Decentering

Luke 14: 12-24

 © Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

Second Sunday in Lent/ 4th March 2007/ Sacrament of Holy Communion

“Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”  That’s what one of the dinner guests said when they heard Jesus say in his kingdom the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind are the preferred guests at his table, not the rich, not our friends and family, not people like us. 

Table etiquette in Jesus’ world was a very serious affair.  Dinners were significant social occasions used to cement social relations.  It was very important to know who would be invited.  Knowing who else was on the list influenced one’s acceptance of the invitation.  If the right people were going, then you might wish to go.  If the right people stayed away, you probably would want to do the same – providing you wished to stay in the good graces of the “right” people.  In addition, accepting a dinner invitation normally obligated the guest to return the favor.  Sometimes guests refused an invitation,” knowing that the return obligation was more than they could or wished to handle,” because you couldn’t afford to repay in kind.[1]  When Jesus says we are to invite people to our table who cannot repay you in kind, he is turning this practice on its head.

Table fellowship across status lines was relatively rare in Jesus’ society.  We know for a fact that the first Christian communities were radically inclusive churches where people of all social strata were welcomed and treated as equals.  This caused considerable friction for Christians, especially Christian elite. If they actually ate a meal with someone who was poor or lame they risked being cut off from their families and social networks.   Jesus overturns the tables of social propriety by saying his followers intentionally invite to their tables the people who cannot repay them in kind.  That’s when a dinner guests says, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

Really?  Is it really this simple?  Jesus knew that the guest didn’t get the point, so he tells this parable.  Someone gave a great banquet and invited many, incurring considerable expense.  But his rich friends begin to make excuses.  They’re all absurd excuses, of course.  When are excuses ever really rational?  There’s property to buy, and oxen to break in, and honeymoons to take.  Not your usual dinner-party excuse.  The wealthy elite come up with all kinds of ridiculous excuses.  Since they will not accept the invitation, the servant is sent out to invite the poor and crippled, the blind and lame.  The host, breaking rank with the elite, invites people from the streets, from the lanes.  The lanes or back alleys are where the poor lived; the outcasts lived in the hedges along the side of the road, seeking shelter outside the walls of the city.[2]  These are the very ones Jesus invites to his banquet, where there’s always room for one more.  The tables have been turned.  Indeed, “Blessed is anyone – everyone – who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

Will we accept the table fellowship of our Lord or do we want to see who’s on the guest list first?  To see who else is coming before we say yes to God’s invitation is, to put it bluntly, self-centered.  It’s all about them – or us.  Basically those making excuses don’t want to be inconvenienced.  They’re focusing upon themselves, upon their own needs.  They are the elite, the wealthy and powerful; they’re at the center of their society.  They are the hub of a social wheel where everyone else circles around them.  Your place in society is determined vis-à-vis your relationship to them at the center. 

But Jesus knocks them off-center with this parable.  He says the poor and outcast, she will become the guest of honor at my banquet; the crippled and blind, he will be worthy of such an invitation.  He takes those on the edge of society and places them at the center of God’s kingdom – it’s not unlike Jesus placing a child before the crowd and saying this is what the kingdom is like (Matthew 18: 1-5; Luke 18:17).

This parable, like the gospel, like the kingdom, is always a decentering experience.  It knocks us off center; it forces us to see ourselves and the world from a different perspective.  And, to be quite frank, a decentering is almost always required in order for us to recognize the gospel, to recognize what Jesus is doing in the world.  We all need to know what it feels like to be on the edge.       

The child development specialist, David Elkind, made the point in his wonderful book, The Hurried Child, that “if it is to be done well, child-rearing requires, more than most activities of life, a good deal of decentering from one’s own needs and perspectives.”[3]  It’s relatively easy to do this when a society and family are stable and secure, but when they’re not the reverse takes place, one turns inward, tries to hold on at the center, to focus on oneself because that’s safer.

I wonder if this is not a contributing factor to the well-publicized report released recently that says “today’s college students are more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors,” claiming that this trend could be harmful to personal relationships and American society.[4]  The study cited one preschool where the children sing to the tune “Frere Jacques,” the words, “I am special, I am special.  Look at me.  Look at me.”  There is a place for a healthy sense of self; God knows we could use more of that.  But the narcissist is selfish, feeling entitled, everyone and everything, including God, is viewed from the needs and perspective of the self obsessed with its own image.  The gospel knocks us off center, changes our focus, gives us a different angle from which to view reality, and helps us see the world from a different perspective, not always welcomed.

I felt this last weekend spending time with Bernard Kabibu from Congo.  Having visited Kananga, touring the Good Shepherd Hospital where he works in Tshikaji, seeing the needs and abject poverty there, I had some sense of what his world was like.  Having him here, I tried to imagine what he might be thinking and feeling about American culture.  Trying to put myself in his shoes forced me to sees things in my life, things I take for granted and (sad to admit, things I have forgotten upon returning to the United States).  Kabibu usually eats one meal a day, like most Congolese.  He was eating three meals a day.  I wondered how he felt looking over the menu at Matthew’s with all those choices before him.  Over lunch we were trying to explain all the hubbub over the Oscars, with all its glitz and glamour, trying to explain Hollywood.  Watching it on TV seemed all so self-indulgent.  Even reading the Purpose Driven Life and discussing it last week with him in the France Room seemed self-indulgent.  Where the average person in the Congo lives to age 49, survival seems a priority over purpose, just to live another day. 

Then I took Bernard to Washington, DC on Monday, which provided a different perspective on my country.  I pointed out the capitol building; we visited the American Indian museum and told that sorry story. We went the U. S. Archives eager to show him the Declaration of Independence, but it was missing! (I’m not sure where it was, but it was boarded up with only a poster of the Declaration for all to read.)  He was eager to see the White House, I was eager to show him the Lincoln Memorial.  We climbed the steps and told him this was the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  His face lit up.  I explained the Gettysburg Address on one panel and then put Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in context – truly a theological manifesto.  I read the third panel to him aloud describing the scourge that was slavery.  He asked for a copy.  Slavery was abolished in 1865[5]; yet only a few feet away in 1963 King was still fighting for freedom and rights.  Then it became clear to me again.  Equality is never easily embraced.  Democracy takes a long time to take root, it doesn’t occur overnight and it cannot be imposed.  I probably wouldn’t have seen this without Kabibu’s presence and perspective.

God’s kingdom is difficult to embrace and recognize because it presents a different angle or perspective on reality.  Sometimes we have to be knocked off center, decentered, our focus changed to see it.  But that’s what can happen at a meal in the kingdom of God.  When rich and poor, the well-put-together and the falling-apart, the insider and the outsider, the whole and wholly lost sit together at one table perspectives change and we see people with the eyes of grace.  “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”        



[1] See Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), 365-367.

[2] Malina and Rohrbaugh, 365-367.

[3] David Elkind, The Hurried Child:  Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (Perseus Publishing, 2001).

[4] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17349066/

[5] Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863.