Sunday, August 28, 2016

Quid Pro Quo

Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 28, 2016

            The movie, Finding Neverland, tells a romanticized version of the story of J.M. Barrie, the author and playwright of “Peter Pan.” In the movie Barrie meets George and Michael Llewlyn Davies, two of the five sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, in London’s Kensington Park. George, Michael and their three brothers were Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan. Barrie befriends the family and becomes a guardian for the boys after Sylvia’s death.
            In the movie, Barrie instructs the play’s promoter to save 25 seats on opening night. Scatter those seats around the house, Barrie told him. Barrie won’t explain why he wants those seats saved, but he insists. The promoter does so reluctantly. On opening night show time arrives, but the mysterious theater goers who were supposed to occupy those seats have not. Barrie and the promoter, Charles, are standing outside of the theater, waiting. Charles is upset and tells Barrie that those 25 seats could have been sold to actual customers. He walks back inside to tell them to begin the play. Barrie still looking out at the street sees the seat holders walking up the sidewalk. 25 children from an orphanage are making their way to the theater, the littlest ones holding hands with the older children. Barrie calls Charles back and tells him that the 25 guests have arrived.
            “Excuse them for being late. It takes them longer to walk, shorter legs.”
            Charles is not happy about the arrival of orphans. Neither are the other members of the audience. We know “Peter Pan,” as a children’s story, but it debuted in one of London’s grand theaters, playing to an even grander adult audience.
            These well-heeled, well-to-do theater goers were not thrilled to be sitting next to orphans. As the ushers show the children to their seats, one gentleman is heard saying to his companion, “Well, at least we got one of the cleaner ones.”
            No one but Barrie wanted the orphans there. They were the unlikeliest and most unwelcome of guests. But as the play began, it was the presence of these little children that produced the real magic. Their delight in the magic and mystery and fun of the play was contagious. The adults, who at first were appalled that they would be sitting next to some parent-less ragamuffin, were laughing and clapping along with the little ones. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces gave them joy as well. Barrie’s writing, the actors’ talent, the crew’s skill all made “Peter Pan,” a brilliant play, but it was the children in the audience that gave the play life.
            I don’t know if this story is based on truth, or if it was only in the movie, but real or not, it is a lovely scene in a lovely movie. I like to believe that it did occur, yet it’s hard to imagine that this kind of generosity to such unlikely recipients would happen in real life – then or now. Giving away free seats would have financial consequences. The children would never be able to pay for them. I doubt the orphanage would have had the financial means either. At first glance, there was nothing that the children could do to return the favor of those seats and that experience. Any thought of quid pro quo was out the window. (Rhyme intended)
            Quid pro quo is doing a favor in order to receive a favor and/or giving something with the expectation of getting something in return. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. I’ll do this for you, but you have to do something for me. I assume that quid pro quo is an underlying factor in most of politics. But quid pro quo isn’t confined to the political aspect of our society. Quid pro quo, doing something for someone else in order to receive something else, is a tenet underlying our daily lives. Whether I am aware of it or not, I function with the expectation that when something is done something else will be done in return. This expectation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Returning favors is a way of thanking someone. You helped me out, now I want to help you out.
            However quid pro quo also seems to be a way of keeping score. I invited the Smiths over to dinner five times, but they’ve only invited me once. I win. I did this for that person, but they have yet to respond in kind. I’m going to give them the cold shoulder or hound them or be angry with them or whatever … until they do. Quid pro quo: I do for you; you surely should do for me.
            At first glance, these verses from Luke’s gospel – especially the beginning parable – seem to be more about proper etiquette at a dinner party than parable. Unlike other parables, Jesus did not tell a story about some third person or persons. In this parable, Jesus used second person; you.
            “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.”
            It’s only in verse 11 that this parable seems to have a theological point. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
            Then Jesus turned to the host and said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your 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.”
            Outside of the fact that both sets of Jesus’ instructions focus on dinners and banquet tables, I struggled a bit with how the two fit together. If you are a guest, don’t choose a place of honor for yourself. If you are a host, don’t invite anyone to your banquet who could invite you back.
            It seems to me that the common denominator is not just about dinner parties; it is about expectation. When you are a guest, don’t expect that you will occupy any place but the lowest seat at the table. Implied in that is the idea that you don’t expect a seat of honor even if you gave a seat of honor at your table to the person who invited you. Don’t expect to be honored. Choose the humble place.
            And do not invite guests who can do anything for you. Choose the humble ones. If you invite those who can do something for you, you will expect them to return the invitation. Invite those who can do absolutely nothing for you in return. Invite them, fill every seat with the blind, the lame, the crippled, the poor, the least of these.
            In either scenario, do not go into the dinner party with a need for or assuming quid pro quo. As I already said, quid pro quo is not necessarily a bad thing. It may be used in bad ways, but the idea itself is not bad. That is, unless it drives the work and ministry of the church.
            Do we seek out new members because they can help us keep the lights on and salaries paid? Or do we seek out new members so that we can widen our ministry, so that we can share the love of God with an ever-widening circle of people? I know. I know. Without people in the pews, the church will not survive. I know that without people in the pews, I cannot expect a salary. This is the fine line I walk as a pastor. It is my call and my vocation, and it is my job. Quid pro quo.
            Outside of members, do we serve others because we feel called to do so, because we want to live and love as Jesus did? Or do we put conditions on serving others? Do we serve only those we believe deserve it?
            One of my saddest moments in ministry was in a conversation I had with some church folks a long time ago. They were not members of my congregation, but I knew these people well and our ministries merged. A member of their church was starting a brown bag lunch program for children in their community. As you probably know, weekends and holidays are some of the hungriest times for kids who live in food insecure and poor households. School breakfast and lunch programs are often the only substantive meals a child may get in a day.
            I was awed by the fact that this member was starting this program, and I said that to the folks I was speaking with. Their response shocked me. They didn’t want the program to happen. They thought it was terrible. Sure, there were some needy kids out there, but a program like this made no distinction as to who got the lunch and who didn’t. They thought it was a terrible ministry because children who were not actually in need might get a brown bag lunch. They didn’t deserve it. They didn’t need it, so if there was even a possibility that undeserving children might get a free lunch then no children should get a free lunch. Quid pro quo.
            Jesus made it clear that expectation of repayment – whatever shape that repayment might take – was not to be a part of the banquet. There was no room for quid pro quo at the dinner table Jesus described. The only true quid pro quo was from God. Here’s the thing, even God does not respond in kind. We call that grace.
            May we show the grace and love and mercy to others that God shows us, whether it is returned or not. No quid pro quo, but just because.
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”

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