Sermon #151 St. James the Less #59 9/1/19
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” Proverbs 25:6-7
If you have never flipped through the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, well then today is your lucky day. It is filled with quirky sayings, as well as short, witty, and wise words of advice…but they can also pack a punch.
Some of them go like this, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). “From the fruit of their mouth a person’s stomach is filled; with the harvest of their lips they are satisfied” (Prov. 18:20). My favorite is Prov. 26:11, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
For the Jewish people the proverbs are precious bits of wisdom, and that was true even in Jesus’ day. Many of the proverbs were written from the perspective of a parent to a child, bestowing memorable and practical advice.
So, if much of it is based on popular family maxims and sayings, then it’s not hard to imagine a young child in the field with his father next to him picking grain, and all of a sudden the father remembers a proverb, he looks at the boy and says, “My son, ‘the people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it’” (Prov. 11:26).
Sayings like these flowed out naturally from older family members to the younger generation on a daily basis, whether that be at the dinner table, in the fields, or late at night as they sat around the dim light of an oil lamp.
Though proverbs are short and practical, don’t let their simplicity fool you. They have a much greater depth to them than what first appears. One of the best examples, is the proverb we have from this morning’s reading, Proverbs 25:6-7. It says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
I can’t imagine that the Jewish farmers and shepherds who heard and retold this proverb for generations, ever expected to actually be in the presence of a king.
The majority of the people who passed these sayings down were simple folks who lived off the land. Being in the king’s presence would have been a laughable idea. But like I said, this proverb goes much deeper.
Those who passed down this saying found a way to apply it to the context they lived in, where it was more likely to be invited to a dinner hosted by a local official or religious leader than entering the king’s court in faraway Jerusalem.
Jesus’ Cultural Situation
And that’s exactly the situation we find Jesus in this morning in our gospel. He’s been invited by a local religious leader to join him, and some of his colleagues for a Sabbath dinner.
As our gospel lesson tells us, Jesus witnesses these grown men, who are highly esteemed in their community, pretty obviously pushing and shoving their way to the spots closest to the dinner host. Because the closer you were to the host, the more important you looked to everyone else.
But this isn’t our usual dinner scene, because back then they didn’t sit around a table like we do today. It’s important to visually understand what this room looks like to fully appreciate Jesus’ words.
The table would have been shaped like a “U” and on the outside of the “U” would have been these long, thin cushioned beds which the dinner guests would recline on their side (much like the cushions you are sitting on right now). They would lean on one of their arms, and grab their food from off of the tables in front of them, and their feet would be tucked behind them.
And so, this is the scene that Jesus walks in to: the guests have pushed their way to the desired spots and some of the unlucky ones have to sit at the far ends of this U shaped table.
In all of this, we are not told where Jesus is sitting. There is one place we know for a fact he is not…he is not at the place of the host.
But it doesn’t take long for Jesus to start acting like the host, which would have been quite offensive to the actual host. Jesus does three things in particular, two of which, are specifically mentioned in our reading, and in all three cases he acts as the host AND ingrained within his teaching is a hidden jewel, it is in fact our proverb from this morning, Proverbs 25.
Jesus as Host 1-Heals a Man
The first thing Jesus does wrong in the eyes of all who are gathered for dinner is actually a part of the five verses that are skipped in our reading. I don’t know why the lectionary skips verses 2-6, but they are a critical part of this story.
In the very beginning of our reading it says that Jesus was invited to dinner and that they were watching him closely. The reading then skips Jesus healing a man who was in the room.
This man had dropsy, which meant he probably had some fluid built up in different parts of his body. That build up likely brought him pain, possibly skin discoloration, maybe even a smell. And on top of it all, he was not an invited guest. But why was a man with dropsy even there?
This brings up yet another dinner custom we don’t do today…Back then if you hosted a nice dinner you would allow anyone from the community to come and see the great feast being presented and listen to the deep conversation between the host and his guests.
If you were one of these uninvited onlookers you would have to sit in the back of the room along the wall, and you sure wouldn’t be invited to the table to eat. You dare not even say a word to the invited guests.
The host would open his home to anyone to witness the meal as a way of showing how great he was at hospitality. In his mind, “Anyone is welcome to watch me put on a great dinner, but only a few are worthy of dining with me.”
And so what does Jesus do? He speaks to one of the uninvited men in the corner, a man who likely wanted to just be in the presence of Jesus, knowing full and well that Jesus had no social obligation to even look his way. But deep down there was hope that maybe, just maybe Jesus would look his at him…
And Jesus doesn’t just look his way, but goes as far as healing him. The pain, the years of suffering are washed away by this miracle, and this man is given his life again. And if you haven’t figured it out yet: Jesus isn’t acting like a typical guest.
Jesus as Host 2-Gives Guests Advice
And so, this is what has happened once our reading picks back up at verse 7, and then Jesus proceeds to take over the role of the host completely.
He saw how the guests came into the room, positioning themselves in the places of honor-not even noticing the men and women in the background- and so he tells them a parable; the parable we heard today about what to do when you are invited to a wedding banquet.
It sounds more like practical advice than one of Jesus’ typical parables, but in fact it is a retelling of our proverb this morning. Where the proverb talks about entering a king’s presence, Jesus uses the image of a wedding banquet. Instead of being put lower in the presence of a noble like our proverb says, Jesus speaks of a wedding host.
Proverbs 25 had so much more depth than simply being practical advice when one enters the presence of a king, and Jesus wanted to show everyone there that it had meaning in their situation too.
So when Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place” he didn’t mean the lowest place at the table. The far end of that U-shaped dining table was not low enough, go further.
He was telling everyone there, Go sit at the edge of the room with the poor, the sick, the outcasts who didn’t even have a chance of being invited. Go sit with them and from your humble awareness that they are just as important as anyone else in the room, then and only then, would the host honor you and invite you to dine with him at the table.
Jesus is telling his religious colleagues, the people who took their faith very seriously, that no matter where you stand socially, no matter if you deserve to sit right next to the host, you must be willing to lower yourself and sit with the outsider.
Jesus as Host 3-Gives Host Advice
The third and last thing Jesus does wrong in the eyes of the dinner party is give some hosting advice to the host. He tells him, the next time you put one of these parties on, invite the people who are sitting behind us right now. Invite the people begging on the streets, invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Jesus lives out this advice through his interaction and healing of the man with dropsy. As the new host, Jesus really outdoes the hospitality of the actual host. Jesus the host does something greater for the man with dropsy than inviting him to eat with a few people.
Instead Jesus has given the gift of being seen…truly seen by God Incarnate Himself. The man is known and healed by his Creator.
Jesus is showing the host, his guests, and the outsiders sitting at the edge of the room what God’s kingdom truly looks like. That it is radically different from anything they have ever experienced.
The way of social status, power, and wealth will not hold value in God’s kingdom. No, in fact, the values we’ve come to appreciate and admire most in our society, will ultimately be turned upside down. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Our lesson ends in a kind of poetic irony, a beautiful irony though. Like I said earlier, the original farmers and shepherds who passed down the proverbs were simple folks deeply connected to the land. When they heard Proverbs 25 they had no dream of ever being in the presence of a king, let alone for him to see them, to really see them, and to invite them to enter into his new kingdom as if he had been waiting to personally invite them all along.
The man who was healed likely heard his parents tell him Proverbs 25 a few times when he was a boy. Maybe he dreamed of being welcomed by a king, or more likely yearned to just be invited to a local leader’s house for a Sabbath dinner.
The proverb did in fact come true for the man Jesus healed. He was able to stand in the presence of the King of kings, and to be called from his lowly, humble place to being healed and exalted in the presence of all.
Do you need to be healed or restored? Our Lord sees you, and is inviting you to the table…Or… Do you feel disconnected from the most vulnerable in our local community?
Jesus has given us a model for ministry, and shown us what he, as the true King and Host, really values. He has taught us through this passage that we must be bold in HOW we love, and generous in WHO we love.
I think that is something we can all focus on in the days ahead-finding ways to show love and compassion to someone who really needs it.
At least that’s what I think it means to be a good dinner guest at Jesus’ table.
(12 Pent. Proper 17. Track II. Year C. Prov. 25:6-7. Lk 14:1,7-14. Based on Sermon #69.)