Texts: Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1-14
However, social pressure exerts itself in different ways, and speaking from my own experience, that pressure is much more present in our struggle to live the lives we want to live. Seldom do we see everybody else in the neighborhood with the next new thing and feel left out because we don’t have it; it’s much more common, I think, for us to feel pressured by the scores of subtle messages we receive daily from the culture around us and even from our own selves telling us that we will be happier, we will be more content, we will be more successful if we just have this or do that or be this. It’s the desire to lose that last 10 pounds, or the thought that the newer phone will be that much faster and better, or the longing to take that big vacation we’ve always wanted to take.
Honor is what all the guests at the Pharisee’s dinner, and even the host himself, are jockeying for. This dinner is not just a dinner; it is a function. It is a cultural ceremony of sorts that demonstrates who’s in and who’s out. It is, quite literally, an old boys club (since only men were invited). The offering and accepting of invitations was a social currency used to reinforce status, as were the seating arrangements. Finagling a seat closer to the host gave all the other guests the impression that someone was more important than they were, which then made them more important.
In an honor-and-shame based society, like Judea, honor is incredibly important. Having a good reputation meant being able to get more and better work, to have good connections in the community, and may even mean bring with it gifts and money from people seeking your favor.
However, Jesus says that honor isn’t everything. Instead, when he tells the part of the story about the man being asked by the host to move up, he says, “you will be glorified in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.” Unlike honor, which is given or taken by the people around you, glory belongs only to God, and can be given only by God.
With his subtle change of wording, Jesus is hinting at a deeper way of being. Humility, he says, is not something to be feigned as a strategy for social climbing, but a way of life that is open to those who can see the bigger picture and know that a person’s worth isn’t measured by their social status, but by the certainty that God has accepted them.
While we know this, but we sometimes need to be reminded. It is too common for us to pin our self-worth on what we have or what we are able to do or look like. We pine for things just beyond our reach and, in so doing, forget that we are beloved children of God. When this happens, we may also begin to judge others by the standards by which we judge ourselves. No one is so disgusted by obesity as the person who is unhappily trying to keep a strict diet themselves.
This is perhaps the core of what Jesus is driving at: when we use other criterion besides God’s for judging ourselves, we do the same for the others around us. We cannot begin to see all people as God’s beloved children until we see ourselves as such, as well. And that is where we can connect with Jesus’ parable. In our culture, we are taught to place ourselves at the seats of honor in our own lives: we are given the message that we can and should have anything we want, if we are willing to put in the effort. Our lives become about what is most convenient, most comfortable, most pleasing to ourselves, and those same considerations for others, while perhaps important, take a lower seat. By removing ourselves from those seats of honor in our lives and instead placing something or someone else there, we gain perspective. For example, many people describe raising children as a paradigm shift in their lives where the person most important to them becomes the child rather than their own self.
At the same time as we are telling ourselves to “move down” and give up our seat, however, Jesus finds us and says to us, “Friend, move up.” We are reminded in this story that Jesus accepted the invitation to the house of a Pharisee—one of his most ardent opponents. It wasn’t in his own best interest—everybody at the dinner was watching him closely, waiting to see what he would do or for him to make a mistake—but in accepting that invitation, he had the opportunity to do some good for the people gathered there by teaching and even healing them. Jesus empties himself to become one of us so that he can invite us to take seats of honor at God’s table—this table. We have been invited to this table not because we have demonstrated our great faithfulness and obedience to God, quite the opposite: we are invited as sinners, enemies of God and resisters of God’s redemption of the world.
Once we comprehend the magnitude of this generosity—this grace—we are able to see that unlike at the Pharisee’s table, all the seats are seats of honor reserved for those whom God loves. We may judge others less harshly when we become able to see the people around us not as competitors for status or recognition, but as equally valued and loved guests.
The paradox in this is that this seat of honor at God’s table is the same as the lowest seat in our own lives. As we move down at our own table, we move up at God’s. Jesus says it several ways: “Those who humble themselves will be exalted;” “The first will be last and the last will be first;” “Whoever would be greatest among you must be least of all and servant of all.” Jesus himself shows us the truth of this by taking for himself the lowest seat of all—the grave. In doing so, he is exalted by God and given, as St. Paul says, the name that is above all names.
The author to the Hebrews offers us some concrete advice on what this looks like: let mutual love continue, show hospitality to strangers; remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them, and those who are suffer as though you are suffering with them. By stepping down from the seats of honor in our own lives, we free our lives to revolve around something other than ourselves. We may even find fulfillment in the relationships with the people we might otherwise judge or ignore, and that is where true glory is found.
The truth is that this story of the supper is a healing story. The story begins with Jesus healing a man at this dinner who suffered from dropsy, or edema: a swelling of the extremities. People suffering from dropsy retain liquid, which makes them terribly thirsty. Perhaps because of such, it was proverbially connected in the ancient world with greed and wealth. Just as last week Jesus healed the bent-over woman on the Sabbath, today he heals the man with dropsy as a prelude to these parables. At the first healing, he established that the Sabbath is a day for unbinding and setting free, and he restates that as he heals the man with dropsy.
With that setup, we can also understand these parables as a kind of healing. Like the man with dropsy, afflicted with greed for water, or perhaps for status around the table, Jesus frees these guests from their need to jockey for position and from irrelevant social obligations. He frees us, too, from our greedy imprisonment to things and status and perception by reminding us who we are and whose we are: that along with everyone else whom God has invited to this table, we are first and foremost beloved children of the Almighty God, seated around this table where we receive together with all humanity the gift of new life.
Perhaps one thing we can take from this story today is that, at this table, God brings us together not just with our friends or siblings or relatives or rich neighbors, but with the poor, the outcast, the unwanted, and the misunderstood. We are all given seats of honor at this banquet; all of us feast together on the source of all life. God brings us together around this meal so that, as we receive strength and nourishment for our bodies, we may also receive strength and nourishment for our souls in the grace-filled unity God gives us with these fellow guests; in that unity, God is glorified—and so are we.