A reading from the gospel of Luke chapter 14, verse 1 and verses 7-14, The Message
One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move.
He went on to tell a story to the guests around the table. Noticing how each had tried to elbow into the place of honor, he said, “When someone invites you to dinner, don’t take the place of honor. Somebody more important than you might have been invited by the host. Then he’ll come and call out in front of everybody, ‘You’re in the wrong place. The place of honor belongs to this man.’ Red-faced, you’ll have to make your way to the very last table, the only place left.
“When you’re invited to dinner, go and sit at the last place. Then when the host comes he may very well say, ‘Friend, come up to the front.’ That will give the dinner guests something to talk about! What I’m saying is, If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face.
But if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Then he turned to the host.
“The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
This is the word of God for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.
When my sister and I go home for the holidays, we join a variety of aunts, uncles, and cousins to fill up our grandparent’s house in Louisville. When we walk in the door of their white, one-level farm house, we pick our spot on the couch of one of the two TV rooms where we watch either an endless string of football games or the inevitable Buffy the Vampire Slayer Marathon on FX.
Just when we’ve gotten settled, and I’ve faded off into my mid-afternoon nap, Grandma comes around to gather us for dinner. The family circles up in the kitchen, holding hands while our Grandpa prays words that bring me to tears and remind us of the gift we have standing all around us.
After we unlock hands, the room becomes a mad-house. You see, there’s one big dining room at my grandparent’s house, and even with the leaf in the table, it’s not big enough to hold the entire family. Some time after Meredith, our cousins, and I were born, this table was ever so delicately labeled “the adult table,” while the four-top round table in the kitchen is the “kids table.”
But, now that we’re all “adults,” the rule of thumb is that the first people who grab a plate from the adult table get to sit there. And really, it’s a fight between me and my cousins to see who gets the coveted last spot.
The “real adults” automatically get a spot, because no one wants to be demoted to the kids table after 50 plus years at the adult table. My sister, Meredith, is six years older than I am, and as the next oldest, only two years separate me from my youngest cousin. So, it’s a battle royale to see which one of us can get through the herd of relatives first to get the distinction of being at the “adult table.”
Well, it turns out that I’m a little bit of a people pleaser, so rather than start a fight or make one of my cousins mad, I have spent the last 27 years at the kid table, in the seat closest to the dining room, eavesdropping on all the excitement of big people conversation.
I mean, the adult table always seems so exciting. Laughter emanates from the other room, which makes it feel like those of us at the kid table are missing out on some family joke… or maybe that we’re the butt of it.
If we’re honest, those of us sitting in the kitchen, just out of reach of the dining room, can feel a little less a part of the family during the moments we spend apart. And, each year as the holidays approach, we start to think of ways we can maneuver our way onto the adult table.
We live in a culture with lots of “adult tables.” They come in tiers, each one more prestigious than the other. Each requiring just a few more gold stars for admission.
There’s the table of citizenship, the table of home ownership, the table of wealth, the table of fame, the table of education to name a few. Personally, I want to be at the table where the hipsters sit, but I guess just saying that takes away the cool points I need to get invited.
Some of these tables are automatic for each of us in the room. We were born into them. Just by the sheer act of birth, we landed at a better table than at least 75% of the world’s population.
And even so, we will spend the rest of our lives trying to reach an even better seat at an even higher table, never quite content to just be where we are.
I don’t think we do this to be self-serving or malicious. Certainly, there’s a degree of societal pressure that we face every day in this culture driven by social status. But, I think there’s also an element of trying to prove something to ourselves. The better the table, the more worth we have, right?
Jesus is in the middle of a long journey to Jerusalem when a man invites him to a dinner party at his house. This Pharisee invited all the most-important people in town to come to his house for a night of food and fellowship, with a little Jesus-watching on the side.
Jesus walks into the Pharisee’s dining room and sees four large tables set in a square shape, with plush couches lining the table; one is directly in the center for the guest of honor. While many similar dinner parties would feature place cards at each spot, this host goes with the “guess you worth” style of seating – no seating chart, no escort. Jesus stands back and watches as all the town’s most wealthy, educated, and popular men run around the table like fools trying to claim the best and most-honorable seats.
I mean, seriously, if these men would take a second and consult their Miss Manners Guide for 1st Century Jews (what we now call Proverbs), they would find, clear as day, an admonition not to take the seat of honor in case someone more important than them comes and they are publicly made to move to the lowest seat. How embarrassing would that be?
They disregard Miss Manners and continue to push and shove, stopping occasionally to list the reasons why they are better or more deserving than the person ahead of them. They say and do anything to get as close to the center as possible.
Suddenly, the aim of the party is not to mingle, make friends, or build community. For each man in the room, the goal of the day is to prove their worth, and to do so by showing other people that they are worth less.
When the men finally get situated in their spots for the day, they look over at Jesus and realize they’ve been completely oblivious to his presence. Noticing that he has their attention, Jesus begins to speak to them.
He starts with words akin to what they would have found in their Miss Manners Guide if they had bothered to pull it out:
“When you’re invited to a party, don’t take the seat of honor, in case someone more honorable than you has been invited. Because, wouldn’t it be awkward if the host had to come up to you in front of everyone and make you move to the worst seat in the house?
“So, what you should do is take the lowest seat, so the host might look at you and say, ‘Hey! you don’t belong there, come move up to the highest seat.’”
As Jesus is talking, the men look around at each other, some thinking, “Man, that’s some good advice. That Jesus really knows he’s stuff,” while others lean over to their neighbor, saying, “Who invited the kill-joy over there? I didn’t know I was gonna get lectured by my mother today.”
In the midst of their chattering, many of them miss the most important thing Jesus says, “If you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Or, in other words, “If you would see how valuable you are, you wouldn’t feel the need to prove your worth all the time.”
Luke gives us a little clue into Jesus’ meaning by saying that he was telling a parable. So, Jesus wasn’t intending to scold them by quoting Proverbs, nor was he teaching them a way to make themselves look better. We know from Jesus’ other parables that he uses these stories as illustrations of the Kingdom of God.
So, like Audio Adrenaline sang in the seminal 1990s Christian classic, Jesus tells those gathered that the Kingdom of God is a big big house, with lots and lots of room. And in the house, there’s a big big table, with lots and lots of food.
And, when you come to God’s house, there’s a seat for you. You don’t have to fight for it. You don’t have to prove your worth to sit down. Every seat is a seat of honor, because the host of the party looks at each guest with the same level of love and compassion.
At God’s party, Jesus says, we only have to come as we are. Because the person I am, the person you are, is more valuable than any of the societal labels we put on ourselves. And when we come accepting our worth, content to just be who we are, we become greater than ourselves.
Because, you see, when we spend so much time concerned with ourselves and our status, we forget how much we have to offer, and how many with whom we still need to share.
You are unique. Each one of you brings different gifts to this community of faith, which, when put together, make us all into something so much bigger than ourselves. So, why spend so much time trying to fit in with everyone else or reach some example of what everyone else thinks we should look like??
As Jesus continues to talk to the people gathered at the Pharisee’s house that day, he turns to the host and says, “And, by the way – next time you throw a party, why not invite some people who can’t pay you back? How about adding the poor, crippled, blind, and lame to your guest list? I’ll tell you the truth, those are the people on God’s guest list.”
Jesus doesn’t stop with explaining how the people in the room will be included in the kingdom of God. He reminds them of the much wider guest list. He turns their eyes in the direction of the people they miss when they are too caught up in themselves.
He says, “Look, there are a lot of really great people here and each of you are more valuable than you know, but there are so many more people who should be here. So many more people who, if you invited them, would enrich your community more than you can imagine.”
And, once again, he says, “This is what God’s Kingdom will look like.”
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous, “I have a dream” speech.
In the most widely known portion of the speech, Dr. King says, “I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Dr. King was intimately aware of the variety of tables set in the United States. He knew that there were many tables where he and his children were not invited to sit. But, he also knew that we would be much richer if we tore down the labels that divide and made space for all people to sit.
His dream for us is a reminder of the Kingdom vision that Jesus set forth during his dinner with the Pharisee and his friends. The dream of inclusion and unity. The dream of value for all people. The dream of a big big table with lots and lots of food for all God’s children to share together.
As we’ve witnessed over the last 50 years, it is not a dream that comes easily. It takes people like us setting aside our desire to be at the best and highest table in order to start pushing tables together until we can no longer see where one ends and another begins.
It takes people like us setting aside our desire to be at the best and highest table to turn around and invite others to join us where we are. Because when we do, we begin to create a more complete picture of God’s Kingdom here.