How would we put all the people in the church today in an order of importance, down the aisle?
Well, of course, even if you think this is something, that you would want to do, which you probably don’t,to do it, we would first need to decide what we regarded as important or to which we would give the greatest honour.
We could, for example, decide to order the list by age – either the young first or the old first. Or we could order the list by the size of house – with the people in the biggest house at the front and the people at the back being in the smallest small cottage or (depending upon your politics) the other way round.
Or we could order them:by physical ability, by intelligence, general knowledge or (perish the thought) by looks.
Of course, were I to suggest that we line up in the aisle, by reference to one of these standards, I think no-one would ever come to church again – so we won’t be doing that today, don’t worry.
But let’s just hold onto the thought that we could (if we wanted to) line people up in this aisle in order of importance, if we could agree what was the most important aspect of humanity, the one to which we should give the highest honour, and what was the least.
But we might disagree on who should be where in the line.
There might well be a bit of jostling for position with some feeling that they should be further ahead in the lineand others feeling that others should be further behind them
But what if we tried to do an order of everyone by the greatest virtue?
What if we regarded that as the most important characteristic of humanity, the characteristic to which we should give the highest honour?
This might mean lining up by how moral we are, or by how loving to our neighbours
Where do you think you would be on that line? Where do you think that others in church would be? Ahead of you or behind you?
Have a look round – see what you think
Difficult to judge, eh?
How about if we drew the net wider than those in church today and included all those we know who don’t come to church at all, perhaps even including someone who says, ‘I don’t know why you bother with all that nonsense’ and put them in the line?
What about those who entirely reject our Christian ideas of virtue and morality: the suburban swingers, the thugs, thieves and addicts, the aggressively antisocial villager, the hopelessly dissolute, those way outside the line of what we think is good behaviour?
Where would they be in that line? And where would I be, where would you be?
Ahead at least of them maybe we would think? We can all speculate on our place in that line and we can speculate that we might be ahead of some and behind others. And the others in the line might have a view on where we should be in that line, that order, of virtue
Luke tells us that:
‘when Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table,
he told them this parable:’
We should pay very close attention to this word which Luke uses: ‘parable’
In the greek the word is ‘para-bole’: ‘para’ means ‘aside’ and ‘bole’ means ‘cast’.
So a parable is a comparison of two objects, one cast by the side of another, for the purpose of teaching.
So the first object which Jesus is comparing is a wedding feast to which guests have been invited. Everyone listening to Jesus will have known that guests at weddings are seated
by some order of importance
Even today. Lucy and I have just held the wedding of our daughter Claudia. We had some rows at the front of the church designated for family and god parents of the bride. Yes, it was really awkward when a good friend, who was not a member of the family or a god parent sat in the reserved seats (which meant that there was no room in the reserved seats
for Claudia’s uncle and aunt and cousins to sit together).
But, of course, we did not have her ejected (but I suppose we could have done and it would have been immensely embarrassing for her to walk to the back of the now full church to find a seat).
But the parable is not about wedding feasts or dinner party etiquette.
The purpose of this story is not to dispense good worldly advice on how to avoid embarrassing yourself on a public occasion.
The rest of the chapter makes clear, that Jesus is comparing the jostling for position at a wedding feast with the way that people in his day were jostling for position in what they thought would be the place of honour before the eyes of God.
The people of his day, the Pharisees who were sitting at dinner with him, had a very clear idea of who should be most respected in society: It was those who were most rigorous in their adherence to the Jewish religious purity laws. And they were very keen to show how well they were keeping the Jewish religious law to maintain their own purity.
These were people who, as Tom Wright the theologian puts it: ‘Would watch for any sign of irregularity’ and critique it and place themselves, in their own minds, and they hoped, in everyone else’s opinion ahead, of the sinner. A bit like the politically correct today.
This had three effects:
It made the Pharisees proud of their own purity; it made them look down on those who did not achieve it; and it made everyone else despair, because they could never achieve it.
How could the prostitute or the tax collector ever attain the level of religious purity achieved by the Pharisees?
How could they ever by accepted by a holy God?
But Jesus came to turn all of that upside down.
The punch line of the parable in this reading is in verse 11: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’
The point of the parable, of the seating at the wedding feast, is that the guest cannot decide where he sits, the guest cannot decide where he sits, because otherwise he might get booted out. He cannot expect to sit in the place of honour, he cannot put himself ahead of others because he has no idea of where he ranks at the divine dinner party.
It is for the host to determine where the guest sits, it is for the host to give out the places of honour. And so far as our line of virtue down the church aisle is concerned, we have no business imagining that we are any more virtuous than anyone else.
As Pope Francis says: ‘Who am I to judge?’
Because there is nothing we can do to get ourselves to the front of that line, to God’s top table.
This is so important; but SO REVOLUTIONARY and the church so easily forgets it.
So many in the church (and so many outside) think that salvation, getting the place of honour on God’s top table, is about how virtuous we have been, all our lives
all the good things we have done.
But the standard of holiness which God sets is too high for us to achieve by our own efforts and in this we are all in the same boat: from the prostitute to the bishop – all in the same boat.
In comparison with God’s holiness the good deeds that we do are in the words of Isaiah 64:6: just ‘filthy rags’, in comparison with God’s holiness.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, means that we don’t have to earn our way to heaven.
Jesus has paid already for our place at the table, provided we are willing to make him Lord of our lives.
But there are so many lovely people, who think that we can earn our way to heaven, who are jostling for a place in the line, for a seat at Gods table, by the good deeds that they do.
I had a wonderful cousin, who died a few years ago, actually the wife of my cousin. She was a very strong character, very glamorous – a top model in her time and very generous to both me, my family and to many others. She lived in a beautiful house in Oxfordshire.
I was very fond of her. She swept me up in my young adulthood on the death of my mother.
But she was not happy about Lucy and I taking up Christianity while we were in Japan. But she tried her best not to mock it.
But on one occasion she did say to me ‘I think I have done enough, don’t you? To be on the right side of the line?’
There followed a very difficult conversation.
Because, you see, we cannot move ourselves up the line or even get in the line or get to the table without what only Jesus can offer us.
Once we clock this, once we understand what Jesus has done for us, then we want to do everything that Jesus asks us to do. Then all the good works flow from us, not to earn our place, but out of gratefulness that Jesus has won our place for us already. The fact that we do do these works, shows that we have understood what Jesus has done for us.
Because being proud of our virtue is not only a disaster for us personally, it is also a disaster for everyone else in the community.
When outsiders look in at a church if they see a lot of people who are so GOOD
so TOGETHER, so LOVING and PERFECT, they may think ‘what a load of hypocrites, I bet they are not really as goody two shoes as they pretend’; and of course part of the burden of being a Christian is that we must bear the cynicism of others.
But equally outsiders may think ‘I could never be like that. These people are so amazing, and I am so useless, I am constantly drunk, constantly failing, what can those people do for me, they don’t understand my situation at all…’
And in case you don’t think that this is a likely situation, I am quoting from someone who attended one of our Alpha course evenings, we ran a couple of years ago.
Because the truth is, we are aren’t all that marvellous.
Everyone of us has an issue, everyone of us has a story. We are all constantly doing things we regret, we have endless struggles.
But no-one would know, because we all keep quiet about it, because we don’t want our neighbours to know.
And we end up with a church which in the words of St Augustine ‘is a museum of saints rather than a hospital for sinners’.
But Jesus came to save SINNERS not saints. And its up to us to make our church a place that people facing challenges in their lives can come.
Over the whole of my curacy, possibly the most significant moment, apart from the amazing time when after our 24 hour prayer session, Sonia was saved from dialysis and got her new kidney, was when Susie and Gerry stood up to explain about their challenges they had with mental health issues.
It was SO BRAVE; such a Christian example. And anyone with any issue at all visiting the church on that day would have felt: ‘this group of people can understand me, despite all my difficulties, because they have difficulties as well’
On that day, we were a hospital, not a museum…
And I am convinced on that day, the angels were cheering Susie and Gerry on….
And of course the wonderful Free to be Group was born on that day.
So it’s only by us being willing to be at the bottom of the line, at the lowest table
by being seen to be the most useless, by being open about the challenges we face, that God, the Divine Host, can call us to the place of honour at his table, and say ‘come up higher’
For a really very good sermon on this same subject – definitely worth listening to – please do watch Charlie Mackesy at HTB focus as follows: