On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Today is my first Sunday back at church since my summer vacation, during which time my family and I traveled to Costa Rica, a beautiful country that I fell in love with. Unfortunately, our vacation got off to an inauspicious start when our oldest daughter came down with a stomach bug shortly before our plane landed in Costa Rica. Within an hour or two of arriving and setting off in our two rental cars, it wasn’t long before I had to suddenly pull over so my daughter could run to the side of the road to toss her cookies. My husband and sons – armed with our only map and directions – continued to drive, not realizing we had stopped. So my daughters and I found ourselves just outside a foreign city without directions, a GPS, or cell phone service; and the only one of us who spoke even a little Spanish was my daughter who was currently slumped over on the curbside. I felt lost, worried about my daughter, frustrated at the situation, and very helpless.
I walked to a nearby building, clearly looking like the lost mother I was, and was met by an office worker, then a security guard, followed by a car full of total strangers driving in the opposite direction honking and waving to us, clearly wanting to offer assistance. One man crossed the street and handed my daughter a couple of mint LifeSavers; the security guard gave me his cell phone to use; and the office worker invited me in and wrote down the password to her WiFi so I could reach my husband’s phone via the internet.
All turned out well in the end (my husband DID eventually come back to find us), but those moments of uncertainty and bewilderment were eye-opening. I was completely dependent upon some random stranger to be good enough to stop and help (fortunately there were several). I felt embarrassed, bewildered, and unaccustomed to asking total strangers for help. In effect, for those frightening moments, I was reduced to the level of begging.
A character in one of Tennessee Williams’ plays speaks about always “being dependent on the kindness of strangers.” Will there be kind people? Are these good strangers or bad strangers? But maybe the worst part is the dependency. While many of us may feel uncomfortable having some stranger walk up to us on the street and ask for money or assistance, it’s also tough to BE that stranger, to have to ask another for an act of kindness. Which is worse? To be asked something by a beggar or to have to be a beggar yourself?
Our Gospel passage focuses on Jesus’ teaching about hospitality. He says that hospitality isn’t simply to be shown to those who are like us, or in reciprocation for the invitations that others have given us. Hospitality is to be shown to the least and the lowest of our sisters and brothers, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” In other words, hospitality is to be shown toward beggars.
Jesus offers these instructions to his disciples while sharing a meal. So here’s a question: How did Jesus and his disciples eat? This was just one of many meals recorded in scripture. But where did they get the food they ate? How did they live? Nowhere is Jesus recorded as having done any work. We can infer from the Bible that Jesus was a carpenter, or a stone mason, but we don’t really hear about his doing physical work. His disciples were said to be fishermen or tax collectors, but once he called them, there’s no report of their ever having worked anywhere. So how did they live?
I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus and his disciples must have been beggars. They ate a succession of meals, but none of them were at Jesus’ home. Jesus and his disciples were completely dependent upon invitations to other people’s homes. When Jesus tells us to give to somebody in need, or he talks about a cup of cold water offered in love, or giving children bread rather than a stone, he wasn’t just talking symbolically. He was talking about an actual need, which he knew about because he needed to live. Jesus and his disciples were beggars.
I find this a rather challenging insight. Consider how much we live in a society where begging is always bad. We associate begging with being lazy or inept as an individual, or as a sign of our failure as a society to provide educational or social support. Even when we give to “the poor” or “homeless,” we like to give to institutions that enable people to step up, to step out, to stand on their own two feet. We’re very into independence, and looking after ourselves.
But if Jesus and his disciples were beggars, then that means that Jesus actually encouraged dependency. Jesus exhorted living in ways that made people dependent on the needs of strangers.
What happens when people beg from us? They make a claim on us. They force us to look at them as real human beings with needs. And we’re called to take on an assignment, a responsibility, because of their need.
When we say we don’t want to be dependent, I think it’s in part because we don’t want to have to make a claim upon others. But we also don’t want to put ourselves at others’ mercy. We don’t want to take the chance that they might say “no” to our request. Being dependent on others means you’re indebted to them.
When we’re dependent on others, we’re thereby interconnected, interlocked with them in a web of relationship – which means we’re forced to admit that our claims of self-sufficiency are really delusional. We really do need other people. We “need a little help from our friends” to make it.
In the last week, we have seen and heard many stories of hospitality, kindness and sacrifice displayed during the chaos of Hurricane Harvey. Tales of people welcoming strangers into their homes and offering safety and refuge. The outpouring of supplies and food and water to the stranded. The provision of shelter for the evacuees. One powerful image for me is of the so-called Cajun Navy – hundreds of amateur boaters forming a column in their trucks down flooded highways, straight into the rising waters, then setting off in their fishing boats, airboats and even catamarans to rescue people from rooves, carry babies to safety, and evacuate the elderly from nursing homes.
I can’t help but think that all these people are exactly who Jesus wants us to be – both those who provide help, but also those who are in need.
Maybe we have to be beggars – we have to be in a situation where we’re forced to acknowledge our dependency and need – before we can recognize our common humanity, before we can acknowledge another person as our brother or sister in need.
As we look for any uplifting, hopeful, and inspiring moments in the midst of this tragedy, let us look not only to those who give. Let’s also look to those who can teach us how to ask for help. Jesus was making the disciples into beggars. Jesus wants us to develop our spiritual lives to a point where we’re able to acknowledge our true dependency and lack of self-sufficiency.
Toward the end of the last century, when he was asked about evangelism – about what it means to share God’s word – a Sri Lankan pastor, D.T. Niles, wrote: “Evangelism is one beggar telling another where to find bread.” Even in our affluence, even with all that we have, we’re all beggars, especially as far as our relationship with God is concerned. What we need is not ours to earn. What we need is only God’s to give. May you open your hands and give the gifts you have to give. May you open your hands and receive the gifts you need. Amen.