A friend of mine shared a story the other day – she was riding the subway in Boston, where she lives, and a woman got up to offer her seat to an older gentleman. And then this woman proceeded to announce to the entire train that she had done so because he was older than she was, which was fairly obvious, and that she had offered her seat because the Bible tells us we’re supposed to give our seats to elders.
Now, I’m not sure what passage she was referencing in particular, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he told this parable today. Announcing our own good deeds feels a lot like clamoring for that imaginary seat labeled “most holy.”
Jesus’ audience would have been very familiar with this description of the most honorable places at the dinner table. Their society at this time was very tightly structured around the concepts of honor and shame, which became almost tangible things, given and lost like currency. Your relative honor in that context had a great deal of significance – it would influence who would do business with you, your prospects for marriage (and therefore your family’s status into the future) – basically your whole place in society.
So in that sense, the first part of this story is much more literal than most of the parables we get from Jesus. It could have disastrous consequences for a person to be publicly shamed by being asked to change seats. Some of his hearers may even have figured out this general principle, just like a lot of people today have figured out that being an arrogant jerk doesn’t get you very far. …Which doesn’t mean it’s not still a useful thing to hear.
But in the second half of the parable, he turns this very practical advice on its head. He has said, yes, your humility will get you some social rewards. Not always assuming that you are the most important person in the room will pay off, in very visible, tangible terms. But Jesus isn’t done. He’s saying, it’s easy to be humble if there’s something in if for you. But you will be blessed, he says, when you sit down with people and don’t have any expectation of a tangible reward. You are blessed then, because you will be repaid later.
And yet, even though the social reward of not-being-an-arrogant-jerk mostly “makes sense” in our cultural terms, and the kind of radical, inclusive hospitality that Jesus is talking about in so many ways does not make sense, this sort of upside-down, inverted-expectations kind of living that always shows up when we start talking about what God’s kingdom might actually look like, that really does start to make a true and essential sense, deeper than the quick rewards of social status and propriety.
We are blessed because we invite marginalized ones, even before we get to this bit about being paid back later. We are blessed by the company of those the rest of the world has declined to invite. When we throw our welcome to the four corners and open this table to anyone who would join us here, we are richer for it. Then and there. Because that is what God’s kingdom will look like, that motley group of people with nothing to gain from each other, and the freedom to see each other for who we really are – that is where we will see God’s presence flashing brightly in the corners of our vision.
It’s as if Jesus is offering a way out of this oppressive system of who is worth more than whom. We know what that kind of system can feel like, don’t we? Even though ours isn’t quite so structured as to dictate our places at the dinner table, we’re just as conscious most of the time of who we’d like to try and be friends with, and who we’d really rather not be associated with, socially speaking.
And Jesus says, what happens if you throw all that out the window? What if you just invited all the social misfits you can think of? All the people who don’t ever get invited to parties? What if you just decided that all that status stuff didn’t matter?
All this weird stuff Jesus asks/tells his followers to do! It’s not just because he wants to see if they’ll actually throw a banquet for all the poor folks in their community – or because he thinks it will make them better people, more holy people – but because when we start to shake things up, when we get out of the mindset of status and worth and honor and what-can-I-get-out-of-this – when we extend our hospitality and friendship expecting nothing in return, beautiful things happen.
We can catch sight of the kingdom of God with us then and there and know that we have both been blessed. Not because we “did the right thing” but because we made a new, unexpected friend and both felt God in that moment. Holiness is not a thing we have to wait for, some bright day in the abstract future. Blessedness is possible now, and it is here around this table and others where we gather, sharing bread just because and inviting those we don’t expect and letting go of the pretenses of trying to impress the right people and make the right connections and get yourself invited to the right dinner party. Because those just keep us from really being together.
Jesus uses the language of “being paid back” when someone then invites you in return – and really, what are we looking for in a return dinner invitation, anyway? Aren’t we really saying we just want someone else to acknowledge that we matter? That we’re worth something to them? And so the kind of “payback” that Jesus reminds us that God offers is not quite “repayment” in those terms – or even something we’ve earned at all – but it is God inviting us to a great banquet. God is saying to us, to each of us, for no reason that we had any control over, that we matter.
That we have a seat at God’s table, and no one more special is coming along to bump us out of our seats at this table. God’s love and welcome is poured out for us, for no reason that makes any sense by our earthly logic. And that’s grace. No amount of clamoring for status will earn us that grace or that place at God’s table.
And so we are free to offer seats to others. If we truly have no control over our seat at God’s table, but know that it is ours and nothing can change that, then what are we worried about? Why should it matter if those we invite to join us are higher status or lower status or forgotten by our systems altogether?
* * *
Last week, the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia, was very nearly the latest in the string of tragic school shootings across the country. A young man came in to the elementary school with an assault rifle and “nothing to live for,” and took hostage a woman named Antoinette Tuff. Over the next 20 minutes, she talked to him, gently and kindly, about his struggles and hopelessness, and her own story of divorce and a suicide attempt, saying, “We all go through something in life. You’re gonna be okay, sweetheart.” She talked him through putting down his weapons, and surrendering safely to the police. No one was injured.
She says she was terrified, of course, but was strengthened by her faith in God. She’s spoken since then about “anchoring herself in the Lord,” how she was praying inside the whole time, and gives all the credit to God. No matter where she gives the credit, it takes incredible strength to reach out in love to someone so different from you, in this case someone literally pointing a gun at you. But that strength does come partly from the confidence of being rooted in something greater than yourself.
And when we can really let ourselves trust the grace of God, anything is possible. If we let ourselves believe that we really do have a place at this table, that we really are loved even when we have done nothing to deserve it, then our day-to-day fears and insecurities just don’t matter so much. If we can truly trust that we do have a place we belong, then we have no reason to be afraid of who’s invited to sit down beside us.
It takes a lot of strength to be humble like that. This is not the humility of denying your own needs, of submitting to oppressive powers or abusive spouses because that’s what you’ve been told is the “right thing” to do; no, this is a kind of self-assured security in our own worth as children of God that is not threatened by other people also being children of God.
We are so nervous sometimes about where we stand. Do I belong here? Does this person like me? Will I get invited to their party? Why hasn’t she called me? And so much of our scrambling and pettiness and downright meanness comes back to nothing more than insecurity. We take refuge in our patterns of status and worth because they help us understand who we are.
But at this table, God’s table, none of that matters. We have been called here by name, and nothing can change that. And what a gift! What kind of freedom that gives us! This is who I am, and this is where I belong.
So let’s not stop there. Because we don’t have to worry about our own seats at the table, we are free to invite anyone and everyone to sit down beside us, and meet them for who they are rather than what they can offer us. It’s a big job, and sometimes a crazy-sounding job, but we’ve been given the strength to do it.
With the grace of God upon us, let’s go out and throw the welcome wide.