Luke 14:1, 7-14
1 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. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus has been invited over for a dinner party. And what he first notices and then comments on is how people are choosing the places of honor to sit. You see, Jesus lives in an honor and shame culture. Status was everything. People always sought being honored and always avoided being shamed. And this often played out at mealtimes. “Guests of honor were seated close to the host, while those of lesser importance sat further away.” And Jesus watched as people chose their seats based on their level of honor.
When I first read this gospel reading and what other people were saying about it, I was reminded that it is the perfect time of the year for a text like this.
School starts on Tuesday. And is there a better example of seats of honor and seats of shame then the school bus? Or the lunchroom? You see, I am certain that beginning on Tuesday morning, school buses and lunchrooms all around Owatonna and Blooming Prairie will become those very places of honor and shame.
On the bus, there will be seats where only the older and cooler kids can sit. In my day, it was the back of the bus, especially on field trips, because that was the furthest away from the driver and the bus monitor. And you could always tell if you had gone too far to the back based on the looks of unwelcome that others gave you.
In the lunchrooms, there will be a cool-kids table and a not-so-cool-kids table. When I was in school, it was like a web or a scale of coolness that was centered around that one table. The closer you were to that cool table, the cooler you were. The further away you were…well….
And every single day, it was like walking into an evaluation room. You would look to see if your seat was still open or if someone had moved up the ladder and taken your place, pushing you further down the food chain.
And as I was remembering that time in my life, all I could think about was how glad I was to be out of that world and to have grown up and out that cruel time of measuring your status based on where you sat at a meal. But then there was this small voice in my head, and it started laughing, and it said “Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that.”
All of a sudden, I was immediately flooded with images of where I still live that out on a day-to-day basis. When I was in Pittsburgh at the ELCA churchwide assembly, every day we would have to find a seat in our section, and everyday, I secretly hoped I would get to sit near one of our bishops. You know, so as to somehow make me feel more important or special or noticeable to others. But then when the middle-aged stranger would come and sit next to me, or when I would come in late and the only seat left was next to someone who didn’t seem all that interesting, my first thought would be, “Oh great, this going to be a long day…”
Or whenever we would break for lunch, they offered a lunch buffet with all of these tables we could sit at (not unlike a lunchroom), and each day I would scan the room for my friends – who of course were cool enough to sit by. I mean, c’mon… they were my friends. Or I was looking for someone with a little bit of status.
Try as I might, that hierarchy of honor and shame culture still lives within me even though I no longer ride the bus or go to school. And the truth is, I think it still lives within all of us. And so often it is when we gather around a meal.
I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t wait until I graduated from the kid’s table at thanksgiving dinner to the adult’s table. It’s like you were welcomed into a place of honor. Or go to any wedding and the significance of your relationship to the wedding couple will be determined on where you are seated at the reception, right? The closer you are to the head table, the wedding party, the closer your relationship is to the couple. And I am willing to bet that all of us have been to a wedding where we were surprised by our place in the seating arrangements. I mean, if you are in the corner by the bathrooms, with a table full of strangers who have nothing in common, then you know you were on the B list of invites, right?
Or think about the party the neighbors are having. We have the sense that if we are invited, then we matter. Then we are important. But if we are not invited and other people we know are…then there is that overwhelming sense that we must not fit in. We must not matter.
These situations are all around us and I couldn’t help but wonder if the same hierarchy exists around the more ordinary meals I witnessed this week. Maybe there is a hierarchy and places of honor in the break room at Viracon or even at the Friday morning Exchange club meeting.
And because we are so familiar with this world of measuring ourselves against other people, the advice that Jesus gives can sound just ridiculous. Jesus gives this advice for those of us who are going back to school and other places where status and hierarchy, honor and shame are present – don’t place yourself higher than others. Don’t seek the place of honor but be modest and humble seeking a place of lower status. And not only that but Jesus tells those who are hosting such meals not to invite the most honorable or respectable, not to invite the coolest, or the wealthy, to not even invite the people we like the most, but rather to turn the tables up-side down and invite the poor and the lame. The forgotten. The people who are a burden. The people who are of no social benefit.
This is God’s dream for the world. God’s dream for the world is for no one to be placed above anyone else. For us not to be valued on what we have to offer but to be valued for who we already are: children of God. But truth be told, that is so much easier said than done. Especially when you are headed back to school.
Which is why I am always so glad when we get the chance to gather at this meal table here. Because here there is no place of honor. Because you see, the host of this table is not me or those serving communion. The host of this table is Jesus. And that is exactly what Jesus does when he hosts a banquet. He invites the poor, the blind, the lame. People like you and me. People who get caught up in measuring ourselves against others and seeking higher and higher status over others. People who, in the end, cannot in any way pay Jesus back for the unconditional grace and love that he gives.
For not only is this the place where we receive God’s grace, it is also the place where we practice living it out. This is not a bus seat or a lunch table where only some are welcome. This is a table where all are welcome. A table where we don’t get to pick who we sit by and who we don’t. This isn’t a table where we get to decide who is worthy of more or less. But rather this is a place where we all come with hands stretched out like beggars looking for a morsel of God’s grace that given freely and with no strings attached to us all. And it’s only when we’ve witnessed and participated in and practiced such grace that we then can have the courage and the assurance to live out God’s grace in the rest of our lives.
So I leave you with an invitation.
- When you are at school or at work, what would it be like to invite someone who seems always to be alone to sit with your group?
- What would it be like to reach out to someone who is very different from you?
- What would it be like to give up your seat on the bus to someone who got on late?
- What would it be like to post on Facebook something kind about someone who rarely gets noticed?
- What would it be like to sit next to someone you’ve never sat next to in church next week?
As I said, this won’t come easy. But when you do it, the kingdom of God, God’s dream for this world, comes true. Thanks be to God. AMEN.