Many eastern cultures, we are told, maintain rather clear and strict customs about seating placements, to this very day. Where you sit in a room or at a table says a lot, in these cultures, about who you are.
We subscribe to more democratic seating principles in this country, occasionally taking the trouble to alternate boy, girl, boy, girl. Only at wedding receptions and White House functions do Americans concern themselves with more involved seating arrangements, and even then our seating charts often tell us more about who gets along with whom than who is who.
Jesus lived in a society a bit more attentive to who is who. So when he tells a story about the seating at a marriage feast, the punch line is not going to be about who got stuck sitting next to Aunt Martha. When Jesus tells a story about the seating at a marriage feast, he is going to tell us something about who is who.
“Do not sit down in a place of honor, lest a more eminent man than you be invited.” This will cause what the Australians call a kerfuffle, as the host has to come and tell you to get out of your seat and give it to the one who deserves it. “But when you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’”
Friend, go up higher. I have always thought this is one of the loveliest phrases in Scripture in its graceful simplicity. I sometimes imagine that Jesus wants to teach us to say it to one another, when really he is trying to teach us where to sit so that we might be the ones being addressed by this invitation: Friend, go up higher.
Jesus’ teaching here is simple, but hard for us to hear, since we are so accustomed to simply sitting wherever we choose. Jesus is teaching about humility, which we tend to mistake for low self-esteem. And Episcopalians are not geared for low-self esteem. In our confusion about the two, it can sometimes seem that we are not geared for humility either.
It’s interesting to note that while Jesus lived during a time when there were ritualized ways of demonstrating humility (the sprinkling of ashes on one’s forehead, for instance) we find no record of his practice of these rituals. In fact, we have much evidence that he regarded such ritual humility with suspicion. He preferred the real thing. Jesus’ humility was lived out day by day, in the company he kept, the style of his dress, I suppose, and in his manners. So it is no surprise that he should teach his disciples to show their humility not in some ritualized way, but in their manners, even in which seat they should choose at a banquet.
Sometimes it’s reassuring to discover that there is Good News to be found in something as simple as good manners. But of course Jesus’ idea of good manners is different from our own. Jesus is not advocating mere self-deprecation, and he is not providing an unorthodox strategy to get the best seat in the end. He is suggesting that we take the lowest seat, because the lowest seat is also closest to the door, closest to those who have not been invited at all.
And so he says to the man who invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or your rich neighbors…. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. What kind of manners are these? Talking to his host this way? And are we to extrapolate a practice for ourselves here too? Does he mean for us to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind to our parties, even to church?
Yes, I believe Jesus does mean this, though most of us, myself included, are a long way from being ready to learn it, let alone live this lesson in radical hospitality.
The lesson is, however, part and parcel of the suggestion that we should take the lowest seat, the one nearest the door, closest to those who have not been invited. Because we know, of course, that that is exactly where Jesus would wind up: rejected, driven out of town to his execution, abandoned by those who said they’d follow him. And from his dismal point of view on the Cross, you can be sure Jesus knows who is who.
“Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” He could have been talking about himself, who would know utter humility and who would be raised to undreamt of exaltation. But could he be talking about you or about me? Do we have the kind of humility in us that Jesus asks of us? The secret is, of course, that it requires a healthy self-esteem to take the lowest seat.
And it takes a healthy self-esteem to choose to live with real humility, rather than just ritualize it. It takes someone who knows themselves, who knows who’s who, to sit near enough the door that you can hear the groaning of the poor, the off-beat gait of the maimed, the lame, the tapping of the blind. This is where Jesus wants us. Because he knows how easy it is for us, in our splendid lives, to forget all about them, to mistake them for somebody else, to forget that we are all children of the same Father. And Jesus wants us to know who’s who. He wants us near the door so that we can do something about those left waiting outside.
In one of the gospels we hear Jesus’ followers worrying about just how much humility they can bear. Peter speaks on their behalf, saying, “Lord, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” What shall we have? Isn’t this a familiar question?
Jesus tells Peter that he and the others will sit on thrones to judge the tribes of Israel, which, frankly, was not what Peter had in mind, I think. And he ends by repeating one of his favorite sound bites: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Which is a lot like saying that he who exalts himself shall be humbled and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.
So let’s just say we try taking the lower seat. Let’s say we are open to this life of humility. What then shall we have? We’ll have two things. First, we’ll have the healthy self-esteem that come of knowing not only who is who but who we are. And this is a good thing. And second, we will be in the right place, at the right time to hear that lovely invitation: Friend, go up higher. And that will be a good place to be.
And perhaps, if we have been sitting near enough the door to chat (when it’s open) with the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, perhaps when the invitation comes to us, Friend, go up higher, perhaps we might be bold enough to bring our new friends with us, who never dreamt of being given such an excellent seat.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
2 September 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia