It is very hard for human beings to move out of our comfort zones of people we know and trust. A group of psychologists conducted an experiment with 150 people on a weekend retreat. They told everyone to move into 8 breakout rooms with no more than 20 people in each group. Those were the only directions given. Even though there was clearly enough room for everyone to be in a group, everyone reacted with great anxiety to the directions. In each room people quickly moved to a room, elected or appointed a leader, counted out 20 people and then shut the door to close anyone else out. They did this even though no one told them to elect leaders or shut the doors. As much as we think we are free individuals, we come pre-programmed to have a herd mentality where we are quick to define who is part of our group and who is not welcome. Human being will act with great compassion to those who are defined as “in the group” and yet we will often be irrationally spiteful and destructive to people we define as “outsiders.”
Religion and theology is a major way we define insiders and
outsiders. We will fight and divide over
almost anything. Christians can create
schism over one word in a creed, the type of communion wafer, the songs in the
hymnal or even over shoes. In the 16th
Jesus pushes us towards a different pole, towards crossing the boundaries we have made between one and another, and having compassion. He does this even when invited into a banquet of the supposed most pious people of his day, the Pharisees. He exposes their hypocrisy of being an elite clique who don’t interact with or take seriously anyone but their own group. As I listen to Jesus’ words, I hear not just a criticism of the Pharisees, but of the tendency we all feel to cling to who and what we know and marginalize those whom we don’t know and understand.
How do we envision the banquet Jesus describes? It isn’t hard for me to imagine the banquet
of the poor, lame and blind, because it happens every night around 9:00 PM
where I work at the Hillcrest House Emergency Shelter. On a typical night, nearly 30 people arrive
by van and a church group swings into action serving lasagna and garlic bread
they made in the church kitchen. The
lively chatter among the regulars rehashes the days events and compares the
food to how things were at the noon meal at the Lunch Box on
You notice a man in a light jacket, which is odd since the temperature hit 90 degrees in the afternoon. He slips several pieces of garlic bread into his pockets for a snack later on, to be washed down with a flask of Wild Turkey he has smuggled in.
A man in work boots with paint all over his clothes has shoveled in his first helping and looking for more after a long day painting houses. He is friendly enough with the others, but not really engaged since he doesn’t plan to be here long. After a couple more pay checks he will get his own place.
Jackie, an older retired woman, happily chats with her table. We have helped her get her own apartment before, but she prefers the company of the shelter. She will stay in a one bedroom for a couple of months, not pay the rent, and come back home to Hillcrest when they evict her. The man she is talking to is not paying attention. He warily eyes the crowd for danger, since he has been upstate in prison doing a 6 to 10 year sentence for Robbery 3 and aggravated assault. He feels claustrophobic and unprotected without his own cell. Likewise, everyone is secretly watching him too, to see if he poses a threat. Parole has mandated him here and until he finds his own place, and with a felony count, you can imagine how his job search in going. By winter time, he may break a shop window and wait for the police to pick him up and take him back to jail just to escape the anxiety of living among the free.
Joel is over in the corner talking with the supervisor, complaining that bed bugs are biting him. She looks at his mosquito bites and assures him he will be fine, but tells him to visit the clinic just in case. Really he is angling to get Social Services to put him up in a hotel so he can have TV and air conditioning. He thinks up a new excuse to get out every week. His best was showing up at DSS and telling them he was banned for throwing cookies. They actually called me to complain about our draconian policies and I assured them that while we take our cookies very seriously, we do not ban people from the shelter for throwing them, unless they use the F-word and threaten to kill someone while in the midst of the food fight. Tomorrow Joel will call the Health Department and I will have my monthly conversation with the inspector, who knows the drill and knows he can walk in to our shelter any day and find it sparkling.
Typical nights run smoothly and everyone heads to the showers while the next 30 people come for supper. Fights are rare, knock on wood, but they do happen. Usually it is a lot of name calling and threats and the staff ask the aggrieved parties to leave for the night and cool off. A few nights a week we have to turn someone away at the screening site because they are too intoxicated. Everyone knows the rules. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no weapons, no bags. We will let someone on the van who has alcohol on their breath, but if they have trouble getting into the van, staff will ask them if they would like a ride to detox. Usually they will chose to sleep it off somewhere instead. There are 30 volunteer groups, mostly churches, who come in monthly to cook and serve food. We could probably raise the money to do the meals with paid staff, but it is worth it to coordinate volunteers. Where else do homeless people mix with the middle class? It is the closest thing I have seen to the great banquet Jesus envisions in Luke’s Gospel. These nightly meals give me hope that we can create more inclusive fest as Jesus envisions.
But as you can see it is complicated, difficult and messy to do this. It is a controlled environment, with plastic utensils that cannot be stolen, security close by and even we have to ban some people because they just can’t get along. Jesus said to invite the poor, blind, and lame to our banquets. In our day, we may be hard pressed to take this literally. We are more likely to take it as a metaphor to be mindful of people at the margins of society, but in practice we will keep them at a safe distance, for those that chose to reach out at all. But Jesus did say this, so therefore we must take it seriously.
In what ways does this passage challenge us to move out of our comfort zones and close the distances between people? Jesus says we need to start inviting new people to dinner. Does this passage call us to think differently about issues such as immigration or where mosques are built? Behind these complex issues, is the old human tendency at work to count out 20 people in a room and close the door? Shouldn’t this also mean we need to invite new people to the communion table? This church took a great step of welcoming a diversity of children and family into vacation Bible school. What is the next step?