An Open Table where Love knows no borders

The Awkwardness of Being a Guest

A sermon on Luke 14:1-24 by the Revd Dr Cas Wepener,
Professor of practical theology and preaching at Stellenbosch University in South Africa

A video recording of the whole liturgy, including this sermon, is available here.

Two months ago, my wife Clara and I traveled on invitation to Germany for work. And as long as we were there, we were guests of the people who invited us. We reclined at German tables. We enjoyed lots of German food and of course also a couple of beers. And for as long we travelled, we were dependent on our hosts. 

Our time in Germany was thus very different to how we live in South Africa. In Germany we were guests. In South Africa we are usually the hosts, often also hosts for German guests and sometimes Australian guests. In South Africa we are in charge as the hosts. When we travel, we know we are as guests who are not in charge.

In Luke 14 we are in the so-called Travel Narrative of this gospel. Jesus is not at home. He and His disciples are en route, they are travelling. The travelling makes them guests, also guests at the table of various hosts. Luke chapter 14 is a prime example of the travelling Jesus en route to Jerusalem, or, put differently, of Jesus the guest.

However, Jesus has, and take note, I say this with all due respect, but Jesus the guest has very bad table manners. Given the customs of His day, He does not adhere to table etiquette as is expected. If Jesus was my son and we were at the same table, I would have made big eyes for Him, gently lifting a finger indicating “no no”, behave, you are a guest, you cannot say and do that! 

However, by means of His Jesus’ bad table manners, He conveys a message. 

Why do I say Jesus has bad table manners, what is happening here and what is He communicating? I will quickly recall what is happening in this chapter from verse 1 to 24 as it forms a unit.

In verse 1 we read it is a Sabbath day and Jesus is at the house of one of the leader Pharisees. Luke is thus telling us – here comes trouble. Jesus is known for challenging Pharisees on the Sabbath day. And then immediately Jesus heals a person that had dropsy. Dropsy is an illness where the body suffers from water retention. 

Dropsy had in those days the symbolic meaning of always longing for more, almost like the water that is retained by the body. No matter how much fluid is taken in, the thirst can never be quenched. You always want more: more power, more belongings, and especially more honor. With this healing Jesus is symbolically saying to the Pharisee and his guests: “today I am healing all of you of your illness of always wanting more”. We thus have a clue regarding what is to follow.

After the healing Jesus watches how the guests run to take the places of honor at the table. And right here you have it – they all have dropsy for honor! Thereafter Jesus tells a story in which he says they must not run for the places with the most honor, they should humbly take the seats that are the least. 

Then Jesus turns to his host: He tells him that he should not have invited people who can invite him back. No, the host should rather have invited the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. In other words, people who cannot afford to invite him back and from whose presence he will gain nothing.

Friends, just imagine the situation. I am a South African guest in Melbourne. I am at your home for a meal, as your guest. Firstly, I insult all the other guests you have invited. I call them gluttons for honor. And, to top it all, I then turn to you and insult you by saying he should not have invited these people who can in turn invite you back for a meal, no, you should have had a different guest list.

Have you ever been in such a situation? It is when you are at a dinner party, but them someone says something inappropriate. Say for example it is this beautiful setting and one of guests tells a joke in bad taste. What usually happens then, is that a silence falls. Everyone is now awkward and thinks, o my goodness, this is terrible, how embarrassing. And what happens next? Yes, there is someone at the table who tries to save the day. A person who tries to shift the attention away from the very embarrassing situation.

This is similar to what happens in Luke 14:15. Jesus the guest just insulted both host and guests and then a man tries to shift the focus by saying: “Blessed is the one who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.” Well, this remark does not work in the way the man hoped that it would. 

No, Jesus takes the remark like a fish takes bait and starts to tell the parable about the banquet in the Kingdom of God. 

He tells us about a man, meaning God, hosting a feast. God invites people to His table, but they all have excuses. They don’t accept the invitation and the Host gets angry and tells his slave to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Later also the people on the roads and the alley ways.

Friends, can you imagine that table in the Kingdom? Can you see who is at the end of that parable sitting at that table? Well, if we return to Jesus at this table on a Sabbath day on His way to Jerusalem, also the Pharisee hosting Jesus and all the guests at that table and compare that table with the table Jesus described in this parable, then not one of them is sitting at that table in the Kingdom.

I know, this sounds like bad news for some. It sounds like exclusion. And who is this guest preacher from South Africa to bring this message to Australians today? 

Friends, the text clearly states that at that table, there is always “ετι τοπος”, that is Greeks for “more place” or there is “still room”. There is more room at the table in the Kingdom.

I believe the invitation described in this parable about the table in the Kingdom of God still stands today. It is an invitation that I want to connect to a verse from Matthew chapter 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Let’s rephrase it to, “Come you who are all constantly being hosts and become guests”.

And I believe it is an invitation at this particular time of our history, to accept the invitation to become guests.

It is an invitation for this preacher and all visitors who are this morning guests of South Yarra Baptist Church.

It is an invitation for all Australians and South Africans people who are guests in the world.

It is an invitation for the whole world whose inhabitants are guests of God.

This is an invitation for all of us who are like Jesus and his disciples in Luke 14, busy with the Travel Narrative of life. There are many reasons why some of us are weary and heavy burdened on the journey of life and needs rest. I believe the invitation today, translated by this guest preacher in August 2022, may also state: “come to me, join my table, all you hosts who are weary and burdened, and become guests”. 

I would love to tell you that God stands with open arms and a smiling face at God’s table, inviting us. But that is not what the text tells us. It says that God became angry. That God stands with crossed arms and a deep frown, somewhat fed-up with the people that were invited and who did not accept the invitation. Come, God says, come to my table, don’t bring wine or flowers or chocolates, but do bring your identity. Bring who you are.

What do I mean? I think today this invitation is for people like myself, people who are always shying away from the identity of being a guest, and who try to be perfect hosts. Bring that identity of trying to be perfect; of trying to be in control; that identity of always trying to be strong, trying to keep it all together. Come, God says earnestly, come and be my guest. Not my hosts, but my guests. 

Today you are invited by the great Host to become a guest. Why do I say so? It is because a guest has a much more fragile presence, than a host. A guest knows, she is not in charge. A guest knows, he is simultaneously welcome and at home and a stranger and sojourner. 

There is a huge difference between the Pharisee host and his honor seeking guests, also all the people who did not accept the invitation in Luke 14, and the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. The people who did accept the invitation are fragile people. They know they are guests on earth. 

This invitation to become a guest, is also a harsh invitation to crucify aspects of my identity. It is very challenging. It feels like what I felt last year when our eldest daughter got her learner’s driver’s license and I had to teach her to drive in my own car. Suddenly, I was not the host of my car, the one behind the steering wheel, I was the guest. At times I had the urge to scream at her “what are you doing!” and to grab the steering wheel or tell her to stop and get out, I will drive. But there was no way that she could have learned to drive if I did not get out from behind the steering wheel. If I did not shift from being the host of my car to being a fragile guest in my car.

Friends, we are invited to become guests. To be healed of dropsy. The dropsy of the sometimes rather harsh identity of the host who controls. 

By becoming guests of God, we can begin to imagine being a migrant. Imagine not being at your own table in Ukraine, Syria or Uganda, but at a stranger’s table. 

By becoming guests, we can start to imagine that earth is hosting us, and not the other way around.

By becoming guests, we begin to imagine being hosts in a new way, in a godly way, in a crucified way. 

It is when we accept the invitation to become God’s guests, that our earthly tables begin to mirror the table in the Kingdom. When we become guests of the heavenly Host, we start to lay our earthly tables in the form of a cross. 

Amen

2 Comments

  1. Vincent Michael Hodge

    Dr Wepener’s “guest” theme hits the mark. I am not exactly in the “crippled, blind, lame, poor” category but similarly I am also not in the other category he outlines – he describes people “…..like myself, people who are always shying away from the identity of being a guest, and who try to be perfect hosts. Bring that identity of trying to be perfect; of trying to be in control; that identity of always trying to be strong, trying to keep it all together…”. So I am neither someone who tenuously lives each day as a stranger or sojourner and who who eagerly accepts God’s invitation nor am I a “mover and shaker” in the history of earthly events who just as eagerly ignores it. Like most. I am somewhere in-between and so Dr Wegener’s fine analysis of scripture stops short of explaining who I am in this story. Brendan Byrne’s educated analysis of Luke’s gospel in a book titled: “The Hospitality of God” points out just eactly the point that Dr Wepener makes -“…..Long before enjoying the celebration to which we have been invited we can derive great enjoyment simply from the fact of being invited…..”. So both Wepener and Byrne put the key question to us in different ways: why do I not feel valued by receiving God’s invitation from his messenger, Jesus Christ? I think it was Shakespeare’s Macbeth where we find the text that compares the “event” and the period of heightened expectation leading up to the event. Again Macbeth’s play makes the point identified by Wepener and Byrne. Certainly within the Gospel text there are reasons given – business, marriage, etc etc. Why is it not just the Pharisees and Religious leaders that allow their selfish power plays to blind them to their “guest” status – why does this text also speak to us with the ringing injunction – do i really feel valued by the invitation? Do i really want to relativise all my desires so that i can preferecne the invitation to God’s Banquet? For me the text highlights that I do feel like a stranger and sojourner – not here on earth but as a guest of the heavenly banquet!! We are born into this material history which seems to be self contained while at the same time I am one of the few who have had the Christian story preached to them. So here is another point of distraction – Christianity seems to be so counter cultural to a world beyond the obvious daily events we call “history”. We live in an era of declining affiliation to explicit church groups. Not only is Jesus message overlooked – we seem to be living at a time where the message is actively being mocked at worst and ignored at best. I think that the text for me is one of the key texts of our time. It is not just a text about individual spiritual shortcomings. Like most of the Bible it also asks the macro question – why is God so difficult to address despite the Bible evidencing God’s abundant wish to engage with us?

  2. Thank you for this word – when i came to review this sermon I started reading somewhere in the middle – and was reading a description of something that I seemed to be in the middle of – and God was calling me to become a guest – perhaps this way – we can let go of all our striving to be hosts – and in so doing we can walk with those on the margins – knowing we to need to find with them – a balm in Gilead – as the old hymn says – “to heal our sin sick souls”

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