Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place…”
Chances are, every one of you — except for the very youngest — has been to a wedding reception. You know how it goes. You leave the church, and make your way to the reception-place. When you get there, you see a table just outside the banquet room. Arrayed on top of it, like the Grand Army of the Republic on bivouac, are row upon row of little cardboard tents.
They are, of course, are place-cards. Find the one with your name, open it up, and somewhere inside it you see a number.
It’s your table number. Milling around outside, waiting for the doors to open, you share your number with those you came with, hoping you’re seated together.
You may also wonder where, in the hall, your table’s located. The numbers tell you little, on that account. You’ve got to wait till the doors open and you’re swept along by the river of your fellow guests. All of them are on the same mission as you: looking at the table numbers, trying to find their place in that particular universe.
Bride and groom are at the head table. Wedding party, close by. Parents and immediate family close to the dance floor. Outward it goes from there, until you reach the infamous table by the kitchen doors.
Every bride and groom knows the seating chart can be a social minefield. They put it together with the utmost care. It’s a delicate business, based the hope that all the guests understand their place in the matrimonial pecking-order.
Now, you may think stories from the Bible belong to a different place and time altogether, but at least when it comes to banquet seating, very little has changed. In Luke 14, Jesus is dining at the home of a Pharisee. Lots of other people are there, too. Luke tells us he’s watching “how the guests [choose] the places of honor.”
There’s no table with place-cards on it. There aren’t even tables as we know them. In the Greek-speaking colonies of the Roman Empire, dining at the home of a dignitary means choosing a couch to lie upon, on your side, propped up on your left elbow. (I don’t know what left-handed people did back then.) The couches are arrayed in a U-shaped pattern, with the ones at the bottom of the “U” reserved for the host, and the most distinguished guests.
Like I said, there are no place-cards, and no RSVPs, either. Too bad there aren’t, because with guests arriving at different times, things can get just a little bit chaotic in the seating-chart department. Turns out, the phrase “most distinguished guest” is a relative term. It can change as the evening wears on. It can — and does — sometimes happen that the host asks some guests to get up from their couches, so some new arrival who’s more important can take their place.
So, as Jesus is watching the guests jockeying for position, it’s a fascinating social dance he’s witnessing. The trick is to choose the highest place on the pecking-order you can, while still leaving yourself just a little leeway, in case somebody of higher rank shows up.
As he’s observing this, he comes up with a little homespun, practical advice about table manners. Always choose the lowest place at the banquet, he says, so you’ll never have to face the humiliation of being asked to move downwards. If your host comes to you, saying, “What are you doing down there? Come up here with me!” that can only be a good thing.
That advice, actually, is not original with Jesus. It’s strikingly similar to Proverbs 25:6-7, which reads:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
Jesus is just doing what any good rabbi is expected to do: he’s citing scripture (or, at least, paraphrasing it).
But this is more than just sensible, practical advice. Luke tells us, introducing the passage, that Jesus is going to present “a parable.” The only problem is: search high and low in this passage and there’s no parable to be found. There’s no colorful story, here, like so many other parables he tells.
A parable is a type of teaching that takes you from point A to point B, by way of a completely unrelated point C. If you recall the closely-related word, “parabola,” from your geometry classes of old, then you begin to get the sense of this. A parabola is half of an oval. It’s the distinctive track of an artillery shell, fired upward and outward, passing over obstacles in between, to drop down upon a target that’s often out of sight.
So many of the stories Jesus tells function in just this way. They begin, simply, as stories. And, as stories, they suck us right in. That is, until there’s some kind of twist — the wounded traveler being saved by a Samaritan, the father throwing a feast for the prodigal younger son instead of the faithful older one. Such surprising plot twists knock us off balance, causing us to look at some spiritual reality in a whole new way.
To see how this bit of etiquette advice, adapted from the Book of Proverbs, functions as a parable, there’s one other fact you need to know. All this is happening in the home of a Pharisee — and that’s a crucially important detail.
The Pharisees, in that day, are the most righteous, most faithfully observant Jews around. If there’s anyone in that society who can be assured of enjoying the blessings of heaven — or, so most Jews assume — it’s likely to be these true believers.
Jesus’ host is a Pharisee: probably someone like Nicodemus, whom you can read about in the Gospel of John. (Who knows? Maybe it even is Nicodemus — although we can never be sure, because Luke doesn’t name him.) The man’s a sympathizer, in other words, someone who feels attracted to Jesus’ teachings.
The same can’t be said of many of the other guests, also Pharisees — because, Luke informs us, they are “watching him closely.” It’s something of a hostile crowd. Or, at least, a gaggle of very deliberate theologians, reserving judgment on whether or not Jesus is the messiah until they can gather more evidence.
What’s parabolic about this story is the fact that Jesus isn’t really talking about dinner parties. He’s talking about the kingdom of God. And what he’s saying to the Pharisees there present — in an indirect way — is that they ought to set aside their pride and recognize they’re sinners just like anyone else: utterly dependent on the grace and forgiveness of God.
So, what he’s doing is really very shrewd. In a moderately hostile room, full of eminent scholars of the holy scriptures who are jockeying for the most favored places at the sabbath meal, Jesus is paraphrasing a bit of homespun, practical advice from the very scriptures they know so well. He’s hinting to those über-righteous Pharisees that maybe they shouldn’t be so concerned about the jot and tittle of God’s Law. In the end, it’s not about the length of their spiritual resumes. It’s all about the invitation from the host: to come forward and receive the grace that is both freely offered and undeserved.
There’s a story about an eminent rabbi, in our own day, who was held in great esteem by his faith-community. A rabbinical student and his wife came to the rabbi one day for marriage counseling. An issue had arisen that — like so many issues that threaten a marriage — was a very small thing that had grown large in their imaginations because they had fought over it so many times.
The wife explained that she was simply fed up with the fact that her husband wouldn’t take out the trash when she asked him to. He would always beg off, saying he was so busy studying the Torah that he couldn’t spare the time.
“Please tell us, Rabbi,” said the wife, “Is there not something in the laws of our people that compel a husband to take out the trash?”
The rabbi thought long and hard about the woman’s question before answering. “I am sorry to say, there is nothing in the Law that compels your husband to take out the trash.”
The couple went on their way, frustrated that there seemed to be no answer to their troubles.
The next morning, to the couple’s surprise, the rabbi himself showed up at their door. The man was overjoyed. “Please, Rabbi, come in,” he said. “Have something to eat. You honor us with your presence!”
“I’m sorry,” said the rabbi. “I have not come to eat. I’ve just come to take out the trash.”
The man looked puzzled, so the rabbi made a further explanation: “You see, it may be beneath your dignity, but it is not beneath mine.”
This human pride of ours, that leads us to worry so ceaselessly about the place we ought to occupy at life’s banquet, is one of the chief obstacles to the spiritual life. It is the most enlightened souls who pay no regard to such questions of status, who are comfortable taking the role of humble service.
For truly, in the end, there will come a day when all our credentials and achievements will be stripped away, and we will once again be what we were on the day of our birth: a child of God.
I’ve been witnessing such a progression in the life of my own mother, who — as many of you know — is now approaching the final stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.
It so happens that Pat, the social worker in the nursing home where she lives, is one of her former students from Ocean County College. Pat has remarked to me, numerous times, how my mother impressed her in the classroom: how she could deliver world history lectures filled with all manner of names and dates she just pulled out of her head, without referring to any notes. To this day, Pat insists on calling her “Professor,” in the hope — she says — that it will help her remember something of her former life.
I should tell her she can probably stop doing that, because my mother no longer understands what the word “professor” means.
We imagine that these achievements of ours, of which we are so proud, confer upon us some earned status — when, in the eyes of God, we are no more dearly loved today than we were on the day we were born.
When you and I approach the table of the Lord, when we take into our hands the bread of life, we have no claim on the sacrament. We come to the table not because we deserve it, but because we are hungry. The Lord who is host at this banquet says to us: “Come up from the lowest place. Come, take your place beside me.”
There’s an old story about the funeral of Charlemagne, the French king who unified his country and was named the first Holy Roman Emperor. As the Emperor’s funeral cortege drew up to the cathedral, the members of the nobility were shocked to find the gate barred by the bishop.
“Who comes?” called out the bishop.
The king’s herald replied: “Charlemagne, Lord and King of the Holy Roman Empire!”
The bishop responded: “Him I know not! Who comes?”
The herald tried again: “Charles the Great, a good and honest man of the earth!”
Again, the bishop replied: “Him I know not. Who comes?”
“Charles, a lowly sinner, who begs the gift of Christ.”
“Him I know,” the bishop replied. “Enter!”
Here at this table, we are known — if we come as we are, not as we pretend to be. Come, for here you are known, and here you are loved!
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.