Sunday, September 02, 2007
The Place of Honor: A Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14
“The Place of Honor”
Luke 14:1, 7-14
September 2, 2007
After we reach a certain age, I think we can all point to moments in our lives when we have been in one of these situations: situations wherein we are called upon to “play the game.” Which game? The game of prestige, honor, status, position… whatever you want to call it. And, oh my, it starts early, doesn’t it? Jostling for position on the playground, the terror of waiting to be picked for teams at kickball, the moment when the person we think is our best friend turns their back on us ever so slightly to sit at the table with the “cool kids”… of whom we are, most decidedly, not one! Or, even if we are the cool kids, the constant vigilance we are called upon to keep that status, the subtle signals we are always striving to receive with our still-developing antennae, the strain of knowing one wrong move could cause the whole house of cards to come tumbling down on our heads.
Perhaps I exaggerate. But I don’t think so. Years ago I met a young man on a train who talked about his experiences—still fresh in his mind—of interviewing for a job with several prestigious law firms. He had deduced that one of the ways of playing the game applied to the rules of ordering food in restaurants, when he had a lunch or dinner interview. He noticed that there was often a culture of food that expressed itself on these occasions … everyone ordered salads, or everyone ordered fish, or everyone ordered sandwiches. He felt it would be a good idea to take care to order something similar, to signal that he was able to blend in with the culture of the firm, even to the food he ate.
One time he was with a group of attorneys who took him to a steak house, and proceeded to outdo one another in ordering the biggest, most impressive pieces of meat. When it came his turn, the young man ordered prime rib with horseradish. As the meal progressed, he continued to pick up signals that there was a definite culture of toughness and, for want of a better word, manliness, at work around the table. As they asked him questions he became more and more convinced that he needed to do his best to appear manly and tough.
The food came. He cut a big piece of prime rib and slathered it with horseradish. He put it in his mouth. And just at that moment, one of the lawyers asked, “So, Dave, tell us why you are looking at a firm so far from your home.” And at that moment, tears sprang into his eyes, because he had a mouthful of horseradish. He spent the next several minutes trying to wipe away what was now a stream of tears, to choke down the food in his mouth, and to convince this table of tough guys that he was not crying at the thought of leaving home. He did not get an offer from that particular firm.
When I look at this week’s gospel text, it’s hard to believe Jesus isn’t in some sense telling us how to play the game. Jesus is at a dinner party. Someone has said that, in Luke, “Jesus is always going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.”(1) And here we have one of those passages. Jesus is not only at a dinner party, he is at a dinner party thrown by a “leader of the Pharisees,” who would be one of highest of the elite of the religious establishment. At least that’s what the scholars think. And while he is at the party, Jesus takes note of the way in which people are jockeying for position, seeking to have the places of greatest honor around the table.
Let’s take just a minute to envision the table around which the guests of the Pharisee are sitting. In Jesus’ day, in Palestine, tables at a feast were low to the ground, solid blocks, in the shape of a “U.” All the guests would recline on low couches around the table. At the bend of the U would be the host, in this case, the Pharisee. The place of greatest honor would be the seat immediately to the host’s right. The next place of honor would be immediately to his left. The next would be the second seat to the right, and so on, until we reach the places of least honor, the no man’s land of the outermost seats at the end of the legs of the U. (2)
The kind of scene which Jesus witnesses and which Luke describes was apparently pretty common. Apparently, people who were eager to get a better seat—and they would, typically be those with less status, the more common people, those who were absolutely thrilled to be invited—they would arrive earliest, and try to judge where it would be safe to sit, in order to avoid the humiliation of being asked to give up the seat for a greater luminary. On the other hand, the Really Important People would and could arrive as late as they liked… fashionably late, making a grand entrance, and confident that their host would boot anyone who had been so foolish as to take the seat that was rightfully theirs. (3)
It was a brutal arrangement. And the insults didn’t end there. Letters written at the time talk about what we would consider a shocking difference in the quality of the food between those in the places of honor and the rest of the table. The host and his honored guests would get the elegant dishes, the choicest morsels, while the rest of the table got food that reminds me of that old joke—“This food is terrible.” “I know! And such small portions!” (4)
Jesus watches all this. And he offers advice to the guests in the form of a parable, according to Luke, but guess what? It is an adaptation of a few verses from Proverbs. It always helps to remember that Jesus is a Jew, steeped in scripture, and he offers that scripture for the consideration of his fellow guests. In Proverbs it says:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. ~ Proverbs 25:6-7
To be put lower in the presence of a noble. To be seated at a table in the cafeteria all by yourself while the cool kids laugh at another table nearby. To feel that you’ve made an utter fool of yourself in front of the people you were hoping might hire you. Humiliation. Jesus watches as people set themselves up for the risk of humiliation. And you know, I think his heart goes out to them, he has compassion for them. So, apparently, Jesus offers advice on how to play the game. Right? That’s how it feels at first glance. The way to get honor is to humble yourself. The way to be invited into the better seat is to take the worse seat.
Only, Jesus goes a step further—many steps further—in his words to the host. As we hear these words, we realize that Jesus isn’t advocating playing the game… Jesus wants to see an end to the game entirely. He turns to the Pharisee and, to my mind, does two things. First, he gently reproaches him for offering the playing field for the game in the first place. After all, the Pharisee is the one who has invited people of varying social ranks to a feast, he is the one whose guests are, apparently, a little bit panicked about where they will sit. He is the one who, by inviting all those guests, will undoubtedly receive lots of return invitations… and, given his position as leader of the Pharisees, he will surely be in the place of honor at all those feasts. Jesus calls him on this: the hidden agenda of the host, the desire to be the center of attention at his own dinners and at the others to which he is invited. Jesus calls upon the host to stop the game altogether.
The second thing Jesus does is to offer a truly radical alternative. Jesus says, forget your usual guest list. Forget the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” usual way of doing things. Do something entirely different. Invite those of no social rank whatsoever, those entirely without the means to return the honor with an invitation of their own. Jesus urges the Pharisee to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame, those whom no one invites.
It’s hard to overstate just how shocking this suggestion is. There are religious communities in Jesus’ day where those very people, the poor, crippled, blind and lame, are specifically not permitted to enter the place of assembly. The reason for this is that they are all considered to be ritually impure. (5) Jesus is addressing a Pharisee. The Pharisees, with their hyper-vigilance regarding the laws of ritual purity, would be appalled at the presence of these people. Money is required for the offerings at the temple in order to be made pure. Therefore, to be poor in Jesus’ day means to be in a constant state of impurity. To be crippled, blind or lame is a guarantee of poverty… therefore, Jesus is encouraging the Pharisee to invite precisely those people whom he probably spends his days avoiding. If the Pharisee takes Jesus’ advice, he will certainly become ritually impure himself by virtue of his contact with these people. (6)
As I said, Jesus’ suggestion is radical. Jesus is taking a hard look at his society’s notions of honor and shame, who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, and he’s turning it all on his head. Here’s who you should have at your dinner parties, he says: the people you least want to see in the whole world. Here’s how to be exalted, he says: try finding yourself a quiet little spot at the very bottom of the heap.
Of course, as I’ve already said, Jesus isn’t advocating playing the game at all. Jesus is offering us a vision of a fresh start, a new world, one that has nothing to do with the game. Jesus is offering us a vision of a table at which no one has a place of honor, because everyone is in the place of honor. It is a completely circular table filled with most honored guests, because it is God who extends the invitations.
There is glorious good news in this passage. There is glorious good news for everyone who has ever felt like the proverbial fifth wheel. There is glorious good news for all who have felt the sting of humiliation, from the lunchroom to the boardroom. The glorious good news is that the table is open, and every seat at the table is a place of honor.
And there is hard, challenging good news in this passage. There is hard, challenging good news for those of us who have been sure we knew who was on God’s A list or B list (or Y list or Z list!). There is hard, challenging good news for those of us who have enemies… people we can’t stand, whether they are in our families, in our offices or in the newspapers. The hard, challenging good news is that the table is open, and every seat at the table is a place of honor.
And there is heart-stirring, exciting good news in this passage. There is heart-stirring, exciting good news for everyone who has ever belonged to a community of faith, or longed to belong, or who is even mildly curious about the whole enterprise of religion. There is heart-stirring, exciting good news for everyone who has great hopes of a genuine journey of faith together, for you and me, as we set our feet on this new path. The heart-stirring, exciting good news is that the table is open, and every seat at the table is a place of honor. Good people of My New Home Church, honored guests, and those who can’t hear me, beyond our doors: the table is open, God has invited each and every one of us. Every seat is a place of honor. Amen.
1. Robert J. Karris, Luke: Artist and Theologian, Luke’s Passion Account as Literature (New York: Paulist, 1985), 47.
2. William Barclay, The Parables of Jesus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1970), 213.
4. Letter of Pliny the Younger, quoted in R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 286.
5. Op. cit., 287.
6. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, Ch. III.