Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 1, 2013
There’s something about moving through a cafeteria line, holding onto one of those green plastic trays that sends me into a slight panic. It doesn’t matter who I’m with or where I’m eating, for a moment when I turn from the line and scan the dining room I freeze up a little inside.
I’m sure that much of this largely due to the introvert in me. There’s something intimidating about having to walk up to a group at a table and join them. But I also suspect that much of my dread comes from my childhood and facing the school lunchroom. Any hierarchy that seems to exist in a school comes out in full force in its lunchroom. The kids at the top of the school food chain had a table of their own. That was known as the cool table. No matter how cool you thought you were, in order to sit at the cool table you had to be invited by one of the other cool kids. Sitting down without an invitation and being told there wasn’t room was even more embarrassing than dropping your tray in front of everybody.
Even though I wasn’t a social pariah in school – I had plenty of friends and I was basically well-liked – that fear of the lunchroom and the cool table was well established in me. Junior High was the worst. By the time I got to high school, I stopped worrying about the cool table because basically I abandoned the lunchroom altogether. I either sat outside for lunch or went to another hangout spot on campus. When I was old enough to have friends who were allowed to drive and had cars, and on the rare occasion when I had a car, I left school for the lunch hour.
The hierarchy of the lunchroom meant that where you sat and who you sat with made a difference. It was important. It signified your status in the school. It showed your classmates that you either belonged or you didn’t. It was silly. It was superficial, but when I was a student, it was very, very, very real. The reality is that, even though we don’t like to admit it or talk about it, the hierarchy of the lunchroom doesn’t end with school. The cool table mentality still exists. Some people belong at the top of that hierarchy and some don’t. Some people get an invitation and some don’t; and woe to those who try to join without one. Sadly I think the church has been one of the biggest culprits of this. Even if those of us sitting in the pews don’t see ourselves as members of an elite group or club, the cool people at the cool table, those outside the church doors often do. If you’ve ever visited a church and been asked to change seats because you’re sitting in a member’s exclusive seat, that’s the cool table mentality at work.
At first glance it may seem that Jesus is promoting that kind of mentality in the parable he tells in today’s passage. Luke’s gospel emphasizes meals more than any of the others and this passage is no exception. Jesus is attending a meal at the home of a Pharisee. As the first verse points out, he was being watched closely. That may have been because some of the religious leaders were waiting for a chance to back him into a verbal corner. Some may have been watching him closely because everything he seemed to do was radical. He healed on the Sabbath. He forgave people of their sins. He spoke and taught with an authority no one had ever witnessed before. What would he do next? So they watched him intently.
Jesus was also watching carefully. He observed the guests who came to the meal and how they chose their seats. There were places, seats of honor, where only the most distinguished guests could sit. Taking one of those seats when you didn’t belong or weren’t invited would have been like trying to claim a place at the cool table. If the host came and asked you to move, you would have left that seat in disgrace.
This was not some arbitrary quirk. The culture at that time was one of honor and shame; much like a school lunchroom. Where you sat at a banquet signified not just how cozy you were with the host, but your status in society. It was a hierarchy. There were some on top, some in the middle and many at the bottom. At first Jesus may seem to support that idea by encouraging people to take a lesser seat. But was he? Or was he pointing out to them that those who sought to put themselves at the top of the food chain or at the top rung of the social ladder, were the ones who would be humbled. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Another aspect of this honor/shame culture was that there was an agenda behind every invitation. You didn’t invite people to a dinner for the heck of it. You invited someone who could do something for you, just as you might be invited for the same reason. You invited someone who just by being in your home raised your place in the social realm. It was about give and take. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. There was an agenda. I imagine that agenda was so ingrained in people that no one thought much about it. But once again Jesus made them think about it.
“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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Don’t invite someone who will repay you. Invite those who can do nothing for you. Invite those that would be despised at any other banquet in town. Invite those who have no way to return the favor and when you do you will be blessed. You may not be repaid now, but you will be in time. You will be repaid at “the resurrection of the righteous.”
Think about the people we serve at our community meal each month. They are poor and crippled and lame and blind. They don’t add to our membership or our budget. But we serve them anyway. It’s the right thing to do, and yes, I feel good each month when I work at the meal. But more importantly I think the community meal is a vivid reminder to me that whatever place I may hold or think I hold in our society doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. A place of honor here doesn’t count in the kingdom. It’s not about my status. It’s not about the seat of honor I think I deserve. It’s about how I treat other people. It’s about seeing other people not through the lens of status, position or class, but as children of God. It seems to me that when Jesus warns the guests about assuming the seats of honor at the table, the distinguished guests he was referring to were not the people in power at the time, but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.
This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I’ve watched that speech and listened to that speech and read that speech countless times. But each time I hear it I am struck anew at the depth of his message. It was a speech about Civil Rights, but it was more than that. It was a speech about the injustice of segregation and the mockery it made of the so-called American Dream, but it was more than that. It was about a vision of a beloved community. It was a dream of every single person, regardless of color, class or creed being welcomed at the table. That speech was a mirror for the country. Gazing into it we saw how far away we were from that beloved community, that banquet table of grace. Dr. King reminded us that when some of us aren’t free to come to the table, none of us are truly free.
The parables Jesus told are a mirror. They were a mirror for those he spoke to directly. They are a mirror for us as well. I don’t see it as mirror in which those of us on top are necessarily shamed or scorned, but we see in the reflection that often the things we think are important – places of honor, status, etc. – don’t matter in the kingdom of God. They don’t matter at God’s table. When we see that, when we recognize that the superficial and external don’t matter, we come one step closer to that beloved community. We see that the cool table, the truly cool table, is not our table, but God’s table. It is the table where all of us find a place. Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia! Amen.”