Sermon: There is No Seating Chart in the Kindom of God

Luke 4:1, 7-14

Sigmund Freud supposedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Known for finding the deeper layers of meaning in everything — especially layers of meaning related to sexual hangups— Freud was saying that sometimes a cigar isn’t a symbol of anything — it’s just a cigar! — rather than what it might more obviously symbolize in Freud’s world. 

However, in the Bible, a meal is never just a meal. It is never just a casual get together. It has layers of deep meaning. Who you eat with and who you don’t eat with say almost everything about your worth, your status — where you are in the pecking order. And who you eat with and who you don’t say almost everything about your identity, whether you are you an insider or outsider, to what group you belong.  In fact, meals have been microcosms of the larger social order throughout much of history. According to the historian Ingrid Rowland, where you eat, what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat and who you eat with all suggest something about your identity, your community and certainly your social status. (Dan Clendenin’s summary here.)  Food has, thus, she says, often been the “all sufficient metaphor for power.” Who has power, and who doesn’t.  And what kind of power “builds or destroys human community” (Clendenin). So it’s probably no wonder that the Bible is constantly talking about food and eating and dining and drinking. 

And here we are again. It’s the Sabbath, and Jesus has been invited to eat at the house of the leader of the Pharisees.This already signifies that Jesus is seen as an equal by the Pharisees, because, in the ancient world, you generally eat with people of equal status.

Brief, but important, aside. Whenever Pharisees show up in a story from the New testament, I think of an article that Addie Liechty wrote several years ago for a Mennonite publication called “What is a Pharisees Anyway?” In it, she talk about how Jewish people can be hurt and offended by the way Christians portray Pharisees, which has often been as self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites. If you are not Jewish, you may wonder what the big deal is, since there are no Pharisees alive today who might be hurt by being portrayed this way. (From Stephen M. Wylen’s The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction.) In fact, rabbinic literature itself contains many of the same criticisms of the Pharisees as are found in the New Testament.  But modern-day Judaism sees its roots as beginning with the Pharisees. They are the Jewish sect that kept alive and reinvented Judaism after the cataclysmic fall of the Temple in 70 AD., a reinvention called rabbinic Judaism that is the basis for modern Judaism.  Unfortunately, two millennia of negative stereotypes of the Pharisees have also contributed to centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. So, let’s remember the Pharisees are an important and honorable sect within ancient Judaism, who were as faithful and flawed as any other group of humans.

Back to Jesus, who is eating with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are watching him closely. And the verb used here for “watching” is not neutral — it means “hostile observation.” They are hostilely observing him. They are waiting for him to trip up. Now, sitting at the table together is never a casual affair in the New Testament. Behavior at meals is important, and people are watching whether or not you conform to social norms — whether you wash  yourself properly before you eat, who eats what, when and where, what is done or omitted at the table, who is invited, where people sit, with whom one eats and in what order persons of different rank come to the table. (From John Pilch’s The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle C.)

In fact, this attention to what happens at the table is a common dynamic in the entire ancient world. Keep in mind the ancient world — and actually almost half of of the contemporary societies today — are honor and shame based societies. Amish are a great example of a shame and honor group in the U.S., today, as are many unassimilated immigrant groups. In an honor and shame based society, your identity comes from the group.  They are the opposite of  individualistic societies. Honor and shame societies have strong group norms and expectations to which you are expected to conform to maintain your honor, your reputation within the group. 

And the group is watching you to make sure you do conform.  As New Testament scholar Jerome Neyrey says, we can not “overestimate enough the importance of a ‘viewing public’ for understanding honor. Not only did males constantly appear in public and subject themselves to the evaluation of their peers, they took great pains to conform to the code of behavior expected by their group. They worried about what others thought them.” (From Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, page 22.)

So, here is Jesus, subjecting himself to the evaluation of his peers.  But he turns the table on them. He’s watching them. He sees how the guests are vying to get the best spot at the table because each seat at a table signified where you were in the pecking order. There were high status spots — usually near the host — and low status spots, further away, up in the nosebleed section. He likely saw people jockeying their way into position to get the high status seats.

So, seeing this, Jesus tells them a parable that echoes familiar teachings found in Proverbs and Sirach, both Jewish books of wisdom. He says: Don’t jockey for the best seat, because then you might get really dissed when the host tells you to get out of your seat because someone more important than you needs to sit there. Talk about a walk of shame as you move a few seats over, all eyes on you as you do so.  “Did you see what just happened. OMG, I can’t believe he thought he should sit there.” Can’t you just feel the tension in you body imagining this? Rather, Jesus says, take the seat with the least social status so that your host will honor you by upgrading you to a seat in the first-class section.

So far, oddly, Jesus doesn’t seem to be pushing back against a social system with a seating chart that so carefully delineates people by their social status. He seems to be assuming conventional wisdom, even tacitly affirming it by giving advice on how the guests might play the status game a bit better.  However, the next verse is interesting: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” According to Scripture scholar John Pilch, “when the passive voice is used in the Bible, it ordinarily means that God is the one who performs these actions. With this grammatical construction, Jesus reminds his honor-conscious friends that God determines authentic honorable status. The opinions of human beings is unreliable.” It’s God’s view of you, the way God sees you that gives you honor. Don’t worry so much about the rest.

And then Jesus goes on to truly push against conventional wisdom. He turns to the host and starts schooling him, which was considered quite rude at that time (and probably ours). He tells the host that he shouldn’t invite his social equals, his in group — friends, relatives, rich neighbors — because they will be able to return the favor. Instead, the host should invite those of lesser rank than him — the poor and those with various disabilities. These folks won’t be able to return the favor. Instead, God will look on this upending of the social power structure favorably and will “repay” the host.

So, a bit more context here, again from Pilch. “Accepting an invitation to dinner in the ancient Mediterranean world obligated a guest to return the favor. It was not uncommon for guess to decline the invitation, especially if they realized that returning the  favor was more than they could or cared to handle…. This practice of reciprocity was a key factor in the economic life of equals in Jesus’ day. I do you a favor; you do me a favor — endlessly. This basic rule of behavior guided every host in drawing up the guest list….The guests Jesus is suggesting his host invite are clearly of lower social status than the host. To associate (in that day with people of lower social status) is to dishonor one’s own status. One’s social equals will then shun future invitations, and a host of means will be socially ruined.” (Jane Austen novels.) 

This is truly undermining the system that upholds status difference at meals. And also let’s keep in mind that upsetting this order went beyond Jesus wanting lower status people to feel better about themselves. Because status markers in his time were linked to very different material realities. In his time as well as our own, if you were poor or not of high status, you might not have secure housing or enough to eat. Jesus isn’t concerned here about establishing an equity and inclusion office at the synagogue or diversity for the sake of diversity — he wants to overthrow unjust power structures that oppress people, that keep them from having the basics they need to live.

Jesus is asking these high-status men, the Pharisees, to basically lose face, to lose honor in the eyes of their neighbors, although he assures them that their honor in God’s eyes will more than make up for that. You will lose power in your world, but you will gain power in the kindom of God. And you will be helping to build this kindom, where there is no seating chart, no anxious jockeying for status, no wondering where or whether you belong, where all have full bellies, where all are welcome to take any seat they want because all are of equal worth and value simply by being born, by being created in the image of God. Can you feel the relaxation in your body as you imagine that world?

So, this all sounds well and good in the abstract. It’s in the particulars that it gets hard. Jesus was seeing things that were happening in his own community that fell short of this kindom ideal and naming them. What would he see if he were looking at us?  So, some questions to ponder, inspired by this story:

  • Who do I invite into dinner into my home and who do I not think to? 
  • Who do I seek out at fellowship time and who do I avoid or overlook? 
  • Who do I gravitate toward at a potluck or picnic and who do I not? 
  • What do we lose when we don’t engage with folks we may not normally talk to?
  • Are all seats equal at our table? 
  • Can everyone even get to our table or is there some accessibility issue that keeps them from it? 
  • Are there whole groups of people who might want to be here, who might benefit from being at this table, but who don’t feel the open-armed welcome they need to show up… or who don’t even know this table exists?  What is it that we lose when these folks aren’t at our table?

Some of you may recall that we were asking very similar questions a couple of years ago during a Back to the Basics series called “You’ve Got a Place at the Welcome Table?” And, in fact, this ideal of radical inclusivity is a lifelong work. We’re always going to need to ask those questions and we’re always going to need to be challenge ourselves as individuals and as a community to continue to live into the fullness of the joyous community to which Jesus calls us.