So much happens around dinner in the Gospel of Luke. And often, we are listening to Jesus eating with wealthy people. He ate with them often enough to know how to do it acceptably. He knew how to recline at the table, when to wash, when to reach into the food. He knew where the places of privilege around the table were, how rank and honor were tested, gained, and lost. He knew who was and wasn’t invited, and why. Which is to say he understood how the ritual worked, how community sorted itself out at meals.
That is where Luke has Jesus when he gives this parable—telling a story about a meal, at a meal. He’d been invited by a person of stature and means, who offered a share of his abundance to bind his peers into closer relationship with him in a community ordered by hard social boundaries, by reciprocity, by patronage. So Jesus was exceptional here, not only as a teacher and healer, but as person out of place, with little or nothing material to offer on this floor of the hierarchy. Who did not belong. But he watches the other guests and offers some
wise advice about how to game the seating arrangement. And then he looks at his host and makes an impossible suggestion: when you throw a dinner, don’t invite the neighbors who can repay you with honor, who have something desirable to exchange. Open your banquet to the poor. Give a banquet for those who have no place, who have nowhere to invite you in return, whose table you would be ashamed of. Make that your table, make it an embarrassment to you, and you will be repaid in the Resurrection. Our gospel reading tonight begins at that moment, when someone beside Jesus hears what he’s saying: in the Kingdom, there is another banquet: the Lord’s own table.
Francis LeJau arrived as the priest of Goose Creek in 1707, with a mandate to bring into the church the already vast enslaved people digging a kingdom of rice into the tidal marshes of South Carolina—those he called both heathen and “our separated brethren.” What he met was outright resistance from parishioners who feared their slaves would understand baptism into Christ as equality. And, being a pragmatist, he required slaves who came to be baptized to swear in the presence of their masters that they knew the water left them slaves—it was “merely for the good of your souls.” But masters remained reluctant, because Baptism meant another sort of threat as well—it could mean communion. One gentleman, LeJau wrote, told him straight out that he was “resolved never to come to the Lord’s Table so long as slaves were received there.” And of course he wouldn’t. The Lord’s Table at Goose Creek, was also, literally, the masters’ table—same style, same wood. To enter the church was to enter a space that resonated with the shape and fabric and texture of the master’s house—same brick, same doors, same windows, same moldings, same paint. The rails around the altar were the balusters of the great house stairs. Cloth, cup, plate, cushion—all seamless and all telling a story about God and the world of Goose Creek. But what did any of that mean if masters and slaves knelt there together— equal guests, equally vulnerable to grace, at that table. The world buckles and breaks. It was impossible, and the only way to resolve it was to segregate the possibility away.
A man gave a great dinner and he sent out invitations to the large property owners— the ones who buy oxen in bulk. But when feast was ready and the couches arranged, his servant went to collect the guests, and they refused to come. So he sent his servant out again, further and further through the town, and out of town, gathering in the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame to come and eat. And just like that, the inverted order of the beatitudes was alive around his table. But what’s harder for us to hear now, is how this is also the story of a social death. The story pushes on the very fear that would have made those who heard Jesus call them to invite the poor, incredulous. The guests who made excuses received that first invitation, but tested the direction of the wind, and for whatever reason they decided that the costs of keeping his company were too great—all of them—there was nobody.
And that is what it means to betray a system.
That is what it will mean to throw a dinner for those without status; if they come, its only the poor who will ever come again. And then who will you be? And how is that to be repaid?
This is not Jesus giving charity as a discipline. At the table of the privileged He is describing his own table, the dinner where the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Where those called blessed by the Lord have a place. He is naming that we have something at stake in the structures of power in this world. But he is imploring us to come–
To come by making that table real, here, in the presence of the powers that deny its possibility, in the presence of our own fear. To make a place for those who are not here because we are afraid of what it would mean if they came. And that will mean laying down things precious to us. Things we think we need. Luke will have Jesus turn immediately from this meal and declare that to follow him means astonishing surrenders—of family, of possessions, of body. The surrender of power, of supremacy. We are learning to be free–
We are here to learn to be free.
Free of what keeps us from that table which is whole
and where Jesus is present now—
where we receive the end of our isolation from our brothers and sisters
and taste the meal where all the saints who have longed for it,
all the blessed of Goose Creek,
eat bread in the kingdom of God.