“But when you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’” (Luke 14:10)
I’m not sure Jesus is really giving us the best advice here. Some years back I was invited to go out to dinner with some friends. There was, however, a slight hitch in our plans. My friends had just lost a dear friend of theirs, and they asked if I wouldn’t mind accompanying them to the friend’s memorial service before we dined out. I was cool with this, but I informed my dinner companions that I would need time to change into something dressy as the memorial service was to be held at an historic AME church in our neighborhood. As an urban pastor, I’m familiar enough with African American churches to know how formal such houses of worship can be. My friends told me that they had not planned on dressing up and suggested that I needn’t bother. But I, not wishing to give any offense to the congregants of this black church, elected to compromise by staying in my “work clothes”—my black clerical attire and dog collar.
I and my three friends entered the tiny chapel and slid meekly (like all good white Protestants do) into the very back pew. An usher spotted me (as white folks do tend to stand out in the AME church) and, noting that I was a pastor, immediately invited me to sit in a place of honor—the chancel in the very front of the church with the other clergy. I remembered that this was customary, and that it is considered an insult to refuse. Reluctantly, I let myself be taken up to the chancel where I was introduced to the pastor. I nervously told him that I was with friends of the deceased and couldn’t stay for the entire “home-going” celebration. “That’s all right, brother,” he said.” Just honor us with the opening prayer.”
Now, I had never met the deceased in my life and knew nothing about her but her name. I managed, as I frequently do, to BS my way through the invocation to a chorus of “Yes, yes!” and “Amen!” from the congregation, but I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt!
There’s something to be said for taking the lowest seat, but not so that one’s mock humility will be the ticket to a better and more prominent position. An old high school teacher of mine used to say he preferred honest arrogance to false modesty. But if we’re all really honest, there is no place for pride or arrogance at all—not from any of us. The only truly reverent attitude we can have is honest humility. And that’s actually rather comforting if you think about it. It takes a lot of the social pressure off of us.
I love this week’s Gospel lesson in the RCL (Luke 14:1, 7-14). Jesus gets invited to have dinner with a Pharisee on the Sabbath. Maybe this is a weekly get-together these guys have after synagogue. Have you ever been to a Cracker Barrel restaurant or a Philadelphia diner on a Sunday afternoon and seen all the people in their “church clothes?” There’s something really cozy about eating a good meal after having had a good worship experience. Maybe the Pharisees all got together each week to talk about the rabbi’s sermon or discuss the fine points of the Torah reading. Maybe somebody said, “Hey! Let’s invite this new guy, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth. He seems to have some new-fangled ideas. Let’s invite him to our Sabbath luncheon and find out what he’s got to say for himself.”
So here’s Jesus at this weekly gathering. He’s the new guy, so they’re all watching him closely to see if he fits in. Jesus, it seems, is watching them pretty closely, too. Our pericope doesn’t include this part (verses 2-6), but a guy with really bad edema comes along, and Jesus politely inquires of his dinner companions if he should heal this fellow, pointing out that they’d do the same to help one of their kids or even one of their cows. Hearing no objection, Jesus cures the man and sends him on his way.
Jesus quickly notices that this gathering appears to be less about fellowship and more about social positions as the guests are all jockeying for the more prestigious places at the table. He suggests that—just maybe—a prideful exertion of prominence might lead to a disgraceful embarrassment. Better to take a lower position and know yourself as God knows you—as an erring child who is still held high in God’s esteem even without deserving it. That’s called grace, and if you can wrap your brain and heart around that, you won’t need to be seen in a prominent place by anyone else.
(Not that the world’s estimation really matters anyway.)
In the marriage liturgy there’s a reference to celebrating with Christ “the marriage feast which has no end.” I guess I see joy in the kingdom of God as a sort of wedding reception. These shindigs always begin with the wedding party and their families being announced and then taking their places of honor, sometimes on an elevated dais. This is the worldly part where position at the banquet seems to matter. But, by the end of the evening, everyone has been up on the dance floor, jackets have come off, and people are sweaty and half bombed. Everyone has left their assigned seat and started to mingle around the room and no one is sitting at the table of honor. There are no positions, only people being family. How cool is that?
Jesus also has some advice about invitations. If you invite only those who can repay the invitation, you really haven’t given them a gift. You’ve just entered into a transaction. A real gift is to invite the poor who cannot return the favor. That is, after all, what God has done for us.
Glad you stopped by. Please come again.