Jesus was not one to be constrained by the way things ought to be done according to the social norms of his day. He behaved in a way that seemed right to him and in the process caused an element of shock to many of those around him. He was a great observer of people and often challenged those who listened to him by telling them parables. He told a parable about those who hold dinners and lunches, challenging them not to invite those who were ‘just like them’ but those who were different. That message is as relevant today as it was then.
The readings were Psalm 112, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 and Luke 14:1, 7-14. My reflection is given below.
Yesterday I went to the church where my daughter got married just over a year ago. I wasn’t going to attend a service of any kind but to deliver the legal documents I had written up for a wedding due to take place in the afternoon. As I got out of my car a woman asked me if it was possible to look around the church. St Michael and Our Lady, in Wragby is a lovely old church with rare Swiss glass in the windows. It is left unlocked all the time and many people visit it.
As I chatted to the woman I found out that the reason she was visiting the church was as part of her research into where her daughter might like to get married. I was able to tell her a lot about the wonderful experience our family had had there. During the conversation she mentioned that her daughter wanted to invite around 120 guests but that mother and daughter probably needed to talk about the guest list. She explained that there were around 10 people whom she owed in a big way socially and she needed to invite them to the wedding. I didn’t get the impression that inviting them would be something unpleasant but I was struck by the sense of ‘having to’ invite them as a way of somehow evening things up.
Society runs smoothly because there are lots of social conventions which help it to do so. Living within these often unspoken rules is something we gradually learn as we are socialised from early childhood. I’m sure many of us have come across the child who asks her mother in a loud voice in a public place, ‘Mummy, why is that man so fat?’ The embarrassed mother has to tell the child that we don’t ask that kind of question in public!
Jesus was very good at turning social conventions on their heads, much to the dismay of some of the more conventional people around him. He was content to eat with all kinds of people including ‘tax collectors and sinners’. He allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. He spoke to a Samaritan woman, breaking two rules for Jews. He touched and healed a woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath, breaking six conventions according to Gareth’s recent sermon.
In the second of the two short parables in the gospel reading he told the people not to fall into the tit-for-tat way of inviting people to dinners or lunches knowing that they in their turn will invite you. This is the opposite of what the woman I met at the church felt she should do. Instead of inviting people like themselves – friends, brothers, relatives or rich neighbours – Jesus urges his listeners to invite those who are very much not like themselves: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
In the Letter to the Hebrews Christians are urged to exercise hospitality and in so doing may find that they entertain angels. It’s not easy to be with people who are very different from ourselves at times but it may be through those not like us that God can speak or challenge us. Recently a Muslim man rang up to ask if I could help with some difficulties in English. I invited him to visit us at home and his visit lasted around 2 hours. It turned out that we had a wonderful conversation together and learnt a lot about each other’s faiths. This man was amazed that we would entertain a stranger of a different faith, with no idea of anything about him but it just seemed such a natural thing to do.
It would be possible to go through the motions of following what Jesus said without actually letting it touch us deeply; a sort of ‘Christian hospitality lite’. There is a lot of talk about being ‘inclusive’ nowadays, portraying it as a virtue. To me it would be possible to include people in much the same way as children might be urged to include the child who always gets left out of games. Or it could be rather like finding someone on your doorstep and saying with a great lack of enthusiasm, ‘Well, I suppose you had better come in.’ Far better than inclusion is a genuine welcome, an enthusiastic drawing in of the other into fellowship with us.
And what about ‘tolerance’, that other modern virtue which might be mistaken for hospitality? How would it feel for someone to say to another person, ‘I tolerate you’? Instead of tolerance, what is needed is respect for the differences in people, a celebration of diversity.
Think of tokenism also. How easy it is to invite someone different to be in a group as the ‘token man’, the ‘token person of another race’, the ‘token disabled person’ and so on. I was at a meeting the other day and a new member had joined the team. He seemed unsure exactly what we do and asked a lot of questions. Eventually he said, ‘Why did you invite me?’ and my boss said, ‘I thought we needed another man in the team.’ It was said as a joke and it was between people who knew each other well, but it could so easily be the case that hospitality is exercised in that way.
As I said earlier, being with people who are different, who are not the type of person we would normally live, work or socialise with, can be a challenge. When it became necessary to add to the Leadership Team last year it would have been so easy to choose people who were like us, our ‘cronies’ if you like. Instead we looked for people who had shown commitment to the community and from within them we picked as wide a range of theological persuasions and geography as we could. We hoped in that way to represent the members here as accurately as we could.
We knew that making this choice would cause difficulties, and it has. Topics arise on which we have very, very different views. We have to work hard to listen generously to one another, to respect our differences, to engage with the challenge of finding a way forward, to have the courage sometimes to be the lone voice for a given opinion. I admit that sometimes my heart sinks at the thought of what misunderstandings and hurts might result. Interestingly enough, out of this have come some unlikely friendships between people who might not have chosen to work together.
I have found that I hold all the members of the Leadership Team in great esteem. I respect them for the diverse talents they bring to our Team. I value the way my own ideas are challenged and refined as a result of our interaction. I appreciate the huge support each on the Team gives to the other members. Knowing that I don’t agree on everything with members of the Team and the community at large does not mean that I can’t work, worship and pray with everyone.
Jesus taught that our hospitality must be generous and genuine just as his was. He also taught that when the Kingdom of God comes in all its fullness there will be people there whom we might not have expected to see. Reaching out to others who are not ‘just like us’ brings the Kingdom a little closer but it’s certainly not for cowards!