Our place in the kingdom

Pentecost 15

Luke 14:1,7-14

Marian Free

In the name of God whose kingdom recognises no distinction between rich and poor, foolish and wise, leaders and led. Amen.

In the last five years or so, we have witnessed a number of British state occasions – the wedding of Kate and Will, the Consecration of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. All of these events have been the result of careful planning and adherence to codes of etiquette that are centuries old. If you had observed any or all of these ceremonies, you would have noted that the guests (who were pre-determined and specifically invited) were all seated in allotted places. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have their own chairs which (in St Paul’s at least) are distinct from those around them. In the processions likewise, everyone has their place. No one would dare to break with convention and disturb the order of things. That would lead to embarrassing consequences – not least their expulsion from the event and their almost certain exclusion from their peers.

A dinner at Windsor Castle or at the White House or the Lodge is similarly orchestrated. Guests will have been carefully chosen and notified of the dress code. An enormous amount of effort will have been put into ensuring that the guests are seated in such a way that no one has any excuse to feel slighted. With matters of state, it is not just a matter of ensuring that the most senior invitees are assured of the places at the head of the table, but also of making sure that the representative nations are accorded the status that they might feel they deserve. Of course, the guest list will have been carefully thought out in the first instance so as to avoid any embarrassment and place cards will make it easy for guests not to make a mistake.

Similar social norms existed in Jesus’ time. Members of society were ranked according birth, wealth and position and everyone knew their place in relation to everyone else. Only members of one’s own class of people would be invited to a meal and those who were invited would have been sensible of their status relative to the other guests. Tables were arranged in a U-shape so that the servants could move freely around them and guests were seated according to their position in society. It is probably not surprising then, that at the meal Jesus is attending the guests began to seat themselves. Even without place cards, they would have had a reasonable idea as to where they might be seated. (If they were of equal status they might have tried to get a better seat than their fellows in order to claim some form of superiority.)

One of the things that is clear throughout the gospels is that Jesus consistently disrupted and subverted the accepted order of things. He welcomed children and spoke to unaccompanied women. Worse, he ignored the religious scruples of his fellows and disturbed or, should we say extended, the practice of hospitality. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and allowed a woman of the street to interrupt a dinner to anoint his feet. Instead of upholding the traditions of his forebears, Jesus consistently undermined or reinterpreted them. Here he is, doing it again.

Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee. He is not a comfortable guest and it is clear that there is a certain expectation that he will not be so on this occasion. We are told: “they (presumably the other guests) were watching him closely.” What, they seem to be wondering, will he do this time? Jesus doesn’t disappoint. First of all, he throws out a challenge with regard to the law: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” he asks. The lawyers and Pharisees are silent, so despite it being the Sabbath, Jesus heals a man and sends him on his way.

Then, Jesus’ notices the guests beginning to take their places at the table. This leads him to reflect on the social practice of priority in seating. He tells a parable which will certainly hit its mark. In a culture in which status, honour and shame are all important, the humiliation and disgrace of having to give up one’s place is one thing with which all the guests will be able to identify. Not one of those present would want to be singled out and told to take a lesser position at the table. If a person was asked to move having first seated themself it would suggest that they had a false sense of their worth and indicate a failure to acknowledge someone of greater status than themself. It would be impossible to outlive the shame and the loss of face that such a demotion would entail.

This parable will have got everyone’s attention. Jesus presses his point home by directly addressing his host. It is all very well to provide a banquet for those who can repay the favour, Jesus says, but how much better to fill the banqueting hall with those who have no hope of ever returning the invitation.

Verses 11 and 13 tell us where Jesus is going with the parable and the teaching. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” and “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Jesus is speaking less of the present situation, but of the life to come. Resurrection life, he suggests, is going to be very different from this life. Kingdom values are the reverse of worldly values. Jesus is less concerned about the social conduct of the dinner party he is attending, than he is about how people will fare in the life to come. God has no favourites. In fact, as the author of Luke has made clear from the beginning of the gospel, Jesus’ coming heralds a great reversal. In the kingdom which Jesus proclaims, the mighty will be brought down from their thrones and the humble will be lifted high. The poor will be blessed and the hungry filled.

Heaven is a place in which status counts for nothing. In the world to come those who think themselves better than others, will discover that God has different ideas and those who have no idea of their own worth will be astonished to discover how much God values them. If Jesus’ fellow diners would be mortified at being asked to move lower at the table, how much worse would it be to experience such shame at being demoted at the resurrection. Better to identify with those of lower status now than to be cast down before all in the kingdom. Similarly, if it is the poor who are to inherit the kingdom, better to make yourself at home with them now, than to find yourself a stranger to them at the end.

Rank, status and recognition are beguiling. It is human nature to want to stand out from the crowd. Jesus is saying to his fellow guests and to his host, as clearly as he can, that there will be no distinctions in the life to come therefore it would be well to be prepared and to stop observing such distinctions now.

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