The Parable of the Table

September 1, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Luke 14.7-14 at Eucharist on Sunday 1st September 2019, the 11th after Trinity.

Often a preacher hides his spadework for a sermon and simply presents the results of the dig, but today you have a chance to put your own foot to the shovel, so that you can feel for yourselves the lie of the land in today’s gospel reading.

Let’s take a careful look at the second reading. You’ll see it’s in two parts. The first part is advice to guests about where to sit when they arrive at a meal. The second is advice to hosts about whom to invite when they lay on a meal. The overall theme is meal etiquette, but from two complementary perspectives.

To dig further, we need to know the background: there’s a dispute going on. Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee for a Sabbath meal. They’re watching him carefully, because they can’t quite make him out. There’s a man there with dropsy – nasty swelling – who Jesus controversially cures on the Sabbath. They have no reply to the justification he gives for doing this.

Then we get to our bit. Not only have the Pharisees been watching Jesus closely, but he’s been watching them, and he has something to say about their behaviour. And just as the healing of the man with dropsy isn’t just about healing but also about the Sabbath, so here there’s something more going on than Jesus just giving lessons on table seating.

Dig this: Luke tells us that Jesus responds to what he notices at the meal by telling a parable. Parables give kingdom teaching. What Jesus says about seating is a kingdom lesson.

One of the great themes of the kingdom of God is reversal. When Mary hears she is to give birth to Jesus, she rejoices that God her Saviour has scattered the proud and brought down the powerful from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.

Those who aim proudly for the top will end up at the bottom; but the humble will be raised up by God. What goes on at table will mirror that kingdom dynamic. The person who is pushy will be disgraced, while the person who is modest will be set in an honoured place by the host.

As in many parables, the punch line at the end gives you the thrust of the whole thing: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

This, in the second part, begs the question of how those with power and riches should behave. What about those who hosts these banquets? They could easily use their assets to boost their own prestige; but this not the way the kingdom of God works. It’s not the influential who will be rewarded eternally, but the righteous – those who care for the crippled, the lame and the blind. They will be rewarded in the end, even though in this age their nests may not be so well feathered.

So we have dug, and we’ve unearthed two layers to this story, the temporal level and the eternal. We dig through the temporal to get to the eternal. The temporal is rooted in the eternal.

That’s why what we do day-by-day has everything to do with our future in the kingdom of God. Our aspiration, as one of the old Prayer Book collects so memorably puts it, is to ‘so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal.’

The connection Jesus makes at this Sabbath meal, between the temporality of table fellowship and the eternity of God’s kingdom, could never be lost in a Church which regularly celebrated Eucharist.  We come together to eat and drink in an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

What’s more, what we eat and how we eat it are so fundamental to human existence that any community, religious or secular, is going to need to address it with regulations and traditions. Eating is rapidly becoming one of the major ethical issues of our time, as we are called by experts and authorities to eat less or no meat to mitigate climate change.

I’d like us to reflect further, though, on Luke’s central concern, the parabolic connection between eating together and kingdom community. I’ve been studying the Rule of St Augustine. It’s not as well known as the later Rule of St Benedict and it’s much shorter, just eight chapters. It was meant to help members of the fifth-century household of Bishop Augustine to grow in charity towards God and their neighbour.

In Augustine’s household no one was materially richer or poorer than anyone else because everything was held in common, just as in the first Christian community. The aim was that everyone, whatever their condition, should have their basic needs met. If people’s needs were different, then they should be treated differently.

Human nature being what it is, this led to tension. You can hear it in the Rule: If those in more delicate health from their former way of life are treated differently in the manner of food, this should not be a source of annoyance to others or appear unjust in the eyes of those who owe their stronger health to different habits of life. Nor should the healthier brothers or sisters deem them more fortunate for having food which they do not have, but rather consider themselves fortunate for having good health which others do not enjoy.

The principle is that eating is a fulfilling of need not greed, and is a celebration of gift, above all of health and strength. It’s a perspective we are reminded of whenever we say grace, or when people are mindful of one another around the table, serving others before they serve themselves and making sure those growing up have precedence over those at risk of growing out.

For Augustine eating is an occasion where charity can be practised and learned, and that is the link between the temporal and the eternal. Those who are needy learn gratitude because the community is supplying more than they had before and those who had much and now have less are grateful because they have the opportunity of using their health and strength to make provision for others.

It’s human nature to be resentful of perceived inequalities, especially when what others have seems to be at one’s own expense; but actually God can change our hearts so that what we can share becomes the most important thing. The community who ate together on the coast of Algeria at the start of the 400s were also praying together, seeking the grace to live as one brotherhood under God.

Could Augustine’ experiment in Christian community be a parable for us today? Since the Industrial Revolution, growth has been the driving ideal for the west; now we are moving from a culture of growth to a culture of sustainability. For that we need a different mind-set and a different heart, a different point of equilibrium from the satisfaction of knowing that we are somewhere near the top of the pile or that we have more this year than we did the last.

Augustine knew that this didn’t come naturally to competitive humanity, but he believed that God’s grace could change us, as believers prayed and sought to be in right relationship to each other. Our restless hearts want more; even if we have enough, we are envious of the good fortune of others. But finding rest in God means that finding a new heart that can love, which feels others’ needs and interests passionately, as our own.

Having a heart that can love sacrificially is what it means to become Christ-like. And it is this we seek as we come together now to share in his eternal sacrifice at his table