Jesus teaches on the unlikely topic of seating at a meal today.
A while ago I was at a wedding reception having pre dinner drinks when something happened that I had not experienced for years and years. The MC called us to attention and then proceeded to read out the table numbers and who was sitting at them and invited those guests to go into the dining room and take their seat. Well you can imagine the growing anxiety and self consciousness, not to mention shame, of those of us left to the last few tables farthest from the head table, stuck far down the back of the room wedged between the toilets and the kitchen. More than one of the guests commented it flicked them back into being a little boy or girl lined up at play time at primary school picking up sides for a football or netball game. I’ll have you, and you, and you, and then you get to the last four or five kids and they become a job lot “rest of you can go on that team”:
My other experience about seating at seating and meals comes from my days as a theological student at Queens College, Melbourne Uni. I do not know how it came about but for some reason the married theological students who lived at Kirnick House within the grounds of Queens were invited to join the Master, Vice Master and academic staff at High Table for the evening meal. This was rather a formal occasion when those to be seated at high table would process in through the dining area where all the undergraduates would be standing to attention. The master would say grace in Latin and then High Table would be served first. Now when you get married couples living in theol college you run the risk of getting babies. And I have vivid memories of the couple living next to us determidely lining up for the procession at High Table at Queens with portable baby seat which attached to the high table and one year old baby sat up there with little jar of baby food, squeaking and squarking and delightedly smearing food over high table, crumbs on the Master’s academic gown. While I often cringed when seated in glory up there mum, dad and toddler never seemed the least bit self conscious.
Seating arrangements are pretty important. If you don’t think so then why do most of you, and me, sit in the same seat week by week here at worship. Sometimes I even hear people identified by their choice of seat, “You know so and so, tall, wears glasses and sits near the left hand column”. That is mostly saying we humans are creatures of habit and like familiarity and security.
Seating is also important when we go out to the theatre, to a concert, to the footy for on these occasions we pay more to get a better seat so we can all the better see the action.
In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives teaching about seating; but its not about us seeing the action, but our obsession with being seen at the action. Its about having the best seats in the dining room as a status symbol. By now we know Jesus well enough to have a good idea that in giving the instruction in Luke’s gospel he is on about something more than social etiquette and good manners when eating out.
Jesus had a very high view of the importance of meals – and for more than the very practical reason we need sustenance. Rather every time Jesus sits down for a meal with others he is anticipating that this meal can become a foretaste of the heavenly banquet – these meals are a slice of heaven, a glimpse of life in the reign of God. It is for that reason Jesus is prepared to become the offensive guest who will not sit silently by and see these meals become the private plaything of the religious and social elite who turn them to their own advantage and further their own status. This excluding of some from the guest list, this jockeying for position and status, all this is an offense against God and a betrayal of the grace of God. It is no wonder then that in the gospels, and in Luke especially these meals became a battle ground for Jesus – in Luke there is not one meal that Jesus attends where it does not turn into conflict..
Jesus addresses all this game playing obsession with status head on and typically he does it with a forthright and direct manner, love him or hate him you can’t deny his willingness to put his neck on the line for what he believed in; and once again it is the Kingdom, or the reign of god and what it looks like.
When we scratch not too far beneath the surface the mad scramble for the status of the higher seats is revealed to actually be a deep seated fear of being overlooked. Pride is unmasked as a deep seated insecurity. Pride is not so much a sense of being number one but a thinly disguised fear that you are not number one. It is why pride is so easily satirized.
In the best traditions of outh organised worship services they are notorious, at least in my experience, for trying to prick the hypocrisy, pride and unexamined prejudices of the older conservative church goers. One of my most favourite and vivid memories was the youth service where there was a guy who looked like a classic homeless unwashed guy with a brown paper bag and a bottle hanging around the front of the church as people arrived, and then he came into the service, and while he did not interrupt during the service he got up and walked across the front of the church, out the door to the toilets a couple of times and wandered through the worship space. No-one could not have been aware of his presence. While I cannot remember precisely the bible reading that gave the theme for the worship it was something like today’s reading about not judging, not thinking your are superior to others, being humble. The impact of the readings came home to many people with all the force of hammer smashing open a walnut when the worship leader mentioned the guy and asked people to remember any thoughts they had about him while he out the front or in the worship service. The worship leader then brought the guy out and began to talk to him. As it turns out he was a theological student who had been approached to go to the service in character. People were challenged as to their assumptions and the judgements they were inflicting on others.
Jesus throws out the challenge to deliberately put yourself in the place and with the people that will easily be overlooked. Now that takes conviction and assurance. Some would call it stupidity and self destruction. Another name for it is humility.
Our society does little to encourage true humility – but despite that we do know and recognize when we are in its presence. I don’t know the humble person would know they are humble – can you know you are humble? But others do notice it if they pause long enough. Humility is an ease within yourself, a self acceptance that is not threatened by others success and so always driven to have to compete. It is usually accompanied by thankfulness. It is a sense of being at peace in your own skin and with your own achievements and person. A sense of your place in the world.
All this is gift; it is grace; it comes to us from beyond. And it is only this that frees us from the neurotic obsession with the fear that we be overlooked and will not win the applause of the crowd.
. God’s reign does not work on the same principle that is at the very heart of our way our society works – reciprocosity. That is we give in order to get. Much of our economy, our social lives, work on this basis. At university you will be prepared for a life that works on being seated at head table. God’s kingdom works on grace. From Jesus it appears that one of the clear evidences of this grace is when we are moved to invite the least in this world with the unspoken request,
Could you give me the blessing of your inability to pay back.
God’s dinner party has as its guest list all those sitting home on their own on a Sat night – the socially inadequate, the spurned, the neglected, the demon possessed, the self loathing
It is the breaking of the law of reciprocisity and the introduction of grace. That is the only way you will ever find out if you are doing this, giving this, in order that you will get back at least as much if not more.