I have to think that it makes God a bit sad when we think about the inequities of our world and the sweatshop conditions of our global garment workers.
So it is with this backdrop, wearing these clothes, that we encounter today’s scripture. This scripture we have today is a bit of an odd one. It contains 2 parables. The first one about the mustard seed is common and rather absurd. I mean who would want to the throw an unsuspecting mulberry tree into the sea?
The second parable is skipped over by most commentators. It only shows up in Luke and it’s short, so that’s 2 reasons to forget it. It also reinforces stereotypes and we certainly don’t want to go there. It even has Jesus telling people how to treat slaves, without a critical eye. That’s just inconvenient. Even if we accepted the adage that slavery or indentured servitude was common, wouldn’t we want this God-man to set the slave free? Isn’t that what we are expecting? But that’s not what it says. So since the scripture makes us uncomfortable, it probably has something to teach us. So let’s look at it closer.
In Luke 17:7-10 Jesus asks, “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” Imagine a dirty and perhaps smelly worker coming to the big house and sitting down at the table. We offer an open table at Communion, but is it perceived as open by an outsider? What kind of unconscious barriers do we set up? How can we be even more welcoming and affirming of those who are strangers to us? This seems to be a focus of Jesus.
But is this the focus of the scripture passage? Hear it again:
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table?”” Think about it. Would a slave-owner want the smelly servant dining with them without washing? Or even dining with them at all? Most would not. It was against custom and against cultural taboos. It was counter-intuitive. It didn’t make sense. Of course they wouldn’t invite them to the table. It’s not lost that ploughing fields and tending sheep are metaphors for discipleship—and that very act might make you unwelcome. Just sayin’.
Here’s what you would do, Jesus continues, you would say, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; and later you may eat and drink.” The slave does double duty—in the field and in the house. Then Jesus asks the stinging question, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was ordered?” Of course, he knew the answer, most would treat the slave like a slave and not invite him to the table and often not thank him. The slave and the master know their respective places.
Luke then adds a little interpretive piece on the end, verse 10: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.” Okay, we get it, we’re not to think too much of ourselves. We’re not deserving of a place at the master’s table. We are just to do our duty. But doesn’t that sound kinda un-Jesus-y?
Shouldn’t we be looking at the way folks treat folks of a different class, a different race? Wouldn’t it make a better argument to just leave it there and not interpret it? Luke, you’re the one who had Mary sing, “God has brought the might down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up those lowly. God as filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Luke, you were the one who had Jesus say, in his very first sermon, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.”
Dr. Luke, you are the one who had Jesus eat with the swindling tax collector Zaccheaus.
Luke you were the one who celebrated with a feast when the Prodigal son returned after living in the slop with the pigs. Did anyone edit this for you? Were you getting lazy? Of course the Jesus you told us about would have called into question the selfishness of the thoughts that keep servants and masters in their predictable places. It would have made a better parable if you just ended it at verse 9 and didn’t try to explain it. Just leave the question hanging there in the air. Which one of you would invited a servant after a long day of work in the field to eat with you? Which one of you? Go on, admit it. Gayla, wouldn’t you have edited it better?
We ought to make a place at the table for everyone and we almost always fall way short of that mark.
In the book, The Help, Winnie is the hired help for a clueless woman named Celia. Celia can’t cook and wants Winnie to teach her. But lonely Celia doesn’t really show a whole lot of interest in cooking. Winnie delights in telling Miss Celia the way it is and adds humorous insults to Celia in her mind. But Celia doesn’t seem to know how all of the class and racial distinctions work in Jackson, Mississippi. Celia is from a poor rural section of the county and doesn’t know how to look down on people. She insists on doing the unthinkable, eating at the same table as Winnie. This simple act of dining together was natural to her and she couldn’t imagine why they couldn’t sit at the same table. But Winnie could not have asked to sit at her table. She needed to be invited by Celia. In fact, Winnie often told Celia to sit at another table like a proper white person. Celia wanted nothing to do with a proper culture if it meant that she had to dine alone without her seeming confidante Winnie. Life would be too empty without her. We don’t get the feeling that Winnie feels the same way about Celia. Winnie did not want to be at Celia’s table. She wanted to eat in peace.
But eating at each other’s tables changed the rules. It gave that cognitive dissonance that lets in the light. What truth might we see if we sat at the tables of those so different from us? What if democrats sat at republican tables? What if lawmakers sat at furloughed workers tables or folks on public assistance? There is something called the food stamp challenge. It is an exercise that has people eat for $35/week for an entire month. Try doing that and then reconsider how we might live alongside those on public assistance.
You know, Scripture is often read from a guilt-place. But what if Jesus was encouraging the disciples. You know what to do. You know which systems are good and which ones are not. It’s not rocket science. You don’t need great faith, you just need this much!
We can imagine Jesus saying “If you have this much faith,” squeezing his finger and thumb together, say, the size of a mustard seed, “you can do miraculous things. You don’t need a lot of faith, you just need well-placed faith. Faith in the important things. Faith in the creator of the mustard seed, not in the harvester.”
And by the way, none of us have it all together. We are all smelly dirty servants. But we all deserve a place at the table. Because it is God’s table. And at God’s table everyone is welcome.
We all have a place at God’s table, even when we don’t recognize it.
But here’s the rub for us. The life of discipleship is not about making sure your worthy to eat at God’s table. The life of discipleship is about living your lives in such a way that you are welcomed at another’s table. Do we advocate for others to join our table, or do we take the risks of loving so well that we might be humbly welcomed to another table? How might we endear ourselves to someone so that we could be welcomed at their table? How might we open those doors?
We don’t need to go around the world to worship with another culture. We can just go to this building on any given Sunday. Last Sunday afternoon, I attended a portion of the worship service of the Congregation of the Divine Revelation of the Holy Spirit that meets in the sanctuary at 5pm. It was loud and enthusiastic, beckoning people in from the streets and I felt very welcome.
We have been blessed to have places at tables with our sister church in Nicaragua and among our Karen brothers and sisters. When Tin Aye and her family arrived here from Thailand eight or nine years ago, we were welcomed to a reception by the Karen Community. There was sumptuous food there. There were greens that I had never had before and when I asked what they were, I was told that they were steamed zucchini leaves. We ate and tried to communicate across culture and language. And we were humbled to share a meal.
I attended the opening service of True Believers Fellowship a few weeks ago. They are the congregation that meets in the Assembly Room at UBC at 1pm on Sundays. After the worship service, they invited me to eat with them. Of course, I learned a whole lot more about them at the tables. I learned about their children and I enjoyed laughing with them and making faces at the kids.
And each time we venture forth to eat this meal, we are reminded of the core of the Gospel message, that we are to welcome the stranger and make a place at the table for God. For whenever we are at table we are with God.
Jesus approached the world as a servant. At his most vulnerable time, he knelt down put a towel over this shoulder and washed his disciple’s stinkin’ feet.
Which of you, Jesus asks, would say to a person out working in the field, “come here at once and take your place at the table?” We are expected to raise our hands, eventually. When the world no longer cares who eats at whose table, then we are approaching the reign of God.
Set that table.
Make understanding your utensils.
Make justice your serving dishes.
Make peace the pitchers from which you drink.
Make sacred love the morsels you consume.
For it’s God’s table and ever plower, tender, servant and served has a place of honor at that table.
The Sacred work of love is the work that welcomes all to the table and transforms us all by that power.
Thanks be to God for a place at this table.