When I was much younger, I met a psychic. It was a very interesting experience, to say the least. I did not intend to get a psychic reading or anything. It just sort of happened. My girlfriend at the time invited the friend of a friend over to my house to give me an acupuncture treatment, as my bad back had been acting up. I was glad to get the free treatment. I was not prepared for what I was to hear.
After treating my back, this fellow took me for a walk, and proceeded to tell me everything about myself, things he never could have known, things I barely even admitted to myself. I tell you, he either had true psychic abilities, or an acute sense of reading a person. Either way, I was gob smacked. He gave me some amazing insights into my behavior. He also told me that I had a “destiny” to fulfill, and instructed me that I needed to begin studies in a martial art. He didn’t say which one. Well, when somebody tells you something like that, you give it serious consideration.
At the time, I had a good friend with whom I attended linguistics classes. He studied kung fu. He offered to show me the school where he taught and practiced. I declined because I didn’t want to change our relationship. We were good friends. Had I joined his club, he would be my superior in rank and that would change the dynamics of our friendship. So I joined a different kung fu club. I began studies under the fellow who taught David Carradine, the star of the TV series, Kung Fu. But I didn’t like it there.
So I went to my friend’s club, watched a class, and eventually joined. Now, through my friend, I had already become good friends with several of the club members before I ever joined. Once I became a member of the club, I found myself in close association with most of the senior members. As a result, I found myself progressing rapidly. I became president of the club. I was promoted quickly. I rose to the rank of instructor after only about six years. And let me tell you, six years is nothing in the martial arts world. I knew deep down that I didn’t deserve the honor.
One of the club members, someone I hardly knew really, offered to give me some private lessons on Sundays. I jumped at the chance. I had always felt rather self-conscious about my promotions, feeling somehow that I had been moved up more because of whom I knew than because of my own abilities. So for several years, I attended special private lessons so that my abilities would come to match the rank I was given. I know that there were some guys in the club who resented my entrance somewhat meteoric rise in the inner circle of the kung fu club.
That’s how you learn stuff, isn’t it? When you know nothing, you get to know the people who DO know something, and learn from them. When I became an elementary school teacher, I attached myself to the veteran teachers, kept my mouth shut, and my ears open. I learned all I could from them. And, as a result of this, I advanced in the leadership circles within the elementary school where I taught. I didn’t really plan on that. It just happened. We have all heard this a million times. It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.
This is nothing new. It was just as true two thousand years ago as it is now. Jesus addresses this issue in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel According to Luke. Jesus has been on the road on his way to Jerusalem. Time after time, he has been invited to the homes of various Pharisees, the forerunners of the modern rabbinic tradition, for the purpose of observation. Each meal was an opportunity to set a trap for him, to trip him up in some way, to catch him saying or doing something that would give them an excuse to arrest him and get him out of the way. This Jesus challenged the established order, much as others have over the centuries. Jesus challenged the people to see God not as an angry king, but as a loving father.
“On a sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him,
“When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke, Chapter 14)
We don’t throw a lot of parties. Recently, my wife’s brother was in town. He lives in Arizona, far away. So she invited over some family so everyone could get to see each other for the first time in awhile. It was a great party and everybody had a great time. It was great craic, as the Irish say. We just wanted to enjoy each other’s company. I always love the opportunity to talk with her cousins, especially her cousins Joe and Maria. They’re just good people, and lots of fun.
People don’t always throw a party for fun, though.
The Pharisee in this bible story held a dinner in order to set a trap for a young upstart teacher. And those others present attended in order to advance themselves in the social pecking order. They wanted position and status. They jockeyed for prime positions and the table, for where you sat indicated your position in the group. They attended the dinner to see what they could get out of it. Certainly, the Pharisee who held the dinner knew that his position among the authorities would rise should he be able to trip Jesus up in some way. We all know about these sorts of parties. Today, we call it “networking”.
Every year, my kung fu teacher, my “Sifu”, had a birthday banquet. Well, actually, the club holds the banquet—in his honor. Left to him, there would have been no banquet; although, I am sure he would have been royally pissed off if we had failed to recognize his birthday. Anyway, my sifu’s birthday banquet reminds me of these sorts of dinners. Students were seated at various tables based upon their rank within the club. The table where our sifu sat was reserved for an exclusive inner circle of students.
Before the banquet began, each student would scout around to see where he or she was seated. And during the banquet, all the students looked around to see where everyone else was seated. From time to time, you heard the clinking of a spoon against a glass, and someone would rise to spout carefully chosen words of praise for our teacher, hoping to gain some prestige and rise a notch or two in the teacher’s eyes.
Our teacher, however, only ever responded that all honor and praise belonged only to his teacher, the one who showed him the way. After the dinner, our sifu took the opportunity to hand out promotions and recognize those students who had served the club well during the past year. For him, the banquet was about sharing an evening with his “children”. You see, the Chinese title, “Sifu”, does not mean “teacher”. It means “father”.
As many of you know, because of an injury, and various other reasons, I was away from my kung fu club for several years. I returned to the club only a few yersa ago. In the first year back, I had to struggle to re-learn so much of what I had forgotten. So that first year back, when I attended the birthday banquet, I fully expected to be seated at the bottom table. I was the prodigal son. I had been away. I was just grateful to be back.
I was stunned when Peter, the man upon whose shoulder the daily operation of the club had fallen, invited me to sit at the teacher’s table. I was overwhelmed with a feeling that I did not deserve the honor of sitting with the teacher. I know that some of the guys in the club looked at me and wondered why I was sitting there. I’m sure some of them felt they belonged there in my place. I only know that rather than taking pleasure in the honor, I felt humbled by my teacher’s insistence that I belonged there.
The bible frequently uses the image of the banquet as a representation of the heavenly kingdom. Jesus tells us that heavenly kingdom is within each one of us. The God-spirit, the Tao, or whatever you want to call that creative spirit, has invited each of us to join in that heavenly banquet. We are the poor, the beggars, the crippled, the lame, the blind. I know that I am invited personally to sit at the father’s table, not because I deserve it, but because my father wants me there. It is my choice to freely accept the love of my father.
There are many around, I’m sure, who will believe I do not belong there. There are those who would try to keep many away from the father’s table. They would keep the single mothers, the gay, those who worship the father in some way other than theirs, away from the love of the father. There are those who feel they deserve the love of the father and we do not. Jesus makes it clear that the banquet is open to all of us. Those who would set themselves at the high table, will find themselves brought low, not because of some punishment from God, however.
God is all inclusive, all embracing. Jesus taught that God was, is present in each one of us. “Whatever you do to these, the least of these, you do to me.” The moment we exclude others, the moment we push others away, we push God away. If God is at the center of the table, then we push ourselves away from that center as we separate ourselves from those people we feel unworthy to be there.
Jesus instructed us to be perfect, even as our father in heaven is perfect. The evangelical fundamentalists like to ask, “What would Jesus do?” We know what Jesus would do. Jesus would be inclusive. Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Jesus would invite the Muslims to build a mosque near ground zero. He would be the first one to pray there. Jesus understood we were meant to serve one another, not to be served. We are all invited to sit at the father’s table. We earn our place there by welcoming others to sit beside us.