Thomas J Parlette
“The Great Reversal”
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
I am a big Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all the books, I’ve seen all the movies, literally dozens of times, I bought a wand at Ollivander’s in Diagon Alley down at Universal and I even have a Griffyndor tie.
Whenever Juliet and I watch one of the movies, we always see something new, and we invariably get lost down the rabbit hole that is fan trivia websites. Every question we have ever had about Harry Potter has been answered by someone somewhere in the online universe. We are now pretty fluent in Potterese – my own term for all the insider lingo and shorthand that defines these sort of trivia sites.
For instance, no one refers to the full titles of any of the books or movies – they always get shortened to “Sorcerer’s, or Chamber, Phoenix or Goblet – a shorthand version of the titles:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or the Philosopher’s Stone as it was called in England”
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
I’ve always thought that each of the Gospels could have their own subtitles like that. If that was the case, I think Luke’s Gospel might be called Jesus of Nazareth and The Great Reversal.
The theme of reversal is especially important for Luke. In the very first chapter, he reports how people break out in joyous song to proclaim the new order that Christ will establish. Mary declares in her great Magnificat that the Lord “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
And then Zechariah, the elderly priest, adds his voice to the song: “By the tender mercy of God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
Jesus of Nazareth and The Great Reversal, right from the beginning.
This trajectory of “great reversals” continues in this passage from Luke. A ruler, one of the Pharisees, has prepared a banquet on the Sabbath. Except for Jesus, the guests belong to the man’s inner circle. They crowd around the table seeking a place of honor. We don’t know where Jesus sits, whether at the head of the table or down at the end, but he does not hesitate to use the occasion to point to the new order that he is establishing. He upsets established protocol by speaking boldly to the group, even though he is the outsider. He does not jockey for influence with the host, but neither does he sit by quietly. Rather, he publicly challenges the very order of things at the table.
His first word is to the invited guests. Those who come to the table seeking honor for themselves have not yet grasped the ways of God. The order at the table should be determined not by the guests, but by the host. To make his point, he turns to a source they all would have known – the Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Proverbs, to quote the verses we heard today… “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.”
Good, practical advice for avoiding a potentially embarrassing situation. As Baron Rothschild once said when asked about seating important guests, “Those that matter won’t mind where they sit and those who do mind, don’t matter.”(1)
Jesus then turns to the host and criticizes his choice of guests. He should not be inviting those who can benefit him but, rather, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” who would be unable to repay or benefit him in any way. In both cases, Jesus issues a call to reverse the normal order of things. A different kind of table etiquette characterizes life before God.
Philip Yancey tells of a certain couple who had planned a lavish wedding reception. They booked a banquet room at the elegant Hyatt hotel in Boston, and made the required down payment of half the receptions cost.
It was not long, though, before the prospective groom had a change of heart. He found it hard to commit, he said to his fiancé. He asked her if they could put the wedding on hold, so he could think about it.
She knew what he meant, he didn’t really want to think about it. He just wanted out. So, after a very unpleasant scene, they parted company for good.
One of the bride’s next stops was the office of the Events Manager of the Hyatt. The manager said she was sorry, but most of the deposit was non-refundable. The former bride-to-be had only two options, she explained : she could either forfeit the rest of her down payment or go ahead with the party.
As Yancey tells it, “It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party – not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had gotten back on her feet, found a good job and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.
And so it was that in June 1990, the Hyatt in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken – “in honor of the groom who had ditched her”, she said – and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters.
That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-eaten pizza off cardboard boxes dined instead on Chicken Cordon Bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.” (2)
Jesus makes clear that no one deserves to sit at table in the Kingdom of God; everyone is an unworthy guest. Those who follow Christ will be exalted only by the virtue of God’s free gift of salvation. Our posture before the Almighty should therefore be characterized by humility and supplication. God invites to the table not those who pride themselves on their power and social connections, but, rather, those who know just how weak and helpless they are because of their sinfulness and brokenness.
There’s an old story about the funeral of Charlemagne, the French King who unified his country and was named the first Holy Roman Emperor. As the emperor’s funeral procession drew up to the cathedral, the members of the nobility were shocked to find the gate barred by the bishop.
“Who comes?” called out the bishop.
The King’s herald replied, “Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire!”
The bishop responded, “Him I know not! Who comes?”
So the herald tried again, “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth.”
Again the bishop replied, “Him I know not. Who comes?”
“Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.”
“Him I know,” said the bishop. “Enter!”(3)
For Jesus, those who make their own honor the goal of their lives will be ashamed of themselves in the end, and those who are humble, repeatedly putting others first, will experience the true, deep, and lasting honor of the kingdom of God.
Throughout the whole of the New Testament, Christian discipleship is understood to entail a fundamental break with the powers of sin and death. Those who belong to Christ have died to one life and risen to another. They have renounced the selfish values of worldly existence in order to embrace the self-giving love of God. The Gospel establishes a new order: a Kingdom of justice and peace. Human relationships are no longer characterized by suspicion and competition, but rather by deep, rich communion. Christ makes possible a way of life that turns present reality upside down. The reign of God is characterized by a series of “great reversals”, just as Luke points out.
In the mid 1960’s, an African American couple in Louisville, Kentucky, visited a well-to-do Presbyterian church whose membership was exclusively white. During communion, the elders avoided serving the couple. As the pastor watched from the front, he was mortified. When the elders returned and were seated, the pastor picked up a plate of bread and a tray of cups and walked slowly back to the couple in the back row. There he quietly but firmly declared, so that all could hear: “The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.”
A great reversal took place that day, and that congregation was never the same again.
As we come to the table today, let us come with humility and gratitude in the presence of a God who continues the great reversal by inviting all people to a place of honor at the Lord’s table.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol.XXXV. No.3.
2. HomileticsOnline, retrieved 8/20/19.