Luke 14:1, 7-14
1 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.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 "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; 9 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. 10 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
This is the gospel of the Lord.
Praise to You, O Christ.
The Little Things
Quaker minister Philip Gulley tells a story of a man who took truth-telling to the extreme. Once, he was on a vacation with his family out west. They stopped at a gas station and after he paid for the gas the man turned to the attendant and said, “See you later.” He drove away and a couple of miles down the road it occurred to him that he wasn’t going to see this man anytime soon, in fact, he’d probably never see him again and so he turned his car around, drove back to the gas station and explained that instead of “See you later.” what he really should have said was, “Goodbye.”
Now one could argue that this was both a waste of time and gas, however - we have to give the man credit. Because if he took the smallest, most fleeting interaction with a stranger that seriously, we can only imagine how committed he must have been in his relationships with those closest to his heart, including his relationship with God.
Christ at the Table
Today’s gospel lesson brings us to the table, one of Jesus’ favorite classrooms, especially in the gospel of Luke. Throughout the New Testament the table becomes a stage where beliefs and values are played out. Whether or not you are invited to a particular table tells you whether you are in or out in society. The Cannanite woman, in all her humility, is willing to take crumbs from the table when she is refused a seat. It is Jesus himself who flips tables over in the temple when he sees the money changers exploiting unsuspecting people in a place of worship. And today, what is happening at the table tells us all we need to know about the leader of the Pharisees who has, oddly, invited Jesus to his table.
Jesus notices the smallest things about their interactions as he watches the guests choose their seats. Based on his reaction we can assume that as they began approaching the table, they were sizing one another up. Maybe by appearance: the clothes they wore, how they carried themselves. Maybe by reputation: the position they each held in the temple, stories they had heard about one another. Whatever it was, clearly some seats were more desirable than others and each was attempting to assess and demonstrate his worth compared to the worth of his table mates in order to land the best possible seat instead of graciously offering the better spot to his neighbor.
And we can’t fault them really, because these were the table manners they were raised with. Most pharisees were middle class people who had willingly separated themselves from the masses by vowing to strictly abide by the law of the Torah, down to the tiniest details. Throughout their training, each community of Pharisees was under the leadership of a scribe, and the scribe’s job was to scrutinize their behavior, point out their faults, and criticize them when they fell short of perfectly fulfilling the law. This pursuit of perfection and fear of failure became their mindset and therefore, the way they treated one another.
Codes of Conduct
Years ago Nick and I used to rush home from leading youth group on Sunday nights so we could watch Downton Abbey, the story of a noble family negotiating the breakdown of the class system following WWI in England. In many ways, this family and their fleet of servants, lived a Pharisaic sort of life when it came to their interactions with one another. Much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, in the Edwardian era, manners were tools that served to remind members of each social class exactly what their place and role was at the table and keep them in their place.
For instance, in Edwardian England, men removed their hats in the presence of a superior, but not for a member of the lower class. Therefore, in practice, only someone with a higher social standing than you was worthy of your respect.
Servants called footmen were almost always attractive, well dressed young men. In fact, tall, or particularly good-looking footmen could even earn a higher salary.
At the table, the first footman had the honor of serving the meat at a meal while the second footman would serve the side. Here, one’s appearance became a qualification for honor.
Even at the servants dining table, they sat in a particular order that indicated their standing within the hierarchy of the staff. The lowest ranked employees were not even allowed to sit at the servants’ table. We can see what this communicated to them about their worth - not even being allowed to eat at the table in their own home.
If reflect on this a bit we can see how even today we have our own codes of conduct at the table and elsewhere. Who sits where at the board room table, the football game, who gets the biggest office, who steps out of whose way as we approach one another on the street - in this town, who gets to park where and when. In all these ways and many more our hierarchies of race, class, and gender all have their ways of playing out.
Similarly, at the table of the Pharisees the ranking system dictated where you sat and how you conducted yourself, down to the smallest of details. And after watching it all unfold before him, Jesus decides it is time for a teaching moment, a lesson on the ways of the kingdom and a reminder that yes, these small little details of who sits where are indeed very important, but not in the way the Pharisees might think.
Entertaining the King
You see, the irony in all this is that their deliberations over the law and worship and table fellowship had begun with a noble purpose in mind: they were preparing themselves for the arrival of the king. And of course, if the king is coming to dinner, everyone is to be on their best behavior. And if you’ve been working hard to live out the Torah law in your life, you want your efforts to be made obvious to the king you have been aiming to serve, therefore the hierarchy of who sits where is an easy and obvious way to signal who has been doing their homework.
But of course, we know what they don’t: not only is the king already among them, but he’s also the one they have placed under surveillance because his ways of managing the table are so radically different from their own. And in fact they have been so caught up in their own understandings of what is right and proper that they completely missed the announcement of his arrival, the herald angels who back in Chapter One, inspired his mother Mary to sing of his impending arrival:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.”
This should have been a signal that the etiquette guide was in need of revision, but, as is true of most humans, the Pharisees were comfortable with their ways of practicing faith. They liked the comfort of knowing where they stood - comparing themselves to one another, allowing the scribe to determine the seating arrangement. What they did not realize was that these little, everyday, some might even say mundane details of their lives would soon come under the scrutiny of the King, who taught that the way we conduct ourselves and treat one another at the table should be based not in a system of perfection but in a system of grace.
The gist of Jesus’ etiquette guide is summed up in verse 11: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” he says. And my guess is he’s not speaking in the abstract.
- Choose the seat no one else wants to sit in.
- Offer someone else the place of honor.
- Don’t dismiss your interaction with the gas station attendant.
And since he’s not here today, I’ll tell a story on Nick Reed that might embarrass him otherwise. Earlier this week Nick and I were leaving a store and we didn’t notice a woman behind us whose hands were full. The door started to swing back on her and even though we were already a few steps away, Nick spun around and ran back and held the door for her as she passed. Little thing, right? Not a big deal.
But it was to her.
She said, “Thank you for doing that. You have no idea how many people don’t.”
We might think these moments in our lives don’t carry much significance. When our eye is on the prize, struggling to do and be what we think it takes to win the approval of the king, just like the Pharisees we are likely to completely miss the fact that he’s already at our table. He’s the gas station attendant. He’s the woman with his hands full about to be hit by the door. And the manners this king hopes we display as we don’t have anything to do with prestige or talent. They have everything to do with kindness and compassion.
Small Things Become Big Things
The thing is, when we devote ourselves to the small things it prepares us for the big things. If we are gracious in our interactions where we stand don’t stand to gain anything, the one who is the giver of everything rejoices. Because, as he’s been trying to tell us all along, the favor of the King isn’t something we earn through perfecting the code of conduct. It’s a gift we respond to by honoring God and one another with gratitude and humility.
Jesus taught from the table for a reason. Because how many times a day don’t we all find ourselves approaching a table of some sort alongside people we are called to interact with: families, friends, colleagues, peers, and even sometimes rivals and enemies. If we can get it right there, at the table, chances are we will get it right in moments when the stakes are much higher.
As we go out into the world from this place, may today’s story remind us of Christ’s presence there with us at those tables, and may it encourage us to take a step back, make room for more, move down a seat, and give thanks for the presence of the one who calls us to a better way of life.