This sermon was inspired by two things, or rather two people: Bret Stephens and Rev. Dr. Mitzi Smith. (Aside from both being beloved children of God, there’s not a lot of overlap on their respective Venn diagrams.).
This week, Bret Stephens threw an unholy temper tantrum because a random GW professor compared the bedbug infestation in the NY Times to him, metaphorically. Stephens emailed the guy personally, demanding an apology, and emailed the guy’s boss, demanding he be fired. The power analysis here will make your head spin: nationally syndicated NYT opinion columnist, vs guy with 100 Twitter followers, who didn’t even tag Stephens in the tweet.***
So I was pondering that, as I read Prof. Smith’s commentary on this week’s gospel, where she does a power analysis that I hadn’t considered. Jesus, when he goes to the Pharisee’s house for dinner, is invited because he is considered a VIP–the first-century equivalent of a NYT op-ed columnist. He’s impressive! He has Thoughts! His opinions should be listened to! And he basically pulls a reverse-Bret Stephens.
Here’s what I said.
***And not for nothing, but if I took the time to track down and threaten everyone who ever yelled at me online, I wouldn’t have time to sleep. Or eat. Much less do my actual job. Mr. Stephens, have you considered a more fruitful hobby? I understand the Nintendo Switch is a lovely gaming console! Invest, good sir!!
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
September 1, 2019
Ordinary Time, Proper 17
The internet is a great place to find people acting badly. It’s like an archive of horrible human behavior. In times past, I suppose that petty behavior went largely unremarked upon—now there are entire websites devoted to People Acting Badly in Restaurants, or People Being Mean to Retail Workers, or Entitled Interactions that Happen on CraigsList.
I used to work retail, when I was in high school, and college. I survived working at a discount department store, even working returns on the day after Christmas. I survived working at a dry cleaners. People, when they so desire, can be horrendous. I had a woman cordially threaten me that if I personally failed to launder her t-shirts and blue jeans to her specifications, then she would hunt me and my first-born down with dogs. Sadly, this was pre-internet, so I could not share this experience widely.
This sense of entitlement—that we are Special People, thus entitled to Particular Things, often results in some really extraordinary behavior. The sort of behavior that ends up on viral videos. And Jesus, as usual, has some things to say about it.
In this gospel story, Jesus is going for dinner at the house of a Pharisee. Remember, the Pharisees are a whole political-religious party. And Jesus had a lot in common with them. So while Jesus was just in an argument with them last week, at other times, he’s hanging out with them, and they are helping each other. It’s a complicated relationship.
So here, he’s at their house for dinner, and he’s decided to use the opportunity to do some teaching. (…this is probably why he isn’t invited to many dinner parties. it’s like going to a dinner party with a psychiatrist and having them offer analysis of all the guests.)
Jesus points out that figuring out the order for seating is very awkward. At formal dinner parties back then, like in many other cultures, people sat in particular places based on how important they were. (We still have remnants of this. Think about the convention of the father sitting at the head of the table and the mother at the foot.)
If you’re smart, says Jesus, you’ll sit as low as you can manage, so the host will correct you, and move you up higher. That won’t be embarrassing at all—whereas if you decide your seat should be up higher, and the host has to move you lower, it will be excruciating.
Likewise, when you throw a party, only invite people who absolutely cannot invite you in return. Invite the poor, the disabled, the excluded—in other words, Invite only people who cannot do you any networking favors, who can give you no social capital. That is what makes a solid dinner party, says Jesus.
Remember where Jesus is standing as he’s saying this. There’s a slight edge in this, given where he is. He himself is at a dinner party, thrown by An Important Person. So Jesus essentially is informing his host—hey, you’re doing parties wrong! You thought you could invite me and get something out of it, but really, you should have invited poor people!
It might be counterintuitive, but Jesus here is in a position of power. As Prof Mitzi Smith observes, Jesus to this point, has been recognized as having some authority. He heals, he teaches, he has been consulted on various matters. He is popular with the crowds—he has been invited to this important person’s house because of his reputation as a rabbi and holy man (also, there’s what we know about him being the Son of God.) But the Pharisee and the others at this party have given him a measure of power.
And he chooses to spend it here on behalf of upending their social hierarchy. He uses it on behalf of those not at the party. It’s a subtle turn that’s instructive.
Because what would have happened had Jesus shown up to the fancy party, be flattered he was asked by the important people, and begin to feel that such flattery was his due? Of course—who doesn’t like fancy dinners! Do that for long enough and you begin to maybe feel entitled….But by turning the tables on his hosts—politely! gracefully!—Jesus avoids that path, and advocates for those without what he has been given.
Entitlement assumes a hierarchy of people. I should get this because I am better than you, so you should give it to me. What Jesus calls us to is to recognize that we aren’t entitled to anything. Both because the hierarchies that enforce entitlement don’t exist in God’s sight, and because what we have: the momentary power we might have, the wealth, the prestige, the privileges, all of it, have been given to us only so that we can use them to bless others.
Because we are all children of God, each and every one of us, we are all deserving of basic respect, dignity, and the ability to flourish. But we don’t deserve that at the expense of another child of God, because they deserve it too—just as much as we do. Entitlement insists that my needs supercede yours. Jesus reminds us that whatever I have, is to be used for our benefit, together, as equal images of the divine.
That change in our frame of reference can make a big difference in how we approach the world around us. Now, all we have, all that we do, is an opportunity to build up the world, and the people around us. Running to get coffee? How can you take this opportunity to make the barista’s day a bit better? Stopping for groceries? What can you do to ensure the people you encounter and the workers you deal with are better off for having encountered you?
All we have in this life, and indeed, our life itself, has been given to us. Poured into our hands like a free gift. Christ asks us to use everything we have to build up each other, and this world, and to trust that others will build us up as well. Because we aren’t entitled to this life—God graciously gives us life, and so much more. And it is our great adventure to join with God in using all we have been given to continue the great work of God’s redemption of the world.