Welcome to the Party!

Jonathan L. Walton preaching at the Knafel CenterSermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, for Harvard Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. 

“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.” Luke 14:1, 7-14


The gospel lesson comes from the Gospel of Luke. Luke is known as the parabolic gospel. Parables are short, metaphoric tales that are full of moral meaning. And while parables are found in the gospels Matthew, Mark, and John, Luke contains the vast majority. Eighteen parables, in fact, are unique to Luke.

We find one such parable in Luke 14. The Bible tells us that Jesus is attending a dinner party. The party is at the home of an important religious figure—a leading Pharisee. The Pharisees were well respected. And they were in the home of a leading Pharisee—the most respected among the respected. This is why the Bible tells us that as people began to make their way around the dining table, Jesus noticed something. Everyone began moving toward the seat of honor. We all know how it works. The closer you can get to the highest seat of honor at a party; the closer you can get to the coolest kid of the crew; the closer proximity we are in relation to the leading personality; the more our own perceived cultural capital rises.

This is why Jesus decided to tell the group a parable—a parable about humility and hospitality. Do not try to sit in the highest place when you go to a party, but rather in the lowest. You never know when someone will walk in and out rank you. So rather than being embarrassed by the host when she or he says, “Please get up and move so my very special guest might sit here,” sit in the lowest place. This way the host will be able to say, “Friend, move closer.”

Jesus’s messages extends further than to a dinner party. It extends to life: “those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

I like the way Ralph Waldo Emerson put it. “A great person is always willing to be little.” Why? Because honor, like respect, is earned by our deeds, not claimed by our words. Put another way: If you and I have to tell someone how good we are at something or that we are in charge, we are most likely not!

Jesus then turns to the host and says, “When you give a party, do not just invite your friends and rich neighbors who can repay the favor. But rather invite the poor. Invite those without social status and stature. Those with disabilities—cultural or physical. And you will be blessed.”

It is appropriate to read this parable as a defense of the poor and as a denunciation of the privileged. Jesus is critiquing unjust social arrangements that replicate themselves by our behaviors. The privileged look after only the privilege. The rich congregate only with the rich. And the poor and marginalized are ignored, and rendered invisible. This is how power and privilege reproduces itself. This is how injustice hardens. Not because anyone is working actively to deepen inequality. But rather because no one is working actively against inequality. So, yes, it is appropriate to read this parable as a defense of the poor, and an indictment of the privileged.

But though appropriate, I wonder if such an interpretation might be too easy. I want us to look at Jesus’s parable in a different way. Not one that simply indicts the privileged partiers and demonstrates pity to the poor. But one that both implicates and shows compassion for all parties involved. For there is one thing I know to be true. Each of us is given to goodness and greed. Each of us is given to selfless love and selfish lust. And each of us can demonstrate altruism and empathy one day, and extreme avarice and ugliness the next. Life is complicated like that. This is why I want to use our spiritual imaginations today and flip the script here on this story.  

The Pharisees invite Jesus to this dinner party. Verse 1 of the chapter says that they were “watching him closely.” This makes sense. He was the new kid in town. Many people were singing his praises. He was known for his amazing teaching, his brilliant mind, and the ways he could draw a crowd. They wanted to see him in action up close. Maybe, the party host thought, he could be one of us. Maybe, another thought, we should put him on our dinner list. These weren’t bad people. This is just the world that they had grown accustomed to. It was the world that “worked” for them.

In fact, maybe several people were quite impressed when Jesus started teaching his parable and giving instructions on caring for the poor. Recall that these were respected religious leaders. They knew the teachings of Moses and the other prophets. They grew up in synagogue hearing, “Welcome the stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt.” They grew up hearing, “Woe to those who trample the heads of the poor.” And they knew the proverb “be compassionate to the weak and powerless for you may be entertaining angels.” So when Jesus shared his parable, I can imagine many nodding their heads in approval. Others probably looked at him with pride and sincere affirmation. “Great sermon, Jesus. You really blessed my soul this morning.”

But just because words impress, that does not mean that they will move people to act. To the contrary, when real demands are made on us; when moral challenge calls for personal sacrifice; or when religious ideals demand ethical action, all of a sudden, our orientations begin to shift. This is probably what happened at this dinner party. The same sermon that impressed Jesus’s listeners probably made them apprehensive when he suggested, “So let’s get up from our seats…” The same sermon that dinner guests felt was impressive for its theology, inspiring in its delivery, and insightful in its analysis, possibly became offensive when Jesus asked, “Now what are you going to do about it?”

You know how we are. We are great when it comes to what other people should do. But not so enthusiastic when it comes to our relinquishing our own positions of privilege. I hear someone saying, “You don’t understand, Jesus. Do you know how hard I worked to get here? I spent years trying to get an invite to this party, and now I’m supposed to just give my spot up?”

I hear another, “I don’t have anything against anyone else. Sure we would welcome someone else in, if they could hack it. But this is my space.”

Somebody else chimed in, “This is my right to assemble with and congregate with whom I want. I agree that everyone you mentioned is important. But I don’t want to be forced. This is our space. You are pushing too fast.”

Like many of us, no matter how much these dinner guests agreed with Jesus in theory, they were apprehensive about putting their moral ideals into practice--particularly if it cost them something.

This is why I suspect that Jesus wasn’t just taking pity on those outside of the dinner party, the poor, the crippled, and the blind. He also had a strong feeling of pity for those sitting around the table—people who put so much stock in their position at the party; people who clung so tightly to their perceived rank and status that they would rather forsake their moral commitments than forego the thing they have wrongly based their sense of value and worth.

These dinner guests are like many of us. How many of us cling to our association; cling to perceived privileged access; cling to those whom we think bring us honor and respect—yet we sacrifice love, openness, and compassion for others at the alters of a false security. We rank cultural markers above moral commitments. We place fragile associations above enduring values.  “I’ve worked hard to get here Jesus. You want me to just go let anybody in? Invite anyone and everyone to the party? Than what would that mean for me and how hard I worked? I earned my spot at this institution. I am a Harvard graduate. I demonstrated my commitment. I am a member of Kappa Alpha Psi or Delta Sigma Theta. I paid my dues. I am a member of this country club, that eating club, or this final club.”

God is probably looking at many of us now with the same pity and compassion that Jesus directed at many of them at this party. Poor people. If we could only step back, slow down, and reevaluate our priorities. We may just see that the things we are angling for and holding on to, neither fulfill or bring us joy.

The question I have for you is the question that I often ask myself. When we leave this campus/ when we retire from our various professions/ even when we leave this world, how do we want to be remembered? More importantly, what experiences do you and I think we will most likely remember?

Well, I have sat with enough graduating students and seniors at the end of their lives to have a pretty good idea. In hindsight, very few take much stock in the moments that secured our social status. Few relish their memberships, honors, or class rank. Most recall the opportunities when they were able to be of service to someone else; when they were able to assist others; when they were able to gain, not based on what they could acquire, but based on what they were able to give to another. People are most blessed when they are able to be a blessing.

Many examples come to my mind. I recall a highly decorated graduate from a few years ago. He had all kinds of access, honor, and privilege here on campus. He was an all-Ivy football player; league defensive player of the year, in fact. He was a member of an elite Final Club. And today he wears an NFL uniform. Yet when you talk to him about life at Harvard, he rarely recalls accolades from football or access to elite circles. No. He fills your ear with stories about the Harvard Square homeless shelter. Not only did he volunteer there at least one night per week—even during the season—he often spent the whole night. He will tell you that he found joy and purpose in getting to know and eating alongside shelter occupants. Of all the awards banquets, dinner parties, and velvet rope bashes this young man attended, he believes that his most meaningful meals were the ones he served to others.  

Similar may be said of another recent Divinity School graduate. She came to Harvard after majoring in religious studies at Emory University. Here intelligence was intimidating. Her knowledge base was expansive. Thus her capacity to be “successful” at Harvard was assured. Yet ask her today what was most important for her time at Harvard Divinity. She will tell you two things. First, her course with the Harvard Prison Project inside the Massachusetts women’s prison. Second, her work with the Grants committee that provides financial support to social service providers in the Greater Boston area. At Framingham prions she learned alongside and from female inmates—many who are only guilty of lesser crimes than some of us commit daily. Similarly, her work with the Grants Committee introduced her to those working on the front lines to battle food scarcity, mental illness, and domestic violence in our community. Through service, she always told me, she realized why her education truly mattered.

The point is: Life is not about what we can acquire and control. Life is about what we can create and share. And creativity is born when you and I stretch beyond the confines of comfort in order to connect with people, explore places, and pursue opportunities that make uncomfortable demands on us.

This is why Jesus tells them not to get too comfortable in your seat of privilege. For comfort among your own is the enemy of intellectual creativity. And this is why Jesus says do not become too complacent among the table as its already been set. For complacency is the enemy of compassion.

Some of you know are Cru Chaplains here at Harvard, Pat and Tammy McLeod. They have an incredible son named Zack who suffered a traumatic brain injury some years ago on the football field. It has left Zack physically and mentally impaired, even as his spirit and positive energy can still light up any room. Recently I read a draft of Pat and Tammy’s personal memoir that should be coming out soon. Entitled Hit Hard: Football, Family, and Faith it introduces us to Zack before the accident, and the ways that terrible tragedy transformed their entire family.

One story in the book stood out for me. And I think it captures the point of Jesus’s parable. It took place in Mamelodi, South Africa. Students gather for a Bible Study reflection each night after dinner to discuss effective discipleship. Over the course of a couple of days, Pat noticed that Zack kept arriving late to the discipleship class. When he showed up late the third night, Pat took him aside to chastise him. Zack then shared where he had been. Zack had been washing dishes alongside the South African women who cleaned up after the guests at the conference center. While he washed, they started teaching him traditional Bantu worship songs. Pat confesses to having been so proud of his son and convicted by the Holy Spirit. He was teaching a class on discipleship, and his teenage son was actually living the life of service and sharing that Jesus taught his disciples. Within a few nights, the formal class was cancelled. In its place, all of the students began helping the women clean the dining room and kitchen as they all learned and sung Bantu songs together.

This is the point I take away from Jesus’s parable. If you really want to be blessed, be a blessing. If you really want to gain something, give something. If you really want to fell like you belong to the party, then go welcome someone else!