Minutes before takeoff, I noticed a middle aged man standing in the aisle a couple of rows ahead of Camilla and me. He was checking his ticket, glancing up at the row and seat numbers displayed overhead, then rechecking his ticket. The three seats were taken where he was standing, so it looked as if there was some sort of mistake. Was he mistaken about his seat? Was someone mistakenly sitting in his seat?
Perhaps it was just a coincidence that he was black and the people sitting in the row he thought he was supposed to sit were white, but he never spoke to them. He did not ask if they were sure they were in the correct seat.
The way he was standing in the aisle checking his ticket should have tipped them off, but he seemed invisible to them. After a minute or so, he walked toward the back of the plane.
It wasn’t long before a flight attendant walked up to the row where he had been standing and asked the woman sitting in the middle seat to show her ticket. After a quick glance, the flight attendant told the woman her seat was further back. Looking embarrassed, the woman awkwardly climbed out of her seat and walked toward the back.
Has something like this happened to you? Have you ever sat in the wrong seat and been asked to move? In some situations, it is no big deal, but other times it can be embarrassing.
In today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, we hear a story about a dinner party and the importance of being in the correct seat.
In the time of Jesus, where you sat mattered. At issue was not making sure that left-handers were on a corner where they would not be jabbing their right-handed neighbors. Neither was there any thought given to sitting next to your best friend. Your seat was determined by your perceived status in the community. Those near the top of the social hierarchy sat closest to the host, while those with lesser credentials were back in the cheap seats.
Often the tables were arranged in a U-shape. The host would sit in the middle of the head table and everyone else would sit in the seats that filled out the U.
Guests jockeyed for the seats closest to the host because, the closer you were to him, the higher your status. Dinner parties reinforced the social hierarchy. They reminded you of your proper place in the eyes of the world.
However, the host was not merely reinforcing the existing social hierarchy. He – and it was always a he – was up to something else. Who, after all, was at the head table? He was. And next to him? Those with the top social status. The host would engineer the situation to elevate himself.
At first glance, it seems peculiar that Jesus would be invited by a prominent Pharisee to his dinner party. Butting heads was what Jesus usually did with this group of men. They were the devout who had turned faithfulness into a competition. Pharisees lived to show others how pious they were, how committed they were to fulfilling every minute detail of God’s commandments. They did this in order to portray themselves as better than others; to leave the impression that they were closer to God than others.
Jesus could smell hypocrisy from a mile away so he would spar with Pharisees over their brand of faith. Knowing this, why did the host of this dinner party invite him? Wasn’t that asking for trouble?
Our clue is found in the opening line of the story. Luke writes: “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.” Ah. It was a set up. The Pharisees were keen to figure out where Jesus was vulnerable so they could undermine him. Jesus’ popularity was on the rise and he was casting doubt on the Pharisees’ standing in the community. So the host of this dinner party invited his like-minded friends so that they could figure out how to take Jesus down a notch or two. They would have relished the opportunity to humiliate Jesus.
Imagine their surprise, when Jesus took command of the gathering. As the guests arrived, Jesus could not help but notice the way each one jockeyed for position. People were edging toward the prestigious seats near the head table, but they were coy about it. They maneuvered their way toward the choice seats without appearing as if that was what they were doing. For Jesus, this was a wonderful teaching moment, so he attracted everyone’s attention by telling a parable.
He said, “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.”
By telling a story about a wedding banquet, he was not directly confronting them with their dinner party behavior. Yet he was clearly warning them to be careful about how highly they rated themselves compared to others. If they over estimated their social standing, they could be setting themselves up for humiliation. Imagine how they would feel if the host had to say to them, “Sorry, buddy, but you need to move down a couple of seats.”
If we stopped our passage at this point, our focus would be on humility. However, since I plan to tackle that topic in a few weeks, I want to direct our attention to the final verses of our passage. Jesus switches his focus from the seating arrangement to the guest list.
As I mentioned earlier, dinner parties reinforced the social hierarchy. The host would invite those who ran in the same circles as he did and perhaps one of two more prominent people in order to elevate his importance in the eyes of others. Further, then as now, when people invited someone to dinner, there was an expectation that the other person would reciprocate. Now that I have invited you to my home for dinner, I hope you will invite me to your home.
Jesus used that very human expectation to prod us to think differently about who we are in relation to others. Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers and sisters 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.”
It’s human nature to invite people with a similar social standing and who will likely repay us. Jesus says we should invite the people who are not like us and who are unable to repay us. When we offer that kind of hospitality – giving to others with absolutely no expectation of anything in return – it reveals the essence of our character.
A colleague tells about the wedding reception of his friend’s daughter. He says:
“When my friend’s daughter got married, she wanted to invite their entire church, but budgetary constraints prohibited that. Instead, after the ceremony, they had the local police block off the main street in downtown Waco, Texas. Guests danced in the streets and enjoyed refreshments from a Baskin Robbins ice cream cart…The groom had made friends with a number of homeless men who lived under a nearby bridge and had employed them for odd jobs at their church.”
“Another guest was the bride’s next door Hispanic neighbor. The little girl loved to spend time with her, and really wanted to come to her wedding. So the mother, the daughter, and the grandfather all came. The 70-year-old grandfather actually became the center of attraction as he danced to the street music. All of the college girls were vying to dance with him.”
“‘Coyote,’ the leader of his homeless friends, attended the wedding in his standard attire of jeans with holes in the knees, a scraggly beard, and unwashed hair. He organized his friends to clean up the streets after the wedding, then sat on the curb with a big smile and smoked a cigar.”
“As people strolled by and asked what was happening, they too were invited to the wedding party. There were guests dressed in their nicest clothes alongside guests who would not have felt at home at a formal occasion. No matter how anyone dressed, no matter their perceived standing in the community, every person felt welcomed as an honored guest. That’s the way it is with God. God welcomes us, and expects us to welcome each other.”1
Jesus urges us to imagine a different kind of dinner party. One in which all of the guests do not possess the same worldly social status, but one in which they all enjoy the same divine status. In the kingdom of God, there will not be divisions based on wealth or gender, race or sexual orientation, and I dare to say not even a division based on politics or religion. It will be a place where all people of good will are welcomed and where all of us are welcoming.
Jesus wants us to see others in a different light – not in terms of social ranking, but as fellow children of God. And more than that, he wants us to see ourselves in a different light. As people who know they are blessed and yearn to be a blessing to others.
God of Grace —
Luke tells us that — when Jesus was dining with a leader of the Pharisees — they were watching him closely. They were watching closely because Jesus had a way of attracting attention: He healed the sick and satisfied the hungry. He lifted the lowly and sought out the lost. He chose to dine with tax collectors and outcasts and sinners. So, yes, the Pharisees watched closely. They watched to see if Jesus would cross the line.
God, so many of us live our lives hoping that others will take notice: We hope they’ll see our accomplishments. Our contributions. Our acts of service and sacrifice. But, how often do we attract attention for lifting the lowly or seeking out the lost? How often do we attract attention for setting a place at the table for those others would dismiss? Empower us, we pray, to embrace others with the radical love of Christ … not so that we might draw attention to ourselves, but so that we might glorify you.
Today we remember those who have been pushed to the margins, who suffer neglect, who are denied dignity:
God, just as you anointed Jesus to proclaim release to the captives, anoint us to continue his work. Melt us, mold us, fill us, and use us so that we might be creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace. By your grace, give us prophetic words, caring hearts, and helping hands, and empower us to build communities in which all people have a place at the table.
This we pray in the name of Jesus the Christ, the one who gave us words to pray: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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