Luke 14:1, 7-14
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.” (Read the Whole Passage)
For most of the summer, we have been hearing the stories of Jesus ministry, dropping in on scenes from his travels, hearing parables and other teachings. Stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer and the Good Samaritan. Last week we heard about the women who was bent over or stopped for 18 years. All Jesus had to do was reach out to touch her and she stood up straight, she was liberated from her condition by Jesus’ compassion.
Today, Jesus in invited by some big whig pharisees to a dinner party. An invite that only important people get. And with all eyes on him, Jesus is sounding a lot like Martha Stewart. Jesus is giving dinner party advice. About where to sit and how to avoid giving offense or being embarrassed. Don’t sit too high so that you aren’t asked to move to a lesser seat. Imagine that drunken and sleazy wedding guest trying to cozy up to the one of the bridesmaids at the head table of a wedding banquet. Not cool, Jesus says. Instead sit below your station. Find a table at the back of the banquet hall, and the bride’s father will come and move you closer to the front, and everyone will see how important you are! You can almost see the headline across a house and home magazine: “Where should you sit at the party?” find out pg. 23.
The only problem with this kind of dinner party advice is that it sounds opportunistic or faux humble coming from Jesus. And isn’t Jesus supposed to promote authentic humility? Sitting low to move high is not humble. Shouldn’t Jesus tell us to sit low and stay low?
These days, proper dinner party etiquette is mostly a niche interest, a vanity for the kind of people who worry about centrepieces, dinnerware settings and chair covers. But 2000 years ago in Hebrew culture, social standing was extremely important and it came to play anytime people gathered together. Each guest would sit according to the station in the community and knowing where you sat at a dinner party was about knowing how to rank yourself in society. And everyone knew where they belonged, on top, on the bottom or in between. And where you stood was a sign how important you were, how much respect you commanded, how you stood in the eyes of the powerful, and even where you stood with God. In fact, your social standing had a lot to do with where you stood with God. The more important you were socially, the more you had earned God’s favour. But perhaps most crucially to today’s story is the effect of honour and shame in Jesus’ world. To be moved down to a lesser place would bring shame upon yourself, and shame would lessen your social standing, and therefore lessen your favour with God. But for a host to seat you below your standing would be shame for the host, so it would be essential for the host to make sure that each guest was given the proper respect and honour due their standing. To be moved into the place of honour, was like being ushered a little closer to the gates of heaven.
The world that Jesus lived in was a little more Downton Abbey than we are used to… We just aren’t as hyper attentive to who are most and least important people in the room.
Still, in many ways our world is full of the same kind of concern for where we stand, and the same ranking of who is in and who is out, who is on the top and who is on the bottom.
Last week, Pastor Stan spoke to us of how the image of this woman bent over, unable to see anyone’s face but only their feet, that this was an image for the church. We are feeling bent over and burdened like this woman. It is a surprising turn for us, for the church. We used to occupying a place a of power and privilege in the world, we used to be seated at the places of honour. We used to host the influential and the powerful in our buildings and communities. Yet, these days we feel like we have been left off the guest-list by the world, or if we are invited to the party, it is to be the court jester. And when it comes to our table, we feel like there are more than enough places, that the few guests who are here, can choose any seat because you can’t offend an empty chair. Our tables feel empty.
However, there is more to Jesus’ dinner party advice than just knowing where to sit. We should realize that we have been guilty of exactly the things he names. When we had the power, we were often guilty of sending people down the table. We made sure that people knew they weren’t good enough for the seats of honour, and we saved the best spots for ourselves. And when people stopped coming to fill the cheap seats, we blamed them for not knowing their place and fulfilling their duty.
And now… now, we have been sent down the table. The world has told the church that we were sitting too high for our station. People are choosing sports, shopping, recreation, or sleeping in, rather than being at church on Sunday mornings. It has been happening for decades. And now as the baby boomers enter retirement, they would rather golf or go the cabin or travel than be in church. Generation Xers don’t trust institutions like us, and would rather build their own communities and their own families. Millennials are tired of the church trying to attract them in with loud music and flashy services, they want a church that wants to honestly deal with their doubts instead of shushing their questions.
Jesus’ advice to us about dinner parties is a lot more than it seems indeed.
But it is Jesus’ next piece of advice that should really get our attention. Dont’ invite those who can repay the favour… instead invite those who cannot.
For as much as the church is guilty of sending people up and down the table, we have also been generous, we have welcomed strangers like the refugee family that arrived this summer. We have fed the hungry, cared for the sick, and opened our doors to our community. We have been a curious mix of generous and concerned with status, we have helped those in need even as we let them know their place was down the table.
But with Jesus’ last piece of advice, he names the thing that we have forgotten. Jesus reminds us that the table is not ours. The food, the chairs, the drinks, the invitations. They were never ours to control.
The table is God’s. And God has invited us to it. God has not invited friends and brothers and relative and rich neighbours. God has invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. God has invited us. We are the ones who cannot repay the invitation, we have no table, no place, no welcome good enough for God… and yet God’s table, Jesus’ table is always open to us.
And at God’s table each place is the place of honour. There is no moving up or moving down. There is no sitting higher with the risk of being sent down. There is no sitting lower to work our way up. All the places are the same, all are the best, all are open for us. With God, there is simply a place at God’s table. A place for us, each and every one of us.
Jesus’ dinner party advice is more than it seems. And even though the church has not always been the best guest or host, we have a God who is the ultimate host. God is the one who always has a place for us. God is the one who welcomes us to the place of honour. God is the one to whom the table belongs.
So when it seemed like we as a church sat at the place of honour in the glory days, or now when it feels like have been left off the guest list… neither has been the truth. For we have always had a spot at God’s able, a spot no better, and no worse than anyone else.
God’s table has always been open, set and ready for all. Ready for us.