Opening Up: Welcoming a Stranger (Not Taking on a Project)

Scripture  |  Luke 14:1-24

Hearing Jean Vanier describe this passage, it sounds so beautiful. And it is beautiful, what the L’Arche community does, not just “helping” people in need but living in community with people with disabilities – people whose gifts and blessings are often invisible. This is the lesson Jesus had for those he ate with that day at the home of the leader of the Pharisees. It was a lesson not everyone was ready to hear. 

And it’s no wonder, really. What Jesus was doing was upending assumptions not just of righteous religious people, but of the wider culture as well. The setting of the story is a Sabbath-day dinner, which is a dead give-away that there would be conflict. In Luke’s Gospel at least, every time Jesus sits down with someone to break bread it seems like there’s a dust-up. The same thing happens over and over again on the Sabbath – he butts heads with the rulers of the synagogues and the Pharisees. So when it’s the Sabbath AND he’s eating dinner, you know there’s going to be a scene. 

Which, of course, there is. In one short exchange Jesus manages to yank the chains not only of the Jewish religious leaders, but the wider Greek Hellenistic culture as well. Maybe he’s yanking our chains a little bit, too. 

Take that list of the people he tells the host he should invite: the lame, the crippled, blind people. It’s not an arbitrary list. It’s not random. Jesus is making reference to a passage in the Hebrew Bible, to a section of the Law in the book of Leviticus, where it prohibits anyone who is blind or lame or disfigured or deformed or crippled from sharing the food of God. [Lev. 21:17-21] The religious leaders are just obeying the law – which the same reason they’re so nonplussed about Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. But Jesus will have none of it. Protecting their purity has become way too important, to the point of neglecting the needs of others. 

In a similar vein, he takes a dig at the assumptions of Hellenistic culture, the Greek ethos that was inescapable. For the Greeks, honor was everything. Humility wasn’t a virtue, it was a vice. Seriously. You did anything you could to protect your honor and humility was nothing short of humiliation. So when Jesus talks about taking the last place at the table so you won’t be humiliated, he’s not offering a new, clever way of protecting honor. It’s about not needing to be honored in the first place - which must have sounded crazy to them. 

Protecting your own purity and self-importance are not the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not suggesting we curry favor by seeming humble. He’s saying to turn outward to people who aren’t at the table at all. And not somehow to “help,” but to sit at table together in the kingdom of God. 

It was a lesson for the people at that table that night. And it’s a lesson for us at our table as well. 

Fred Craddock offers a wonderful commentary on this passage that helped me to “get it.” He writes, 

Being a host carries with it many pleasant and positive connotations, such as friendliness, generosity, graciousness, and concern for the comfort of others, and in many cases these terms are appropriate descriptions. However, Jesus observed an occasion, and certainly not an isolated one, in which hosting was an act by which one person gained power over others and put them in his debt.

Do you see what he’s saying? Hospitality turns into a power grab. Generosity becomes taking. Hosting becomes a way of putting people in their place. 

When I read Craddock’s commentary, an old memory came bubbling up. It was around Christmastime, and my parents had just received a lovely gift from an old friend. At least I thought it was lovely. It was actually several gifts: a year-long subscription to National Geographic, an enormous poinsettia plant, and a shipment of choice filets from Omaha Steaks. My dad was furious. In his mind, the gift-giver was showing off his superiority and putting Dad in his place, creating a debt he couldn’t, and didn’t’ want to pay. 

As Fred Craddock notes, “All of us know the ugly face of generosity which binds and the demonic character of gifts with strings attached.” I don’t know if this gift-giver had any strings attached, but that’s sure how Dad experienced it. It felt patronizing.

When we were talking about this passage in Bible study I asked the group if they had ever felt condescended to or patronized. Every single person nodded their head yes. Then I asked how it felt. People grimaced. They shuddered. They said it made their skin crawl and their stomachs turn. They wanted to get as much distance as possible from the person who was doing it. They didn’t want to feel indebted so that someone else could feel better about themselves. They felt looked down on, like their supposed inferiority was a way of feeding someone else’s ego.

But in God’s kingdom, there’s no measuring ourselves against each other. What’s the point? “In the kingdom,” Craddock says, “God is the host, and who can repay God?” If we are always guests, who are we to make any claims, set any conditions, expect any return? 

And as for poor people, or lame or crippled or blind people, as Fred Craddock points out, Jesus is saying more than we may want to hear. “Care of the poor and the disabled” is core to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. But Jesus is not calling on Christians to provide for the needs of the poor and the disabled; he says to invite them to dinner…. 

The word translated ‘hospitality’ means, literally, ‘love of a stranger.’…  

Nor does the text speak of sending food to anyone; rather, the host and the guest sit at table together. The clear sign of acceptance, of recognizing others as one’s equals, of cementing fellowship, is breaking bread together. In the Christian community no one is a ‘project.’

In the Christian community, no one is a project. 

Jean Vanier and the L’Arche community have a lot to teach us about this unexpected, paradoxical blessing. Over the next few weeks in worship – on Sundays and in our Wednesday worship – we’re going to look more deeply at what this means for us as people of faith. How it can be, that when the humbled are exalted and the exalted humble themselves, truly, we are living in the kingdom of heaven.