We’re all VIPs

Jonathan Rowe, 28 August 2022

Proverbs 25: 6–7; Luke 14: 1, 7–14

Do you like hosting parties? Or would you rather be a guest?

Our gospel this morning contains two vignettes. They have a similar feel, seemingly almost a mirror image of each other. But one focuses upon guests, the other on the host.

The first vignette is a parable, a story through which Jesus explains the nature of the kingdom of God. As Liz Stuart helped us understand a few weeks ago, the meaning of parables is found in the punchline. So it’s not difficult to see the ‘point’ of this parable: the kingdom of God is an upside-down place, one where those who puff themselves up will get their comeuppance.

This truth had been appreciated for a long time: there were even proverbs like our Old Testament reading making the same point. But it seems that in Jesus’ day no-one was taking much notice of ancient proverbial wisdom. The culture of the time put a lot of emphasis upon competing for honour and status. This competition was motivated by people seeing themselves as if through others’ eyes. They were constantly evaluating how others might view them, and deriving their value or worth from public recognition.

In this social media age, perhaps this is a rather pertinent parable. It describes one way people competed for the good opinion of peers – for ‘honour’. It started with a claim for honour by going to the top of the table, the place where the Very Important People sat to eat. If the host allowed you to continue to sit there, your claim was validated.

The risk, of course, was that your claim to honour might be rejected. If the host asked you to sit elsewhere, everyone would notice that, too. And because you viewed your worth as being dependent upon others’ opinions, you would feel shame.

All this was a bit of a game; if a person claimed a little bit more status than perhaps they might be expected to, the host would be careful not to react, because that person might retaliate in the future. But if the host thought that a really prestigious person was in the room, one whose presence might reflect well upon the host, then there was a risk of demotion to the lowest place at the banquet – probably the one near to door to the kitchen!

To appreciate the impact of Jesus’ parable, we need to understand that the game of seeking honour was serious. Think about how people would fight duels, risking death, to defend slights to honour – it was that important. That’s why the punchline was shocking. It called into question a whole system of cultural values and a way of life.

But why should the kingdom of God be an upside-down sort of place? Why does Jesus’ parable deny people’s worth is a function of others’ good opinion? And what are the implications for us?

We should recognise that there is a universal tendency to evaluate human worth on the basis of some culturally constructed measure. We don’t think personal honour is quite as important as did men and women who lived in the Mediterranean area 2,000 years ago. But we English have a finely attuned sense of who fits in where, based upon all sorts of subtle indicators. Every other society has its own gradations, too; they’re just different. And this is a bind, because none of us will ever quite tick all the boxes.

It’s to this predicament that the kingdom of God is good news. Regardless of how well we measure up to society’s norms, God says, ‘Friend, come up higher’.

Human worth, our worth, does not depend upon our value in the eyes of our friends, family or colleagues, but upon God’s view of us as unique and made in his image: we are all Very Important People. Regardless of how others view us or how we view ourselves, God thinks we are all special.

Let that sink in a bit. Let that reassure us. Let that change us, as we recognise that our specialness comes not from our background or what we have achieved, but from being loved by God. We are all Very Important People.

Our worth does not depend upon our value in the eyes of our friends, family or colleagues, but upon God’s view of us as unique. Let that reassure us. Let that change us.

Knowing ourselves as Very Important People in these terms has consequences. One is psychological: as individuals we can accept and celebrate who we are, knowing that our value and worth don’t depend upon conforming to culturally inscribed standards of beauty, or ability, or anything else. That can help us when we feel a bit envious of others. I read this week that people who say they want others’ gifts are less keen to give up their own! We have been given our own talents. The challenge is to use them in our way rather than wish we had someone else’s.

Another consequence is social, and the second vignette in our gospel reading highlights the interpersonal dimension of all people being VIPs. When Jesus tells the host not to invite his friends but the poor and marginalised, he is doing two things.

On the one hand, he recognises differences between people. It’s not true that everyone is the same. Some are wealthy, others are not; some can see, others are blind; some are male, others female, others intersex; and so on. There are a whole host of ways in which people are different. And it’s important not to ignore difference.

Jesus doesn’t. But he does use un-PC language. These days we are accustomed to foregrounding the humanity of people rather than a particular feature of their life experience. So we talk of people of colour, people with learning disabilities. That’s really important. Because we are all people created by God before anything else that may be true about us. Yet those other things also influence who we are and who we have become. And so, it’s important not to ignore our differences.

But the second thing that Jesus does when he tells the host to invite not his friends or family, but those who can’t reciprocate his hospitality, is to overcome the normal social consequences of those differences. Someone competing for honour doesn’t invite dishonourable people to dine at his table. But someone who recognises that he or she is a Very Important Person because God loves him or her – well, they do. And they do so because everyone is Very Important, the right sort of person to be a guest.

Our reading from Hebrews highlights how faith takes practical form: it is lived, embodied. And so the good news that we are all Very Important People presents a challenge. Will we include in our church, our homes and our lives those who society considers ‘ordinary’ or ‘not quite the right sort’; people who can’t do anything for us, who might be awkward or embarrassing or demanding; people with different political or theological convictions? God thinks they are Very Important People. And by adopting the same view, we demonstrate something of God’s inclusive love.

We practise this together at Holy Communion each week. God is the host who invites us to his table. He says, ‘Friend, come up higher’, to each one of us. By accepting his invitation and esteeming all who join us, we reflect God’s love to a world full of Very Important People just like you and me. Amen.