Radical (Political) Hospitality

September 2, 2007: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary (Proper 17, Year C): Sirach 10:12-18;
Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; St. Luke 14:1,7-14

Tony Campolo, an evangelical pastor and author, in his book The Kingdom of God Is a Party (May 1992) tells the story of being in Honolulu not yet adjusted to the time difference and therefore awake at 3:30 a.m.

He went out wandering the streets looking for something to eat. He stopped in at a “greasy spoon,” ordered coffee and a donut when eight or nine ladies he describes as “provocative and boisterous prostitutes” came in.

It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”

Another of the women spoke rudely to her (“What do you want from me, a birthday party or something?”) and it came out that the first woman, whose name was Agnes, had never had a birthday party in her life.

So Campolo waited until the women had left, and convinced “the fat guy behind the counter” to help him throw a birthday party for Agnes. Campolo said he’d arrive the next morning at 2:30 with a cake, and decorate the place. Harry (the fat guy) said, “No way, The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”

By 3:15 the that morning word had gotten out and every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. When Agnes showed up at 3:30 everybody waiting screamed “Happy Birthday!”

“Never,” writes Campolo,

have I seen a person so flabbergasted… so stunned… so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbedher arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her. As we came to the end of our song… her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Agnes didn’t want to cut the cake, but to take it home with a promise to be right back. As she left, there was a stunned silence.

Campolo broke the silence: “What do you say we pray?”

After the prayer for Agnes, Harry said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”

Campolo answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.”

That’s what this Gospel lesson from St. Luke is about today. It’s about an inclusive hospitality that is so radical that not one person is left out for any reason. When Jesus sits down with the powerful, as he does in today’s story of a meal with the Pharisees, and begins to talk about where people are seated, he is not talking about etiquette; this is not a lesson in politeness it’s a lesson in politics.

This should not surprise us when we realize that the Pharisees were much more than religious group. When Luke reports that Jesus had a meal with the Pharisees, it is not the same thing as saying, “Jesus ate with some Episcopalians” or “Jesus had tea in the home of a Methodist matron” or “Jesus had a barbecue with the Baptists.” It is much more akin to saying, “Jesus attended a high-level strategy session with the Democratic Central Committee.” The Pharisees were a religious society, but they were as much (if not more so) a political party.

The nice, neat “separation of church and state” which we Americans seem to think is the natural order was unthinkable to the citizens of the First Century, whether they were Palestinian Jews or their Roman occupiers! Religion and politics were practically the same thing — the Sanhedrin was as much a civic senate as it was a religious court. Caesar was a god as well as a monarch. When a Jew (or later a Christian) refused to burn incense before an altar or idol of the emperor, that was as much a political statement as it was a religious one. When Jesus eats with tax collectors and others who collaborated with the Roman occupiers, he was engaged in a political act. When he lectures the Pharisees about table manners, his point is not etiquette, it is politics.

Now bear with me here … the politics of Jesus is not party politics.

I think Jesus would have agreed with President Eisenhower when he said in a speech that “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful….” (Broadcast speech, January 28, 1954.) I believe he would also have agreed with the German philosopher Thomas Mann who wrote, “Everything is politics.” (The Magic Mountain, p. 515, McGraw-Hill [1955].) When English poet William Blake asked “Are not religion and politics the same thing?” (Jerusalem, in Complete Writings, ed. Geoffrey Keynes [1957]) Jesus, I’m sure, would have answered, “Yes.”

A few years ago, Allen Callahan, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, authored an editorial in The Boston Globe in which he took a look at the political discussion at another of Jesus’s meals with the Pharisees. In it he wrote:

The kingdom Jesus described was radically inclusive. Jesus, as God’s son who goes from the uttermost to the guttermost, wants to expand the franchise to everyone, even those unlikely to buy in. Some of Jesus’s stories about the kingdom make precisely this point: a net capturing different kinds of fish, fields with different crop yields, laborers with different pay scales.

Moral: In the kingdom, it takes all kinds. Even the Pharisees. Luke makes a point of showing that Jesus refused to write off those arch-villains of Sunday School lore. Luke tells of several dinner invitations Jesus received from the Pharisees. He accepts them all. Each, however, ends in social disaster: Jesus never fails to offend his host.

In the 11th chapter of Luke, a Pharisee invites Jesus to a power lunch, which he attends without hesitation. As the guests sit down, the Pharisee is outraged that Jesus has not washed his hands before dinner. In that time and place hand washing was a matter of holiness, not hygiene: It was a ritual that signified the sanctity of the meal, and was observed scrupulously by religious folk. So Jesus is caught in a faux pas.

Instead of offering an apology, Jesus launches a verbal attack. He berates his host for being obsessed with clean exteriors while being filthy inside with greed. He goes on to say that clean hands come by the purifying act of feeding the poor, that the Pharisees leave the hard work of justice undone. These insults were in earshot of other guests whom the Bible calls ”scribes” or ”doctors of the law,” ancient Israel’s equivalents of today’s policy wonks.

The scribes are put off by Jesus’s rudeness and tell him so. But he has a few choice words for them, too. He says that their policy directives harm more than help, and that they polish the monuments of great leaders of the past while betraying their principles. They use their insider knowledge to keep people locked out, and they use their expertise – the buzzwords, jargon, and doublespeak – not to illumine but to confuse. By the time Jesus finished his harangue the Pharisees and scribes were steaming and planning revenge. (Allen Callahan, If Jesus were invited to a lunch with Bush, The Boston Globe, 8/15/2001.)

Callahan’s political analysis applies equally well to the dinner described in today’s Gospel lesson. Here Jesus does not fail to wash his hands, but what he says is an even greater affront to the politics of the Pharisees. Place and status and the trading of social obligations were the glue that held society together – and he had the gall to suggest that one should not claim one’s rightful place at the table, but surrender it to someone else. Even worse, he told the host not to invite those who could repay his hospitality, but rather “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” (Luke 14:13) the social outcasts who cannot repay you: he might just as well have said to these Pharisees, “Give a birthday party for the whores!”

Now don’t be confused! This is not party politics: Jesus isn’t setting himself up as a member of the opposite camp. The opponents of the Pharisees were the Sadducees, and Jesus had run-ins with them, too. If anything, he was more in agreement with what the Pharisees preached than he was opposed to it; the problem was, they “talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk.” A Methodist pastor I know once said, “It’s not that Jesus wasn’t political, but he didn’t retaliate by setting up one political machine to battle another.”

That is absolutely right! Jesus’s “politics” were radically different from his contemporaries he warned his disciples to avoid both of the major political parties of his day. In Matthew’s Gospel, the following discussion with the Twelve is recorded:

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16:5-12.)

So, when Jesus talks about bread, he’s not talking about bread! He’s talking politics! When Jesus talks about the place settings at the dinner table, he’s not talking about place settings at the table! He’s talking politics!

And what on earth does it have to do with us? First Century Judaean politics are about as far removed from you and me as anything can get….

Well, the truth is that it has a lot to do with us. The “politics of Jesus” applies as much to our day and age as to First Century Palestine … the Gospel stands over and against all of our petty little political philosophies and divisions as much now as then; the Gospel stands over and against Republicanism, Democratism, socialism, libertarianism, and every other -ism you can think of every bit as much as Jesus’s teachings stood over and against the Pharisees and the Sadducees …. another of clergy colleagues put it best when he said, “God doesn’t take sides; God takes
over!!!”

When God takes over, politics ceases to be a matter of elections, or legislation, or taxation, or entitlement programs, or any of those other things we associate with politics. When God takes over, politics has nothing to do with those things, and everything to do with how we get along with each other in community! Aristotle said that human beings are naturally political animals and that “God and nature do nothing in vain.” Politics, Book 1, ch. 2.) When God takes over, every relationship is political, every relationship is spiritual there is no separation of religion and politics. That is why prophets and Jesus refer to “the Kingdom of God” … not the church of God, not the temple of God, not the beneficial association of God … the Kingdom of God; the political dominion of God which finds its highest expression in the radical hospitality of a dinner table open to all.

One of my favorite modern hymns was written by Father Robert Stamps at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Houston, Texas, about 30 years ago. It is entitled God and Man at Table Are Sat Down. It is a hymn which expresses the radical, political hospitality of God that Jesus described at his meal with the Pharisees:

O, welcome all you noble saints of old,
As now before your very eyes unfold
The wonders all so long ago foretold.
God and man at table are sat down.

Elders, martyrs, all are falling down;
Prophets, patriarchs are gath’ring round,
What angels longed to see now we have found.
God and man at table are sat down.

Who is this who spreads the vict’ry feast?
Who is this who makes our warring cease?
Jesus, Risen Savior, Prince of Peace.
God and man at table are sat down.

Beggers, lame, and harlots also here;
Repentant publicans are drawing near;
Wayward ones come home without a fear.
God and man at table are sat down.

Worship in the presence of the Lord,
With joyful songs and hearts in one accord,
And let our Host at table be adored.
God and man at table are sat down.

When at last this earth shall pass away,
When Jesus and his bride are one to stay,
The feast of love is just begun that day.
God and man at table are sat down.

(Copyright 1972, Dawn Treader Music.)

I am sure that if one of those harlots at the table had a birthday to celebrate, there would be a surprise party, a cake, and a round of “Happy Birthday!”

The politics of Jesus is the politics of radical hospitality; the politics of Jesus is the politics of “a church that throws birthday parties for whores.” If we, individually, personally, and in the small communities that are our church congregations practiced the kind of radical, political hospitality to which Jesus calls us in this and the other “dinner” stories in the Gospels, perhaps the larger politics of the nation and world would follow suit.

Let us pray for the grace to be “a church that throws birthday parties for whores.” Amen.

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Filed under Christian Stuff, Lectionary, Sermon, Theology

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