen without them. But this party goes on, no matter what, and what happens is that they end up missing the celebration altogether.
In the world where we live, a world dominated by the powerful and important, there are lot of little folks that seem to have no place. There are a lot of folks who seem to have missed out on the world’s celebrations. But they are the very ones for whom Jesus is saving seats at the table.At his table everyone will be welcome, and everyone will get the best seat. In the kingdom of God, the high and mighty and the low and least are made equal. It’s the gospel. And it really is good news.
And there is one more thing about this party that Jesus hosts. He doesn’t expect a return invitation. There is no obligation, no expectation of repayment. There is only grace, the free grace of God, unconditional love with no strings attached. And those who would live in the kingdom with him are supposed to entertain in the same way. “When you give a dinner,” he says”, 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 party, 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.”
Not only does he want some seats saved for the least and the unlikely, but he also wants us to go out of our way to invite them to the table in the first place. Not because they can repay our hospitality – they can’t. Not because they deserve it – they don’t. But then, we don’t deserve it either and Jesus has welcomed us.
There are a lot ways to obey this commandment. You open your doors to any who would come. You minister to those who have no means of making any contribution to the church. You put a lot of effort into programs for a bunch of children, for heaven’s sake,who certainly aren’t putting anything much in the collection plate. This is the kingdom way. Everyone is equal, and the gift is free.
Now there are some that will think this doesn’t make any sense, and they will pay no attention to it. There are others who will throw up their hands in despair because what Jesus asks seems impossible. And there are some who will read this scripture and nod and smile and go away unchanged because they think this teaching of Jesus is just a nice story for church but not very useful anywhere else.
But every now and then, someone will take this teaching seriously. That is one of the things I love about being with you. You think the gospel is important. You act as though Jesus really meant what he said. You live as though the kingdom is coming.
You do this in church, but I think you also know that you don’t have to be in church to live this way. Sometimes the kingdom breaks through in the midst of everyday life. Sometimes the welcome table is spread where we least expect it.
Let me tell you a story about this, a true story and a kind of parable of the gospel, about a woman named Kathleen Gooley. It happened several years ago but her story has stayed with me.
Kathleen was living in Norwalk, Connecticut, and she was planning to be married. Her June wedding included a fancy reception and she had met with the caterer and planned the menu and paid her money. Then Kathleen’s groom had second thoughts, and the wedding was canceled. But Kathleen learned could not get all her money back for the reception.
So she decided to throw a party and invite people who could really use a celebration. As she said to a newspaper reporter, “Why waste a good party?”
Kathleen invited a lot of ill and elderly homeless folks to her party. She had 118 places reserved at a sit-down dinner served on fine china, with real linens, and fancy hor d’oevres and dessert.
You see, Kathleen herself had been homeless once, only for a couple of nights, but she ended up in a shelter with her 2-month old baby. She knew what it was like. So when she had a party that needed guests, she knew who to invite: Not her friends or her family or her rich neighbors – certainly not her would-have-been in-laws. When Kathleen gave a party, she used the same guest list as Jesus: she invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. She had been one of them; she knew. Why waste a good party?
And isn’t that what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows, too. After all, he was also one of them, a homeless man, persecuted, arrested unjustly, executed as a common criminal. But he also knows that the kingdom of God is waiting, like a great party lacking only the guests. He knows that the table is set and the places reserved. All is ready. He knows because it is with his own body and blood that the Table has been prepared.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, O Lord, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith
(c) Martha C. Highsmith