Grace that Both Disturbs and Delights
(or Dinner with a Rabbi)
By Reverend Teri Daily
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. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this.
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.”
-- The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
A few years ago, a feminist theologian that I respect gave a talk in Austin while I was in seminary there. The talk was part of a dinner/fundraising event and, to be honest, I can’t remember what the cause itself was. I wanted to go hear her speak, but I certainly wasn’t on the invitation list for this high-scale evening. Even if I were, I couldn’t have afforded it.
A woman in a Feminist Theologies class I was taking at the Presbyterian seminary was actually working the event, though, and she told me she could get me in. So I went. Sure enough, I got in (thanks to this friend), and I found a seat. Many of the places were marked with name cards—the rationale for who sat at which table was pretty obvious just by looking. Since I wasn’t paying to be there, I took a seat at a table in the back corner of the room. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the speaker’s face but still was just thankful to be there at all. I don’t know what you call a banquet version of a wallflower at a dance, but that was me.
A few minutes later a nice gentleman wearing a yarmulke on his head sat down next to me. I found out that he was a local rabbi. Before long, we were having a lovely conversation. But then a woman who was clearly one of the event organizers came up and politely said to this rabbi, “There you are. Let me show you to your seat—it’s up here.” The man replied, “Thank you, but I think I’ll stay here.” The woman was a little caught off guard; she was clearly following a set script in her mind about how things were supposed to go. So she said, more insistently this time and with a forced smile, “No, really. There’s a seat for you up front. You’re sitting in the wrong place.” He said in a kind but firm voice, “No. I’m convinced I sat down in exactly the right place.” I could tell that the woman was flustered. She didn’t know who I was, but she definitely knew that I was not of the same socioeconomic fabric of those sitting at that table upfront, the one that now had an empty seat. This seating change had thrown a kink in her well-ordered plan. Frustration bordering on anger radiated from the woman as she turned and walked away. That’s what happens when we defy social norms. People get very uncomfortable.
Today’s gospel reading starts out benign enough. Jesus comes into the home of a leader of the Pharisees to have dinner and notices how the guests are choosing the seats of honor. So Jesus gives some wise advice about how to choose your seat when you come to a wedding banquet. Don’t sit down in the place of highest honor, because you may end up being very embarrassed when the host comes and says that seat is meant for someone else. Or when the host says, “Could you move to the back table, please?” It is better to take the seat in the back of the room and then be invited to a table up front, a more honored position. Then everyone at the banquet can see you move up to the front table, closer to the host and the speaker. And your importance will be visible for all to see. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted,” Jesus says. Pretty good advice about navigating social situations.
But, of course, Jesus doesn’t leave it there. True to form, he takes it one step further—just like he always does. He turns to his host and says, “When you give a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends and family and neighbors. Because then you’ll be invited to eat at their homes and the favor will be repaid.” “But when you give a banquet,” Jesus says, “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.” In other words, you will be repaid in the kingdom of heaven.
With this second half of today’s gospel reading, Jesus takes sharing meals together completely out of the arena of social convention—of returning invitations or judging where you fit in the scheme of social circles or worrying about who sits where. The whole system of honor, reward, reciprocity, and shame gets pulled out from under us. And it’s uncomfortable. We rely on these conventions for some sense of order in our lives. It’s how we map our world and our place in it. To have that order stripped away from us feels dangerous. If we have any doubt about that, just look what happened to Jesus. Or, given that we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, just look at what happened to Martin Luther King.
But there’s more at work here in this passage that’s making us uncomfortable than just the fact that social norms have been upended. And this brings me back to that night in Austin. When the rabbi stayed with me at the table in the back of the room, my initial reaction was one of deep gratitude for his kindness. Two minutes later, however, that gratitude was mixed with a profound sense of anxiety. What if I couldn’t keep a conversation going the whole time we sat there? What if twenty minutes later he ended up wishing he had moved to a table full of people who led much more interesting lives than I did? What if I couldn’t earn or repay the kindness that he had already shown me?
Of course, that’s not how grace works. Grace isn’t something we can earn or repay; if we can, then it’s not grace. And that may be what makes us most uncomfortable when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. See, I can understand that everyone is equal in the eyes of God—that everyone has immense worth no matter the circumstances of their lives, the choices they’ve made, or how distant they may be from us. At times, I can even extend this same kind of grace to other people. That part of the kingdom of heaven is fabulous—I’m on board. That’s truly good news.
But if all the social order that determines how much someone is worth or valued is stripped away, then that means I can no longer earn my place in the kingdom either. “And while,” as David Lose writes, “that sounds at first blush like it ought to be good news, it throws us into radical dependence on God's grace and God's grace alone. We can't stand, that is, on our accomplishments, or our wealth, or positive attributes, or good looks, or strengths, or IQ, or our movement up or down the reigning pecking order. There is, suddenly, nothing we can do to establish ourselves before God and the world except rely upon God's desire to be in relationship with us and with all people. Which means that we have no claim on God; rather, we have been claimed by God and invited to love others as we've been loved.”
Now the image of a wedding feast in Jesus’ parables is usually seen as a representation of the heavenly feast. I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m OK with the idea that people who hold very different beliefs from me will be sitting at the table beside me—Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, for example—and that they might be sitting closer to the head of the table than I am. I can even be OK with the idea that there will be murderers and thieves at the table—along with the driver who flipped me off the other day, the receptionist who insisted I was late for an appointment I didn’t have, and the fourth-grade teacher who let the boys in the class measure paper for the bulletin board since “everyone knows boys are better at that kind of thing than girls.” (Obviously, I’ve worked through all that.) But what stings is the realization that I am every bit as dependent upon God’s grace for my seat at the table as every other person is for theirs.
Grace is the great equalizer. It takes words like “deserve” or “earn” or “worthy” out of the equation altogether. To accept grace we have to give up the kind of power, self-sufficiency, and control that we admire in our society; we have to replace it with radical dependence on and trust in God. And that makes this whole kingdom of heaven thing hard to live into in the here and now.
But here’s the thing: We can’t give what we don’t have. It’s only when we recognize the grace that is always ours for the taking, the grace that underlies everything we are and do—it’s only then that we can extend that same grace to those around us. It’s only when we understand that it is the abundant, infinite grace of God that flows through us—it’s only then that we can show others grace freely, instead of carefully meting it out as if the well might run dry. It is only when we realize that the feast is not of our own making—it’s only then that we can trust in unlimited seating.
That’s why whenever I meet people who show radical hospitality, who provide safe spaces full of grace for everyone, who love without expecting repayment, I always wonder what experience of grace they must have had in their own life. To this day I wonder how this rabbi so easily extended such grace to me. Surely, he must have known something of it first-hand. Perhaps he experienced it initially not by choice; I think that’s true for how most of us come to know grace. But then having experienced it, he might have practiced falling back into it time and time again, until he trusted enough in its presence to share that grace with others. I think the rabbi shared the kingdom of heaven with me that night.
So I invite you to think about the times in your life that you’ve experienced the kingdom of heaven—that you’ve experienced a grace that both disturbs and delights. Can those experiences give us the courage to fall back into grace time and time again, until we trust in it enough to share it with others?
 From David Lose’s 2010 article, “More Than Good Advice [or] Why Jesus Gets Killed (Pt. 2)” at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1553.