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The Hidden Wisdom of Costanza, Lord of the Idiots: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

September 1, 2019:
Sirach 10:12-18
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

A group of friends are on their to a dinner party. (You might recognize them.)

“Maybe we should stop off on the way and get a bottle of wine or something,” suggests one of them.
“What for” is the response of another.
“These people invited us for dinner. We have to bring something.”
“Why?” as he continues to press the issue.
“Because it’s rude, otherwise,” she responds.
But the challenger continues: “You mean just going there because I’m invited, that’s rude?”
“So you’re telling me instead of being happy to see me, they’re going to be upset because I didn’t bring anything. You see what I’m saying?”
One of the other of their group finally interjects, wanting to calm the situation: “The fabric of society is very complex.”
But the first friend still has a problem. “I don’t even drink wine. I drink Pepsi.”
“You can’t bring Pepsi…”
“Why not?”
“Because we’re adults?”
“You’re telling me that wine is better than Pepsi? Huh, no way wine is better than Pepsi.”
The third friend pipes up again: “I’m telling you, I don’t think we want to walk in there and put a big plastic jug of Pepsi on the table.”
“I just don’t like the idea that every time there is a dinner invitation there’s this annoying little chore that goes along with it.”*

“When you give a banquet, invite the selfish, the neurotic, the tempestuous, and the bickering. And you will be blessed because they will not repay you. Or if they do, don’t expect more than a bottle of Pepsi and a bag of Ring Dings.”

That little story, of course, is from the fifth season of the sitcom Seinfeld. Hard to believe that it’s been a full 25 years since that episode was aired. And the scary thing is, at least looking at our gospel through the lens of the TV show — or the show through the lens of the gospel — it kinda seems like George Costanza, “Lord of the Idiots,” actually had a point. There’s a danger to hospitality, as Henri Nouwen puts it, becoming a “business.”** (Yes, I’ve just compared George Costanza and Henri Nouwen.) There’s hospitality, and then there’s hospitality with strings. And the latter has conditions, and can verge on the exploitation of the guest. And George, with no regard for social decorum, is unafraid to challenge this.

And certainly in Jesus’s day, like in ours, there were social conventions that one would come across, and have to navigate. And here he is, being hosted by a Pharisee. And this provides an opportunity for him to give some countercultural advice on navigating this complex social world. Two lessons: when you’re a guest, act humbly. And you might be pleasantly surprised by being treated with honour. And when you’re a host, honour people who, according to the measuring sticks of the world, are without it. And these lessons serve the purpose of setting the stage for what was probably a mark of Jesus’s ethic, and a well-known and repeated saying associated with him: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” There’s wisdom in that.

But there’s something more here, if I may be so bold. Jesus is concerned with more than just ethical instructions. Not to mention that it seems a little out of character for him to say, as apparently he does here: “you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you” when the host invites you to move up. Since when does Jesus care so much about social standing, and looking good in front of everyone?

I think there might be a clue there, right at the beginning, that the narrator tells us: “he told them a parable.” In some way, these two bits of instruction serve as parables. Not quite as poetic or story-timey as most of the other ones; but, like a parable, they’re there to expand our minds to start to grasp some important truth, by using some commonplace characters and situations and items. And the truth that he’s communicating is something about how God’s judgement — God’s measuring stick — is often different from ours. The values of the Reign of God are going to challenge and upturn ours.

So here we have Jesus who uses a common occurrence, like a dinner party. Dinner parties, among the few in the upper class, were opportunities to solidify their status, and their base. You invited people in your sphere, and maybe some who were a little higher up than you. Because, you hoped, they’d rub off on you a bit. If you hung out with them, you must be like them.)

So there’s this theme of invitation in the parable: who’s invited, and who does the inviting. And if we look into the Greek word, it’s the same word that we’d also use for “elect.” The guests have been “elected,” or chosen to dine with the host. This language of being among the “elect,” or we might say, “chosen few” is not just social hierarchy language, but also eschatological language. Language about the future, about God’s ultimate plans for the world. And if this is so, then Jesus isn’t just teaching his listeners how to be nice to others… but warning them, and us, not to get too comfortable and puffed up when we assume that we’re the elect, the chosen ones. And there’s lots of ways in which we deem ourselves to be invited/elect/chosen: for having big brains; for having the most sophisticated views; for having the right religion; for living the most righteously. Jesus reminds us that God’s way of measuring, of inviting, of hosting is often different than ours.

So beneath these parables and these instructions on party manners is the message: don’t exalt yourself, but be humble in your sense of chosen-ness. Jesus reveals to his listeners the burden of living with a focus on status, and repayment, and keeping up appearances. Instead, he awakens our minds to the values of the Kingdom — where the emphasis is on sharing, and community, and the inclusion of those that had previously been deemed without, or of lesser value. When we bring this heavenly decorum, this ethic into our world, then we get a glimpse into what our religious tradition has called the heavenly banquet, the supper of the Lamb, or we might even just call it the party that God has in mind for the world, as the most generous of hosts.

In the meantime the Church is counselled [from the Letter to the Hebrews]: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter


** Reaching Out (London: Fount, 1975), 91.