Readings: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14
May our hearts and minds be open to you O God that we may hear your word, and listen for your message for each one of us. In Jesus name. Amen.
So how many of us get upset when someone is sitting in our place when we come into church? And how we feel unsettled, discombobulated when we have to sit elsewhere? Well that was nothing in comparison to the role of seating places around the table in ancient times. The arrangements were complex and nothing short of a serious breach of etiquette if you got it wrong as host or as guest. Every person had their place in the pecking order – and the worst possible scenario was if you placed yourself above where the host had determined you should be. Then, in front of everyone, you would be asked to move down to your proper place. Shame, very public humiliation, total embarrassment. And so it is that, again, Jesus uses a very simple tale of everyday practice, familiar cultural behaviour, to bring a much deeper message to the people of the time and to us.
For these mealtimes, in the ancient world, were incredibly important – they identified you, stated to the world who you were, what place you held. You can see the same importance being given to the early church to the Eucharistic meal – gathering around the table primarily identified them as the people of God. But we have to remember that then and for the people of the time, it wasn’t just a tale of expected social behaviour and the odd oops moment when you got it wrong– it went much deeper – your placement was a sign of the value that the community placed on you. Your value was inseparable from what others thought of you, it was a complete loss of face that we, in our individualistic culture of today, might find hard to comprehend.
We also don’t relate quite so much to this story of hierarchy around eating places in the home any more – but there are plenty of other ways that we do ‘status’ and ‘ranking’ in hospitality is there not. Corporate boxes and choice seating – achieved by money or status or both, invitations to free lavish ‘do’s’ because of connections or money or perceived potential – and we can take a certain amount of pleasure that we have been singled out, invited in, arrived!
Then there is the way that the world of advertising manipulates our sense of self worth. Personal looks, possessions, worthy or worthless according to some corporations view of what is ‘the top table’ so to speak. The world still manipulates our sense of self, does it not?
So was Jesus just telling a story on how to avoid social embarrassment or even was he giving out some cautionary advice for the spiritual go-getters of the time. Is it about using humility just so that we will be advanced, giving us a strategy for gaining a foothold in the kingdom? For Luke seems to go on to say that it’s actually a bit of a nuisance if you get the reward for your humility and meekness in the here and now – much better to be rewarded in heaven. Build up your spiritual capital now for a much greater return on investment later.
And what a very troubling interpretation of this parable this is in fact– for from it it, it is only a small step to believe that we are to use good deed to the the poor and needy for our own advancement, that we are diminish who we are now in order to enter the kingdom later, and that we have to work in some way to earn our rewards. This thinking leaves I would suggest a troubling legacy in our church today – where humility and works are still needed to be accepted by God. And you know what that says – that the cross isn’t sufficient! That grace is not enough!
So where else can we go with this? Maybe here. Maybe Jesus is poking fun at the very concept that our status, our worth is something to be manipulated, transacted in any way, shape or form by this world. Saying that this whole cultural value system around a person’s worth is shot and deserves nothing less than our total derision. Now that sounds more like the subversive message we would expect from Jesus for his people – showing us that we are not to use the world’s ways of getting on, of allowing people or deeds to determine our worth in God’s eyes.
It challenges any thinking that the only way to gain the kingdom is by belittling ourselves in some way, being less than who we can be. And for some among us that is still a very real understanding of what it means to be a Christ follower.
Christ tells us: We are valued as we are and encouraged to be who we can be. Some lines from a poem by Marianne Williamson:
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure about you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
Jesus teaches us to live in the confidence of love – of being loved for who we are and of loving others. The lines of love – for God, neighbour and self - all need to converge into one whole and complete way of life where we can be the best we can be for God. We are to neither put our own interests first, spiritually or materially, for that exploits others, nor are we to diminish ourselves for that is destructive to self and ends up lessening what we have to give to others.
The letter to the Hebrews makes just this point. Our reading for today begins: ‘let mutual love continue....’ and ends ‘do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.’
Christian community is about being who you are so that you can be who you need to be to others.
When we come to this table as a community of Christ we are not some of us more worthy than another, some of higher status that others, some of us less deserving than other. We are all one in Christ and all welcome in his presence. We put aside all anxieties of worth or status knowing that we are loved and accepted for who we are, valued beyond all measure by God and nourished by a life poured out for us, so that we can be who God wants us to be.