I had one of those encounters I often do at Grace. As I was leaving the building at the end of a long day, I met a man who was wandering around in our courtyard. He had clearly been at the door of the shelter, found it locked and was wondering what next. I greeted him, asked if he needed anything, and listened to a little bit of his story. He had been released from prison that day after eight years and after a visit to the Parole Office, they had sent him here—assuring him that the shelter opened at 6:00 pm.
Like so many others who seek shelter in our basement, this man was from out of town. After all those years in prison, he wasn’t sure how to behave on the street. He wants to turn his life around, but the odds are stacked against him, beginning with the fact that the people who are supposed to help with his transition, the Parole Office, seems to lack necessary information. It was fortunate that I happened upon him. Even more fortunately, as we walked and talked, the Porchlight employee who would be working that night came by. He himself had been homeless, and readily agreed to take this newly-freed prisoner in hand and provide an orientation to homelessness in Madison.
As I said, it was typically of many encounters I’ve had over the years at Grace. It’s also something that other staff members have encountered, volunteers, and even ordinary church-goers. It’s the sort of thing that happens regularly around here. It’s part of our mission and ministry; it has become part of our DNA as a congregation, and it’s also one small way we show our hospitality to others.
Today’s reading from Hebrews helps us think about hospitality in larger terms. It’s not simply about “being nice” to people. These verses come near the end of the book, after the author has laid out very carefully and in great detail his understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death. Central to that is the argument that the death, the sacrifice, of Christ has rendered unnecessary the sacrifices of the Jewish temple cult.
If that’s the case, what sort of divine worship is appropriate in the new age ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? The last verses in our reading suggest an answer: “a sacrifice of praise.” To put it in other words, the worship we do when we gather together in Jesus’ name. There’s another dimension to that worship, however. For the author of Hebrews, divine service includes the sacrifices of doing good and sharing what we have for they are also “sacrifices to God.” So when the author speaks of hospitality, of visiting the prisoner and the torture victim, he intends us to see those acts not as some sort of add-on to our faith, but at the very heart of our relationship to God. He underscores the centrality of these acts by encouraging us to see those in need as if they were ourselves.
Such acts are worship; they are not done to a stranger, but to ourselves. But there is something strange here. The word translated as hospitality is literally rendered “love of the strange.” In the ancient Greco-Roman world, to open one’s home to guests was to risk the encounter with the strange and different. Travelers brought news of the outside world, information and experience that shattered the narrow confines of ordinary life. There’s a sense in which inviting outsiders in was almost dangerous.
In the context of the Hebrew Bible, welcoming the stranger was also a crucial value. Our passage alludes to it when it refers to the possibility entertaining angels unknowingly, as Abraham did when he invited the three men to stay for dinner. The idea of welcoming the stranger was central to Hebrew self-understanding, for they dwelt as “aliens and sojourners” in a land that was not their own.
In the gospel lesson, we see Jesus receiving hospitality and explaining what it means to be a host at God’s banquet. Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee. That in itself deserves mention. Typically we think of Jesus and the Pharisees as implacable enemies, Jesus criticizing them for their nitpicking and their legalism. In fact, that common assumption is wrong. It would be better to think of Jesus and the Pharisees as sharing a deep commitment to the Torah, to the Jewish law, and differing only in their interpretation of it. They were in conversation, not at war. That Luke has Jesus eating at the home of a Pharisee is an indication of that close relationship.
But you know, I’ll bet that Pharisee regretted having invited Jesus when he heard the dinner conversation. For us seating at dinner is important only on special occasions—at a wedding reception or a gala banquet. For the most part, even if we are eating a festive meal, we grab our food and sit next to our friends or family. But in the ancient Mediterranean world, seating at meals was vitally important. Where you sat, where your host placed you was a clear indication of your status.
Jesus gives some pretty solid and pretty unremarkable advice about what to do when looking for a place to sit at a meal. It’s the sort of advice we might read in one of those how to get ahead in business books. Take a low-status seat, and wait for the host to call you to the head table. That’s good advice when the alternative might mean losing face. If you go to the head table and the host says, no, I had that seat in mind for someone else; instead of prime rib, you’ll be eating crow.
But Jesus isn’t giving his listeners a lesson in etiquette. He is reminding them, and us, that meals are about more than filling your stomach. In the gospels, meals, the eating and the fellowship are also about the kingdom of God. He adds one of his characteristic statements: all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He is expressing one of the key values in the kingdom of God, that it is a world turned upside-down; a world in which the values we cherish and hold dear are upended, undone by God’s values.
That point is made even more clear by Jesus’ next statement, advice he gives to the dinner host: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your neighbors, in case they might invite you in return and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” That hardly sounds like the Hollywood A-list. Instead of thinking about our self-interest, what we might gain by hosting, or attending a dinner party, Jesus tells us that we should be thinking about something else—throwing a dinner party for the sake of those who really need it, and who could never repay us.
Banquets may have been places where the social order was reinforced in the ancient world, but among Jews, banquets were also a symbol of God’s reign. The image of the messianic banquet, where the food was plentiful and rich and the wine flowed freely, was one of the dominant ways Jews articulated their hopes for a new age. That symbol was retained by early Christians, and here Jesus lays out his vision of the heavenly banquet, where all would find a place. The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled, those were the same groups Jesus preached about at his very first public appearance in Luke’s gospel. Now they are included in the promised banquet.
But there’s something else. It’s not just God who acts as host at the banquet. Jesus tells his audience that when they have banquets, they are the ones who should invite the outcasts and downtrodden of society. The reign of God about which Jesus speaks is an opportunity for us to act towards others as God acts towards us—to reach out in a spirit of reciprocity and generosity to those around us.
To love the strange, to invite everyone to join us at God’s splendid feast, where no one cares about seating arrangements, what you are wearing, or who you know, is at the heart of what it means to be the community of Jesus Christ. To love the strange, to see our acts of kindness and generosity not as duty, or even as ethical requirement, but as the heart of our worship of the crucified and risen Christ. To love the strange, to open our selves to the possibility that in our encounter with those from beyond our small worlds, we might become something new, something different. To love the strange—our response to God’s love of us, and our call as disciples of Jesus Christ.