Do you remember that old commercial for Memorex cassette tapes where Ella Fitzgerald shattered a glass with her voice, and the voice over asked “Is it live or is it Memorex?” The selling point was that Memorex cassette tapes could reproduce sound so clearly and truly that it was hard to tell the difference between the recording and the live voice. Today’s Gospel lesson gives us an opportunity to explore a similar question about cultural customs and Gospel. Sometimes our cultural customs mirror or mimic Gospel truths so closely that it is hard to tell the difference.
Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes that Western culture is essentially Christian, and that we Westerners are essentially Christian, even if we do not claim any faith in Christ at all. Christianity so permeates our culture that it defines our mores, our habits, and our assumptions about what is right and wrong, and what is true and good without our even realizing it.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus instructs the folks at a dinner party to “go and sit down at the lowest place . . . . For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” To us this reads like normal, everyday manners. We were taught, for example, to give up our seat on the bus or subway to the elderly or disabled, to hold the door and let others go through before us, to let our friends choose the games we play on playdates, to yield to our guests’ food sensitivities and preferences, to put out the nice towels for house guests, and to let others go before us in the buffet line. It’s just common sense good manners.
Cultivating good manners and good habits is a virtue. But there’s a downside to knowing what’s good and true without giving it much thought: we can be tempted to read stories like this one and be blind to the more profound lessons they offer. We can skim through it with the assumption that we’ve already gleaned all we can from it.
After speaking to the dinner guests about not taking the best seat at the table, Jesus goes on to address the host: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus is asking far more of his host than good manners and common sense. Jesus is asking him to overcome his deepest aversions and prejudices. Remember that the host is a Pharisee and a wealthy man, a leader among Pharisees. One of his greatest priorities would have been to observe the law meticulously, and to avoid doing anything that would put him at risk of making himself unclean before God. To invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to dine at his table would have been to risk his own legal purity. Remember the story of the good Samaritan? It was the priest and the Levite who crossed the road to avoid contact with the beaten man. Their prejudices overruled their sense of common decency. It is the same with the dinner host: Jesus calls the Pharisee to invite the poor, the lame, and the blind to dinner so that he will have to look deeply into his own prejudices—and then act on his knowledge.
In an article about how white parents teach their children about racism, Robin DiAngelo—the author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism—writes that even parents who hold antiracist values, seldom act in ways that are consistent with those values. Parents often will say to their children things like “skin color doesn’t matter,” but in their choices of which neighborhoods to live in and which schools to send kids to, they demonstrate their own preferences for predominantly white environments. And although they realize that their own white children are given preferential treatment, they do nothing to interrupt these racist systems.
Christ’s call to the dinner host is a call to go much deeper than manners. Christ calls him to take a long, deep look at himself. Christ calls him to take action against the systemic and systematic injustices of poverty and sickness in his community. Christ calls him to understand the ways that his own culture hardens and strengthens these injustices. Christ calls him to make his action against these injustices deeply personal.
Who might Christ ask us to invite to our own dinner tables? Who among us are the poor, the lame and the blind—the people who are systematically excluded from the advantages and privileges that we enjoy? And what are the prejudices that we must overcome to extend that invitation? What deeply personal actions are we called to take to overcome them?
We gather this morning around a table that Christ has set for us. It is a table that has been prepared for the whole world, a table around which no one has priority, no one has a place of privilege, and from which no one is asked to step down. We gather around this table as a people who fall far short of the inclusiveness to which we are called as the body of Christ. But we also gather in hope that Christ will tune our ears to hear the pure strains that shatter our privilege and prejudice with Gospel truth.
“We Put It in Terms of Not-Nice”: White Antiracists and Parenting, Sarah A. Matlock & Robin DiAngelo https://robindiangelo.com/2018site/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Not-Nice_-Antiracists-Parenting.pdf (last cited August 31, 2019).