PROPER 17 | 14 PENTECOST — 29 August 2010
St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 am
Jeremiah 2:4-13 | Psalm 81:1,10-16 | Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16 | Luke 14:1,7-14
“Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.”
That’s not a quotation from one of the Scripture readings this morning. It’s from Auntie Mame. (You remember Auntie Mame!)
In many ways a banquet, a dinner party, is a telling microcosm of human life. A good party is an occasion of refreshment and joy, of friendship, of hospitality freely given and openly received, a moment in which we share our lives with one another, and so become more completely ourselves. A good party builds community — unity together — which is, after all, God’s ultimate plan and destiny for the whole created universe. The Holy Eucharist which we are celebrating is, among other things, Jesus’ party with his people, a foretaste of the eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God.
But if a party can be the microcosm or the paradigm or model of all that is good and possible for human life, a party can also be a microcosm of the things that are wrong with human life. I suspect some of us have had the experience of attending a truly dreadful party, the kind where you are desperate for a plausible excuse to go home early! In the Gospel today, Jesus has been invited to a party, apparently a rather posh dinner party, but it’s not turning out to be one of your more successful soirées. Jesus takes advantage of the occasion to make some remarks about what he sees going on around him. (Have you ever noticed how Jesus isn’t real shy about doing that kind of thing? Not always the most tactful guest, either, is he?) “Look here, people,” Jesus says, “if you keep squabbling and pushing to see how high you can get yourself placed, you’ll very likely end up not only disappointed but rather badly embarrassed as well. [The fools are starving to death!] Don’t worry so much about your status! Have a little more modesty — and (who knows?) you may find yourself pleasantly surprised and honored!”
Very common-sense advice about how to behave at a party. And underlying it, of course, some profound truth about life. If our attitude toward life is “Get out of it everything you can, Take all you can get, Look out first for Number One,” then we will ultimately find that life is unsatisfying, unrewarding, and even hostile. That’s so. Show me somebody who grumps around all the time about what a bad deal life is, and I’ll show you somebody who’s trying to get something out of life. If we insist that life be on our own self-centered terms, then our lives become turned in upon themselves, small, nitpicking, guarded, closed off. We become obsessed with the fear that someone is getting the better of us, and we waste our lives trying to insure that other people owe us more than we owe them.
If, on the other hand, we take the stance toward our lives of seeking to give rather than to get, receiving life in thankful wonder as the gift of God that it is rather than as a right to be claimed and seized as something due us, then we are truly free to live.
This is what the Letter to the Hebrews is getting at this morning in the Epistle. “Let mutual love continue,” it says. Don’t be all hung up in your own selves. Life and the fullness of life comes to you as you give yourself away. This is one of the reasons why the New Testament repeatedly urges hospitality, especially to strangers, and caring for the sick and the prisoners — things that you’re not going to be paid back for. “Don’t be stingy with your life and with yourself,” the epistle is saying to us. “You may be so busy trying to safeguard and protect yourself that what life is really all about will pass you right by.” And then it goes on, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” We may not be too sure we want to hear that! It doesn’t sit very well with our culture’s fascination with possessions, with success, with growth, with bigger-and-better, with getting ahead in the world. The ideals of financial prosperity, the “self-made man,” showing the proper image to the world, are all drummed into our heads from our earliest childhood, and every day since, by our schools, our literature, our entertainment, the barrage of advertising constantly bombarding our minds. We all know perfectly well that material possessions cannot buy the truly good life — we’ve seen often enough how the lives of people we know, or even our own lives, have been damaged or even destroyed simply by having too much — and yet still we won’t really believe it. We’re brainwashed into thinking that true value is, ultimately, economic value. (That, incidentally, is the heresy, and the fatal flaw, of Marxism. But our consumerist capitalist society is equally guilty of it.) Possessions — not only money but status, reputation, image, “What-will-people-think?”, “How-will-I-look-to-the-neighbors?”, pride, self-centeredness, independence, self-sufficiency, self-fulfillment. If we stake our lives on these things, our lives will perish with these things. If we make these the end of our lives, they will be the end of our lives!
“Life is a banquet, and most poor fools are starving to death.” Auntie Mame was right. Jesus goes to a party and finds the guests squabbling over the place cards! What do we want? What is it that we really want? Do we want the seats of honor at the feast? Well, we can try to take them, I suppose, but it’s not a very sure thing, very likely to blow up in our faces, and even if we succeed, what have we got? After all, what difference does it really make? Who cares? God? I doubt it. Or do we want life, life received as gift from God the giver of life? That we can have. That we can always have — the banquet of eternal life, now and forever — the banquet to which Jesus is inviting us all and calling us all to join him at the head table.