Grace Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2022, Pentecost 12C
One of the great points of intrigue in such period-based (and frequently British) TV shows such as Downton Abbey, or even reaching way back to Upstairs, Downstairs, is the intrigue that surrounds the dinner table. Everyone has their place to sit, and violation of such order is the worst possible offense. Serving takes place in a very precise and ordered way, and again, no violation of such order is to be tolerated. Silverware is placed exactly so; each course of the meal is presented with precise and inflexible timing; everyone is dressed impeccably. Even the servants’ quarters down below, while significantly more relaxed than in the main dining room, sees its meals happen in a quite regular and orderly fashion.
“Table games,” it seems, have been a part of meals for almost as long as there have been meals, particularly among the more powerful and well-off of most every society. The arrangement of guests at the table, the serving of the different courses or parts of the meal, the very fact of who is invited and who is not all become part of a larger project of keeping or imposing a fixed and immutable order upon not only those gathered at any particular table, but upon the society as a whole. You found out where you “belonged” in society by where you were seated at the table – that is, if you were seated at all, which was an even more explicit statement about your place in that society.
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus has been invited into a great meal at the home of a member of the Pharisees. We are conditioned automatically to equate “Pharisee” with “enemy of Jesus,” but that was not always the case; some were at least intrigued by his teaching and were sincerely interested in hearing more, and at least some, only a few verses ago in 13:31, were concerned enough to warn Jesus that he should get out of town as Herod had designs on killing him. Whether this invitation was reflective of such concern or was perhaps more of a means of keeping an eye on Jesus, we can’t say for certain, though we are informed in 14:1 that they “were watching him closely.”
The verses we skipped over in chapter 14 tell of yet another healing on the Sabbath, in this case of a man with a withered hand. It plays out very much like the event from last week’s reading, except this time none of the religious leaders present even dared say anything at all. It is from this event that Jesus proceeds to talk about how the “table games” of this event were playing out. The guests at the meal may have been “watching him closely,” but it turns out Jesus was watching them closely too.
What he saw was, in short, a lot of guests trying to make a place for themselves among the seats of greatest honor at the table, namely those seats closest to the host. One could almost argue that Jesus’s observations about these seating maneuvers were almost not spiritual at all, or only barely so; on the surface, it sounds like savvy business advice for the one trying to climb the corporate or social ladder. Don’t try to weasel your way up the table; that’s just a good way to get humiliated. Let the host seek you out and elevate you.
You could almost see that advice being handed out on some kind of reality TV show about corporate boardroom maneuvering. That counsel, though, did have clear roots in much of Hebrew scripture, particularly in the book of Proverbs 25:6-7, which instructs the young learner:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
In other words, there were very likely many of those at this meal who would have quickly recognized exactly what Jesus was talking about and probably could cite the source of his statement. You could imagine a few of the wiser guests nodding knowingly or perhaps even chuckling at his remarks so far, maybe even Jesus himself. Even within their own religious tradition, their values had become rather skewed or even twisted all out of shape.
It’s what comes next, though, that blows up the whole event. When Jesus turns to the host of the meal, what he says there is at least as vigorous a metaphorical “flipping tables” as Jesus would do literally in the Temple marketplace during the last week he spent in Jerusalem.
Another corner of the “table games” mentality, again like in many societies across history, had more to do with who got invited to a meal, and what that inviter might in turn expect from his invitees (and in this society, the one doing the inviting was always ‘he’). The expectation was simple; I invite you to a meal at my house, and in return you invite me to a meal at your house. Honor was thus repaid. To fail to reciprocate such an invitation was a grotesque social faux pas and not easily forgiven or forgotten.
It is into this extremely rigid and inviolable social order that Jesus tosses something like a verbal hand grenade. Don’t invite the ones who will invite you back. All you get out of that is one dinner. Invite the people who will not be able to return the invitation to you; the poor, the ones who are hindered in some way. That’s when your great and ultimate reward comes in.
The ones who were nodding along or chuckling along after Jesus’s first observations were probably now feeling their chins hit the floor in shock. One of them did try to change the topic, sort of, in verse 15 (after our day’s reading), with something of a generic blessing, only for Jesus to come up a parable that illustrates a man doing exactly what Jesus has just instructed, although in this case it was because the invited guests begged off and made excuses not to come. Given the chance to back off or at least change the subject, Jesus doubled down on his teaching.
You get the feeling that if Jesus were to show up in Gainesville looking for a good crowd with which to have dinner, he’d most likely go to St. Francis House [NOTE: a local homeless shelter].
Are we in it for social reward? Are we in it for honor? Are we in it to boost our reputation, to climb the ladder of success? Or are we in it to serve the ones called “the least of these” in Matthew 25? Are we in it to serve those Jesus calls us to invite and serve? Are we about “table games,” or about Christ’s table?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #345, In an Age of Twisted Values