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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

Rich and poor.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Trinity

June 9, 2024 at Holy Communion

Luke 14:7–24


“We ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.


There’s a character in our Gospel reading who grabs my interest—but its easy to miss that he’s there at all. It’s the unnamed man who, reclining at Jesus’ table, exclaims, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15).


Let’s be honest: it’s a weird thing to say at a dinner party. It’s extravagantly pious. But I suppose with Jesus present you can expect everybody’s religiosity to be on full display: you have to impress the Teacher, after all.


The man’s comment has a background. Immediately beforehand, Jesus made a pointed comment to his host that, when you throw a feast, you should invite “not your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, … but the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (v 12–13). That’s when our man at the table pipes up: he says, in effect, “That’s right, Jesus! Whoever feasts in the kingdom of God is blessed, rich or poor.”


It’s hard to disagree; he has said something broad-minded and charitable. Yet strangely the Gospel account continues: “But Jesus said to him …” The very next word is “but.” Jesus offers a parable to snap back at the man’s apparently generous affirmation that rich and poor will feast together equally in the kingdom of God.


At the end of the parable, Jesus summarizes his point in the parable: “none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (v 24). That is to say: no, the rich and poor will not feast together. Only the poor will feast in the kingdom. The rich apparently have other things to do; they all made excuses.


If you’re not scandalized yet, it gets worse. When Jesus says that “those invited guests” will not share in his banquet, he is probably referring not only to the invitees in the parable, but to real, living invited guests at the dinner party he was attending. You can almost see him looking around the room and pointing a finger. It’s very impolite of him.


We know this because, the same phrase “those who were invited” is used earlier in the passage. Jesus noticed that “those who were invited” to this particular party were all jostling one another to get the best seat (v 7). They seemed to think that getting invited to dinner with Jesus made them important.


Jesus tells them that they got it totally backwards: if they wanted to get honour from their invitation, putting on airs will only make them look ridiculous when someone more pompous comes along and outdoes them (v 8). Instead, they should take the least honourable seat at the party, giving the host an opportunity to recognize not only their honour, but also their generous humility to the others (v 9).


These are the “invited guests” about whom Jesus tell his parable. So to the pious man who says that rich and poor will enjoy the banquet of the kingdom together, Jesus says no. No one who jostles for pride of place, no one who preens and struts, will see the kingdom of God. Jesus is, in fact, simply repeating his teaching from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The kingdom belongs not to the honourable, but to the poor.


The problem with the invited guests is that they are not poor. If they thought that they were poor, if they were happily surprised to be invited at all, they wouldn’t have jostled one another for the best spots.


St Matthew renders the same Beatitude as “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and surely this gloss is correct (Matthew 5:3). The problem is not their material wealth per se—although material wealth is a tar pit for the spirit; it sucks you in and drowns you. The problem is, as the psalms say, “Their hearts were as fat as brawn” (Psalm 119:70). The invited guests were bloated with self-regard, not lean and hungry for the gifts of God’s table, happy to receive whatever crumbs the master would set aside.


It’s so easy to get a distorted view of what God’s generosity to all people means. We don’t want to upset anyone, to make anyone feel like an outsider, so we blithely say that the kingdom of God is for both the rich and the poor, the arrogant and the lowly, the scornful and the gentle. No: the kingdom of God is only for the poor, only for the lowly, only for the gentle.


Why? Because the wedding feast of the kingdom is a festival of lowliness. The meat of God’s table is humility. The reward of meekness is just the blessedness that comes with being meek—which, as it happens, is nothing less than the Blessed One himself. It is not possible for someone who is haughty to enjoy the blessedness of humility; humility is not an experience he knows or desires to know. And so he misses out on his only opportunity to encounter the humble God.


God’s generosity to all people—because God does indeed want his wedding feast full, and he’s willing to take all comers—is that Jesus invites all to follow him on the path of life. Salvation is offered to all, but it remains salvation, and salvation is the communion with God one receives as one lives by humble grace rather than by inflated self-regard.


So perhaps we should try tamping down our proud thoughts as they occur to us. That’s fine, I suppose, but in our Epistle St John offers a surer route: “Jesus laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). People learn by practice a repetition. We will learn humility by active love.


St Paul puts the same thought another way: “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). This is really just the same teaching that Jesus gave when he told the guests to choose the lowest seats for themselves. They should have been falling over one another to get the worst seat, not the best, always trying to lift up others more than themselves, outdoing one another in showing honour, not claiming honour.


In our home life or in our church life, when it comes down to any discussion of whether we should do something this way or that way, we naturally represent our own perspective on how things should be. We don’t want things to be new or challenging; we like things the way we like things. Although we might not think of this as “claiming honour for ourselves,” it is in fact what we are doing. We are saying that our preferences are the concern most dear to our hearts, and we want them to be taken into consideration. But why not rather say, “I know what I would prefer, but perhaps we should ask other people first.”


I offer only one particular application of this principle. In our parish we have been blessed over the past months, at both early and late services, with the presence of faces we have not seen before. If we are a community with the spirit of Christ, we ought to consider the needs of these newly-invited guests more important than the needs of we who received our invitations long ago. Our church exists for them, and for those like them in the highways and byways of our community who have not yet heard the invitation.


The way of the kingdom is, as St Paul says elsewhere, to “consider one another better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Your neighbour’s concerns are more important than your own.

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