Despite the fact that there might be some good bits of advice on manners and social conduct in Jesus’ remarks in today’s gospel lesson, we all know that he is not really talking about table etiquette.
Rather, as is usually the case, Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God and how Kingdom of God people conduct themselves in relationship to others.
Just because he sounds a little bit like Emily Post or Miss Manners, and since we’re told, “…and they were watching him” at the Pharisee’s house on the Sabbath, he isn’t likely to have made too many friends there. He insults the guests for scrambling for the head table, and then he turns on the host for inviting only the most socially acceptable guests. It isn’t too difficult to see in this passage, a lesson about humility and radical hospitality.
Jesus’ parables are always about life in the Kingdom. And in the Kingdom, we see our ideas of business as usual reversed; and in this case, the tables are turned. He is alluding to the great Messianic banquet, where God welcomes everyone regardless of social or economic status. There is no “head table,” because all are on an equal footing at the great banquet. Rich, poor, lepers, women, outcasts, immigrants, white, black, gay, straight, clean, dirty, educated, illiterate—all of the categories that we give people are obliterated, because none of God’s children need to fit into any category at God’s table. All are beloved in God’s sight.
So really, what is Jesus saying? By telling his listeners to take the lowest seat—the least important, visible, or honor-laden—is he calling them to a never-ending life of being wimps? After all, we live in a dog eat dog competitive world.
No, not at all. This important “reversal” in regard to “place” is really about not living your life on the surface, or making your way in the world based on the perceptions of others. Those others’ ideas of who is important may be God’s idea of “not getting it.” Their consciousness should not dictate ours, according to Jesus.
The danger of self-assertion occurs when the craving to “be somebody” derives from comparing oneself to others: I am because you are not; I am somebody because I hold a place of honor at the table and you do not. Ergo, when I am somebody, you are nobody. And if I really feel like nobody and you are somebody, I’ll demean you in the eyes of others.
When we have to win at all costs, the result is that someone has to lose. If self-exaltation or demeaning others is the tonic for low self-esteem, Jesus says, look out! If I can feel good about myself ahead of others, I use others, not Abba-God as my point of reference. And there is born in that moment a glistening golden calf demanding my allegiance.
If the Pharisees hadn’t had the “riff-raff” to sit beneath them, they would have been miserable. That’s why Jesus’ concept of free grace was abhorrent to them. What if God isn’t keeping score? Is all of this posturing really necessary or helpful to win God’s favor?
Anthony de Mello in One Minute Wisdom, tells a little story about the danger of spiritual vanity:
“The Master frequently reminded his disciples that holiness, like beauty, is only genuine when unselfconscious. He loved to quote the verse:
‘She blooms because she blooms,
Does not ask why,
nor does she preen herself
to catch my eye.’
“And the saying followed: ‘A saint is a saint until he knows that he is one.’”
It is only when disciples are focused on, and they derive their identity from God, that this innocence becomes possible. As children of the Most High who are bearers of an undeserved gift of grace, we learn to let go of the insatiable need for self-inflation or self-exaltation. Then we can move out in love toward others, especially those who will not “advance us” in some way.
To be able to consider that we might not be right all of the time and therefore better, and be willing to hear the perspective of someone who has another view, or maybe be open to the fact that we don’t know everything—is to have been smitten by the unrestrictive, unlimited action of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose free love has set us free to see others as equals or even better than ourselves.
Jesus is to this day the greatest one who walked this earth, yet he was the most humble. We learn from his example that humility is the essence of greatness. “He came and took the very lowest place. He came and let himself be perceived as a sinner, a lowest of the low, one who hung out with the poor, unclean, sinners, and the hated rip-off tax collectors. He let himself be treated as a common criminal, ultimately hanged on a cross.
“But his challenge to us, if we have eyes to see it, and hearts to receive it, is a gracious one. It relieves us of all that burdensome work of justifying ourselves. We don’t have to reach. Jesus’ own resurrection was both the challenge to the world that only God can justify our lives, and the promise that God does do precisely that: God mercifully forgives all who repent and then claims them as God’s own.”
Then God feeds all of us, regardless of social standing, spiritual paupers that we are, at his own table, which is a level playing field, with costly bread and wine, transformed into the Body and Blood of God’s Son Jesus.
Friends, God’s vision for God’s Kingdom here on earth is that the banquet is meant to be a place of graceful belonging, of joy and abandonment to God’s gifts of grace that flow freely like the wine. And it doesn’t matter where anyone sits, and it doesn’t matter who is big and who is small in the eyes of the world. Because at that banquet and our altar, where we gather to receive the sacraments, we will see not the poor, outcast, lowly, and sinners—we will see the face of Jesus in the faces of all of the guests. And if we manage to get it right, they will see Jesus in our faces, but we won’t even know it.
And now we have the holy privilege of bringing into the household of faith, inviting to the great banquet table of God, Cameron Parker Race, son of Christian and Jessica Race. Please turn to hymn #490. We will sing verse 1 as we make our way to the Baptismal Font.
Source Reference: Synthesis, Proper 17—Year C, August 2, 2007.