Monday, August 29, 2022

Quid - This!


Luke 14:1, 7-14

Proper 17 / Year C

Ah, another gospel reading and another painful, personal memory.  It happened years ago at a clergy conference where meals were served buffet style.  I spied a table with an open seat.  Others had already put down their trays, but had gone off to get a beverage.  I sat down.  A few moments later who should take the place across from me… none other the Peter James Lee, the distinguished bishop of our diocese.  Others from his entourage soon filled the table.  Unknowingly, I had seated myself way above by paygrade.  Surely, I thought, he would rather have as a meal companion almost any other priest in the room.  Well, as I recall, we all had a pleasant enough conversation and at the end I thanked everyone for allowing me to join them. 

Where is the pain you ask?  Well, at the very next meal the same scenario unfolded – open space at a table with trays put down and people gone for beverages.  I sit down.  A few moments later, who should take a seat across from me?  You got it – the bishop.  While it was an innocent mistake on my part, I knew it was a complete overreach to have not one, but two meals in row with the bishop at a clergy conference.  I imagined he was going to say to me, “Keith, I am going to have to ask you to move because I have someone else who wants to eat with me,” but he didn’t.  Phew!  Still, you can be absolutely certain at the next meal (and every meal thereafter) I made sure I saw where the bishop set down his tray so that I could stay as far away from that table as possible.

This morning we find Jesus in the home of a Pharisee sharing an invitation only, communal meal on the Sabbath.  The guests are “watching” Jesus closely.  He too is watching them.  Jesus notices how they jostle for seats to gain positions of honor.  He tells them a parable which ends in a horrible social embarrassment.  “What if your host asks you to move because someone more important than you deserves of your place?”  “Humble yourself and you may just be exulted.  Exult yourself and you may just be humbled”.

Well, it is tempting to interpret this as being no more than a simple lesson in etiquette, but I think something deeper is going on.  In that culture, at meals like the one Jesus is attending, seating position matters.  The closer you are to host, the more important you are (or feel you are).  Your value is determined not by your moral qualities or your hard work or your accomplishments.  It is determined by your physical proximity to the host.

Perhaps the closest thing to this in our day and age is name-dropping.  I have known a few shameless name-droppers and they are all the same.  They feel important because they know or have met someone important.  And, because you have not met that important person, you are not as important as the name-dropper. 

Just as Jesus did not respond well to a presumed sense of personal enrichment, neither do we.  Dr. Carmen Lebherz, of the University of Zurich, devised an ingenious experiment to confirm this.  She sent slightly different email messages to groups of undergraduates in which the sender indicates a desire to meet potential collaborators on a future research project.   

Each group received the same standard information about the researcher’s background, goals, and appropriate personal information. She introduced only one variable.  An email to one group included the addition the sender plays tennis regularly with Roger Federer – one of the all-time greats of the sport.  To a second group she noted she had once met Roger Federer.  To the third she stated she was a fan of Roger Federer.  To the final group she mentioned nothing about the tennis star at all.  

Dr. Lebherz surveyed the email recipients to rate their interest in being research partners with the sender.  Do I even need to tell you the results?  The higher the degree of name-dropping, the lower the desire to be involved with the project.

Jesus, in what he presents to his host, offers a different possibility.  Instead of inviting all these people who are seeking to capitalize off of your position, and who, no doubt, expect you to come to their homes when they host a splashy occasion, why not invite people who can never repay you?

I am sure you are familiar with the Latin phrase quid pro quo – “this for that.”  Just like the adage, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” it implies we live in a transactional economy.  And we do.  The local grocery store is not going to let you walk out with a $2 ear of corn! without paying for it.  Neither are you going to walk in and hand the manager a $20 bill because you just want to give your money to the store.  Quid pro quo.  This for that. 

But Jesus, in his words to his host, directs our attention to a spiritual economy, which is every bit as real and every bit as necessary as the transactional.  “When you host a get-together, do not invite the people who will one day reciprocate.  Look around your community and invite also folks who, most likely, will never be able to repay the favor.”  Jesus invites us to live our lives as quid – this. 

Theologically, it is easy enough to discern the justification for this.  Ponder only slightly what God has given you, done for you, forgiven you, and you will realize you will never be able to sacrifice enough to repay for it all.  What can you do it this: extend God’s mercies which you have been blessed to receive to everyone you know.

Let me finish by sharing with you a wonderful memory not at all associated with being seated in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It has to do with the blessings of hosting a party and who you invite.

So, years ago, when I was serving as an assistant in a parish in Ohio, a couple who had been successful in every way, shape, and form, decided to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary by taking a month-long cruise around the Mediterranean.  But before they embarked on their well-deserved, dream trip she was diagnosed with cancer.  Family, friends, the church, and the health community rallied to their side, but the trip was canceled.  Thankfully, she responded well to treatment and recovered, but they made the decision not to rebook the trip.

Instead, they decided to throw a massive party at the local country club to thank all their friends and supporters.  I can’t say the guest list was exactly like what Jesus would have drawn it up based on today’s reading, but it did include me, which was reaching low! 

I think about that occasion from time to time.  It was, hands down, the best social event I have ever attended.  The host and the hostess where the happiest, most grace-filled people I have ever witnessed in that position.  They determined they wanted to celebrate the blessings of their life, their marriage, and their health with the widest community possible.  They embodied the Godly ideal of quid – this, without anything expected in return. 

I think about that couple this morning as I ponder Jesus’ counsel to his host and to the guests.  I share it with you as something for you to ponder.  I trust you will not take it as a directive, but as a Godly possibility.  I know you will consider not only it what it means for the parties you host or that you attend, but also how it might affect your witness to your faith in every aspect of your daily life.