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.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Let me tell you that this is a difficult text for me. Be humble, Jesus says. Take the lowest seat, Jesus says. Don’t worry, you’ll be rewarded. It’ll be fine, he says. Someone will notice you down there and will come over and invite you higher, he says. It all works out.
I’m not buying it. I’ve spent much of my life in the lowest seat at the table—not because I chose it. Quite the opposite. I’ve always felt like by the time I get to the table, the lowest seat is the only one left. Then, my own history dictates, I get left there, usually unnoticed.
This isn’t a sob story. It’s a success story for me. I’ve fought my way up to not only being noticed, but being respected for my contributions and gifts. But it’s been a long and difficult climb. I’ve gone from a kid who was bullied and picked on more days than not to someone whose voice is respected and sometimes even sought out.
But no one offered me a higher place at the table. I fought for it. I was determined to move up and slowly did. Many tables I sit at now have a seat close to the top where I am welcome and invited. I fought my way up, let me tell you, not through humility, but through humiliation.
Is Jesus telling me and others who’ve struggled with self-esteem that we’re wrong? That if we had just waited at the low end of the table someone surely would have taken notice and recognized that we are valuable and worthwhile people? If we are patient we’ll eventually get invited to a higher place? Just sit and wait?
Not in my experience. Once you’re at the low seats at the table you tend to stay there, unnoticed and forgotten.
There are those who will point out that the long-suffering in the low seats will get their reward in heaven at the end of time. I’m not buying that either. The gospel is for the living, not the dead. The reign of God that Jesus reveals is here and now, present in this world or it’s no use at all. If there’s no application today, then there’s no application.
So what are we going to do with a text like this? One of the reasons I became Lutheran is that we are ready for texts like this. It’s not that we have all the answers, but we do have a theology that takes the reality of our world into account. We don’t live in a pie-in-the-sky kind of world, and statements about God that only offer pie-in-the-sky fluff are rightly rejected by us. And they ought to be.
No, we in the ELCA can afford to be honest about scripture readings that are hard, or don’t make sense, or that don’t fit well with our experience. We’re OK wrestling and disagreeing and conversing from our varying perspectives.
What we Lutherans do is get honest, admit where the rough spots are. We aren’t shy about that, but go deep with that and if we seem to have hit a dead end, we look at what we know about Jesus. When talking to a Pharisee on the Sabbath, Jesus isn’t discussing table manners or etiquette. He’s dealing with religious power and how that gets in the way of God at work with those left out.
There’s a point Jesus is making here. This isn’t advice on how to get ahead in life. This is a statement about our seeking power and status, because everyone wants a higher seat at the table.
Look at how the author of Luke sets this up: Jesus, a Pharisee, at a meal, on the Sabbath. This is a recipe for conflict. More than table manners or how to get noticed, Jesus is letting us know that power and status don’t matter, but doing the work of God in the world does.
Whether you are seated high or low, Jesus says, invite those lower than you, those who cannot repay, those who are lost and pushed aside. It’s not about us getting a higher seat—it’s about us giving up our seat for those who are lower!
Jesus tells the Pharisee who’s hosting the meal to look beyond those who will increase his own status, but instead offer a place at the table to those who have no place. Not only does that fit with the setting of this text, but it fits with Jesus. The gospel is never about the rich getting richer, not about the powerful getting more power, but it is always about the rich and the powerful giving that up for the sake of those who have none.
This text may not sound like good news for those who love their high place in business, government, finances, or even religion. But it is good news for those with no voice, who go unnoticed, who are picked on, who are bullied, who are poor, who are undocumented, who are ethnic minorities, who are denied rights because of their sexual identity, who are powerless. Those who are at the lowest seat, if they have a place at the table at all.
Jesus is telling those of us who have places at the table to make room, scoot down, give up our seat, bring those on the outside in. For all are valuable in the sight of God, therefore all are valuable. Period.
We break the cycle of power by giving power away. That’s what we can do with our place at the table. Regardless of where we sit, we make room at the table.
Join us at Zion Baptist “Church in the Park” today. As their guests, we are being offered a seat at the table. What will be served is an opportunity to step into racial reconciliation. The question then will be, “now that we have been given a chair at the table, what will we do with it?” Some will try to climb higher. Jesus calls us to give our seat to someone else. That’s how we offer good news to the world.