“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11
We like to say that everyone is equal. But if you have traveled by plane in recent years, you know it’s not true. I applied for TSA PreCheck status a couple of years ago, and it has saved me more than once when long security lines might otherwise have made me miss my flight. But once I get through security, my special status ends. You know how it is. You board the flight by groups – the most special people first, and then – one herd at a time – Group 1, Group 2, etc. I go for the cheapest tickets, so I’m inevitably boarding with group 8 out of 8.
On the plane you see the status differences even more clearly. It’s almost cruel that they make you walk past the first class seats – so much wider, with more leg room and better snacks. We all know the worst seat on the plane – the one on the last row that doesn’t recline and is right there by the bathroom. (I’ve been there more than once.) In all my years of flying, no one in first class has ever said, “Here, why don’t you take my seat? I’ll go back and sit in coach.” This summer, when I was flying back from SC, I got to my aisle seat to find a man already sitting in it. He had been assigned to the middle seat on that row and thought that surely I would be willing to trade with him. “No,” I said. And he moved…reluctantly.
All of that jockeying for position on an airplane is a kind of metaphor for how we do the same thing in the rest of life. Like the space on an airplane, we see everything as a limited resource, and we scramble to claim as much as we can for ourselves and to make sure that we’re keeping up with – and even surpassing – other people. We do what we can to gain the status that will get us what we want, whether it’s to help our kids get into a great college or to get a promotion so we can afford to pay for that college, or to make sure we know the powerful, well-connected people who might be of use down the road. I don’t think we’re always so crass and manipulative about it. Our intentions are often good, but the result is that we come to think of relationships as transactional. What can you give me? What can I give you? How will we maintain the spreadsheet of what we owe each other?
The world in which Jesus lived was quite different from our own in many ways, but there’s something familiar about the dinner party he attends. Jesus goes to a gathering hosted by one of the very same Pharisees who have been giving him a hard time about healing people on the Sabbath. One thing I like about Jesus is that he does not avoid the people with whom he disagrees. He pulls up a chair and dives right into those difficult conversations.
On this particular evening Jesus observes that several dinner guests have deliberately chosen the seats that were understood to be places of honor – the ones closest to the host at the head of the table. That makes strategic sense. Those seats would give a person better access to the host and to other well-connected people at the party.
So Jesus tells a story. As you know, Jesus’ stories are never neutral. They have a point. Often that point can be cryptic, but not this one. He doesn’t really make any effort to disguise the situation he’s addressing. He describes a wedding banquet in which the guests do the very same thing that his fellow dinner party guests have done. They scramble to get the best seats, the ones with the highest status. Jesus encourages another approach, one of humility. Choose a seat with the lowest status and wait for the host to invite you to sit in a better one. “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled,” Jesus says. “And those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
When Jesus tells stories like this one in situations like this one, I always wonder why he keeps getting invited to dinner. With this story he is clearly critiquing the behavior of his fellow guests and of his host. And he is also challenging the entire honor and shame culture on which the ancient world is based. He’s poking holes in their devotion to hierarchy, turning everything that they understand about status upside down…turning everything that we understand about status upside down.
Like the people with whom Jesus was eating, we can get so caught up in worrying about status that we miss the other hard thing that he tells us. Did you hear it? He says: “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. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…”
Jesus wants us to set aside our transactional ways of thinking about relationships. He wants us to build relationships with people who have absolutely no power to help us “get ahead.” Don’t just feed people who can enhance your reputation, he says. Feed people who are hungry. Really, truly hungry. Hungry for food, for shelter, for medical care, for safety, for support. Hungry for human community and connection.
What might it look like in your life to expand the guest list? Who’s missing? Who is longing for community and connection?
School starts for many of our kids this week. I saw a commercial recently for Capri Sun.[i] It showed a school cafeteria, set up in the traditional way with rows of tables and different groups of kids sitting at each one. We see one kid carrying his lunch tray; he’s clearly new and self-conscious, looking for a place to sit. He walks over to a table that has an open seat, but a kid at that table slaps his hand on the table, signaling that the boy is not welcome to sit there. So the boy goes and sits by himself at an empty table. A girl observes all of this (sipping on a Capri Sun, of course) and hands off her juice to a friend, saying, “Hold my pouch.” We then see the kids in the cafeteria rearranging the tables at her direction into one giant rectangle. Now they all have a seat at the same big table. The final image is of the new kid sitting between two girls, laughing as they eat lunch together.
The kingdom of God is like that big table. It’s not easy to wrench ourselves away from the world’s kind of dinner party thinking, our school cafeteria habits of inclusion and exclusion. It’s around us all the time. We breathe it in – the competition, the negotiations for status, the concern about how others see us. But each Sunday we practice a different kind of dinner party – one hosted by Jesus. As we gather around the table this morning with Jesus as our host, remember that at this table there are no higher or lower seats. We are all loved and welcomed here. We are all important in the eyes of God.
Come and be fed today, trusting that this is not a table just for the powerful and important. It is a table for the hungry. A table for everyone. A table for you. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i]Thank you to Pastor Jill Collict for sharing this ad on her Facebook page and inviting me to consider how it relates to today’s gospel: https://www.ispot.tv/ad/Ih1_/capri-sun-together-table#