Which Part Will We Play? - A reorienting parable


A sermon on Luke 14: 1,7-14 [for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

An interesting challenge arose in my Tuesday morning Bible study on the lectionary texts this week. One of the other pastors commented that, despite what Luke says, this reading doesn’t really give us a parable.

I understand what he was talking about. We are used to parables told as fictional stories ("There was a man...") or at least as similes ("the kingdom of heaven is like…”) But here, Jesus is directly addressing the other people at the party he is attending: “when you are invited to a party, do this…” This sounds a lot more like the Bible’s wisdom literature than like a parable (in fact, there is a Proverb that sounds very much like Jesus’ advice to the other guests).

But Luke makes the point of telling us that this teaching is a parable, and so I think it can benefit us to apply what we know about parables to our interpretation of this gospel passage. If you have taken any of my bible study classes on the parables, you will know that there are three important tools for mining the rich teaching potential of Jesus’ parables:

  1. Play all the parts

  2. The lessons are in how the story disorients us

  3. The parable isn’t complete until we finish it in our own lives.

For the time being, we will set aside the third point and consider what disorientation we can discover by playing the various parts Jesus presents us with in this unusual parable:

The first things to notice is that Jesus’s grammar, at least in the original Greek, invites this “playing different parts” way of hearing the parable. He uses the subjunctive voice in his verbs,[1] suggesting possibility for other ways of being. So, for instance, rather than translating verse 8 as “do not sit down at the place of honor…” it would be closer to the original to say “may you not seat yourself…” Jesus is giving the dinner guests the option to try on a different role than the one they have been playing.

The role they have been playing, of course – and our first part to try on – is the role of the honor-seeking guest, the guest who is seeking to advance themselves and claim what they think they deserve.

I doubt any of us really want to put on this role. We have probably all been socialized not to behave like obvious narcissists who only care about their own egos. But jockeying for the best seat is just one possible symptom of something much deeper – the need for the outward trappings of honor and admiration to affirm our value, our worth.

Maybe this looks like needing the “place of honor”, but it might instead look like all kinds of other insecurities – being self-conscious about our possessions, or our appearance, or our job, or our education, or our political affiliations, or anything that makes us defensive… anything that triggers a compulsive need to cast ourselves in the best light. To prove that we are worthy. We might not need the best seat at the party, but I bet most of us can relate to this broader need for “honor.”

The disorientation that Jesus offers to this role in the parable is the recognition that this kind of seeking after externally-assigned worth is actually a trap. If we look behind the surface level of his Proverbial advice, we see that when we position ourselves based on our appetite for affirmation, we have already lost, because we have given the power to declare our worth over to others. Sure, we can scheme to position ourselves with false humility to try to manipulate that affirmation, but we are still helpless and insecure… depending on others to tell us we matter. We are still liable to be humbled in our efforts to be exalted.

And, moreover, in our scheming, we are tacitly denying that God is our true source of a value that CANNOT be diminished by what others think of us.

So that is our first role, and our first disorientation. What about the second?” Well, Jesus next turns his attention on his host, with a rather pointed rebuke.

When you give a party, don’t invite all the people that have something to offer you: people with high social status and resources, the kinds of people who will pay you back… instead invite the people whom everyone sees as a drain, and a waste, the ones who get ignored and excluded.”

So, how does it feel to try on this role?

My first instinct is to say “it doesn’t fit at all.” After all, my first career was in anti-poverty work. I’m all about welcoming the marginalized and providing for people in need. Plus, I tend to react against transactional ways of structuring relationships, where everyone has to pay their own way and I’ll only scratch your back because you scratched mine. That’s not my ethic.

But Jesus isn’t talking about generalities. He isn’t vaguely contrasting transactional versus relational ethics. Jesus is rebuking the host for the people he invites into his own home. Jesus makes this parable concrete and he makes it personal. He’s asking, are you willing to make yourself vulnerable to being taken advantage of? To giving and getting nothing in return? To being shaped by generosity and welcome, even if it costs you by all measures on this side of eternity?

The disorientation that Jesus offers to the host role in the parable, is the reorienting claim that God doesn’t value “fairness” in the same way that we do. Because God claims the ultimate responsibility for repaying welcome and generosity, and that repayment is not given here and now.

Jesus’ host is just operating according to the standard wisdom and practice of his time. He’s not doing anything outrageous or immoral. But Jesus still tells him he’s doing it wrong, because he’s accommodating the ways of the world, and forgetting that God’s way turns this world upside down.

As one scholar summarizes, Luke’s gospel presents a theme of “status reversal, the idea that the current power structure and values of this world will be turned upside down by the reign of God.”[2]

Or, to put it as Jesus does “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11)

Which means that the role of the host is disorienting for me too. Because even with my relational ethics and my desire to welcome the poor there are plenty of ways that I am rewarded by this world’s system of power and values, and I’m not sure I really want all that turned upside down. There are ways I am currently “exalted,” and I don’t want to be “humbled.”

Which leads me to the third role in today’s parable. It’s a role I never noticed until this week, even though I have read this passage countless times, because it’s a role Jesus doesn’t TALK about…. Rather, it’s the role he plays.

If the narrative context of the parable Jesus is telling is the party he is actually attending, then the “parts to play” include not only the honor-seeking party-goers, and the rebuked host… there is also the offensive guest. Because that’s exactly who Jesus is in this scene.

Jesus is presumably an honored guest at this party – playing the role of the philosopher at a Roman-style symposium.[3] But he’s breaking all the rules that this honored position proscribes. He’s calling out the other guests’ arrogance and selfishness; he’s questioning the social rules of obligation and inclusion by which his host is operating.

In fact, despite the advice he gives the other guests about how to scheme their way into social acknowledgement, he’s doing everything he can to LOSE his own place of honor!

And in doing so, he is giving us all the option of a different role to play.

A role that doesn’t get hung up on other people’s opinions.

A role that doesn’t give power to a messed up social system that determines people’s worth based on what they contribute, or what we can get from them.

A role that is willing to offend people in defense of God’s way of doing things.

Jesus gives us the option of a role that IS, in itself, a disorientation relative to the rules and expectations of society, because it is oriented always and only to God’s kingdom way. And in presenting us with this third role to play in his enacted parable, Jesus is asking us how we will finish the parable in our own lives:

Will we follow his surface-level advice about how to manipulate social approval, and in doing so stay trapped in our insecurities?

Will we limit our welcome (in our homes, or our churches, or our country) to those who can be counted on to pay us back, and to offer no challenge to the social systems that benefit us?

Or will we be unapologetic about following Jesus’s example? An example that gives its loyalty and its concern not to questions of ego or advantage, but always and only to God’s upside down reign?

This is a challenging question! It cuts straight to our core identity. It’s a parable that, on my own, I know I won’t be able to finish the way I want to in my life. I need grace for this kind of transformation, for this kind of reorientation.

And so, I want to finish my sermon with a prayer written by pastor and author Ted Loder. It’s called “Crazed into Holy Awareness.” [4] Please join your hearts to this prayer.

Come, Lord Jesus,

confront us as a prophet:

disturb our indifference,

expose our practiced phoniness,

shatter our brittle certainties,

deflate our arrogant sophistries

and craze us into a holy awareness

of our common humanity

and so of our bony, bloody need

to love mercy,

do justly,

and walk humbly with you

- and with ourselves,

trusting that whatever things it may be too late for,

prayer is not one of them,

nor a chance,

nor change,

nor passion,

nor laughter,

nor starting yet again

to risk a way to be together,

nor a wild, far-sighted claim

that this human stuff of yours

is stronger still than fail or time,

graced to share a kingdom

and spirited for you.

Amen.

[1] See the translation and explanation by D. Mark Davis: http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/08/inviter-and-invitee-integrity-inverted.html

[2] Amanda Miller, quoted in The Gospel of Luke by Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witheringto III, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, p.395.

[3] The Gospel of Luke by Amy-Jill Levine & Ben Witheringto III, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, p 387.

[4] Wrestling the Light: Ache and Awe in the Human-Divine Struggle: Prayers and Stories

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