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Places at the Table

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Jennifer Browne

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Dinner parties are, apparently, the subject of this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus speaks to his host and the other guests first about how to be a guest and second about how to be a host. That wouldn’t appear to be a polite topic of conversation at a dinner party, but we can guess that Jesus isn’t really interested in questions of etiquette.

When you are invited to a dinner party, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

The subject is dinner parties, but Jesus isn’t talking about when to send the invitations, or where to put the place cards or how to use the silverware. He’s talking about honor – about seeking to honor others more than ourselves.

“Honor” isn’t a word that we use very often these days. We might see the word on billboards advertising the U.S. Marines, or think of it as a quaint value that belongs to the world of elitist prep schools. But in ancient Roman culture, “honor” meant a great deal and not just in an abstract way. Honor was held collectively by families, and if your family was seen as without honor, people wouldn’t do business with you. If your family didn’t have honor, your children would not be eligible for a decent marriage; if your children didn’t marry well they would not be able to support you when you were old or care for you when you were sick.

In that time and place, honor was the same as status, and status was everything. When you went to a dinner party you did know where you were going to sit...and you knew where everyone else was going to sit. Higher-status people demonstrated honor when they treated those below them according to their lower status. Lower status people recognized who their betters were and demonstrated their honor by showing that they knew their station in life. In other words, honor was about knowing your place and everyone else's and making sure that you behaved according to that hierarchy.

Rev. Sara Dylan Breuer says she helps people to understand this ancient honor system by teaching them how to play a game. The game goes like this: There are cards on which one of four possible labels is written, either "Monarch," "Noble,"

"Servant," or "Beggar." Each person gets one card taped to her or his back. All the players are instructed to circulate as if they were at a party, looking at the cards on the backs of the other players, but not revealing what the cards say. By the way others behave, each player tries to figure out what the card on their back says. And according to what you think your card says, you are to treat others as you think a person of your status would do.

Breuer says that it doesn’t take most people very long to guess what’s on their card. She says that the game almost always ends within five minutes, with four groups of people standing closely together, each with the same label on their backs, mostly or entirely ignoring the other three groups. The “Beggars” discover their status most quickly, since they are treated from the very beginning as either an unwelcome intrusion or, at worst, less than human. The only cross-interaction between groups occurs with the “Monarchs” and “Nobles” trying to get the “Servants” to bring them food or trying to throw the “Beggars” out of the game completely.

Before we begin congratulating ourselves on how different our 21st century American society is than the society reflected in this game, and what a relief it is that we don’t have “monarchs” or “nobles” or “servants” or “beggars” (or maybe we do - ouch), let’s consider how easily we still divide ourselves, and how much our sense of status (and honor) has to do with associating with people who are like us. 

Politically, we’re getting used to thinking of our nation as divided into blue states and red states, with a few spots of purple showing up on the map. Racially, our workplaces are more integrated than they were several decades ago, but our living spaces don’t reflect that change. And it’s not just in terms of race or ethnicity that we live divided, we self-segregate in other ways. My guess is that most of us – probably a sizable majority of us – live next door to people whose income levels and educational level are very similar to our own.

There are plenty of sociological and demographic studies that tell us this kind of thing, but we don’t really need studies. Just think for a minute about the experience that almost all of us share in what may be the most socially-segregated setting of contemporary American culture: the high school cafeteria.

I went to high school a long time ago, but my experience might sound familiar even to those of you who are closer to the actual experience. There were more than four groups represented in the way we divided ourselves at lunchtime, but four of the most easily identifiable groups were: the Athletes, the Nerds, the Band Geeks, and the Burn-Outs.

When Jesus told the Pharisee who had invited him to dinner that he should have invited the poor, he was suggesting that the football quarterback invite the girl who just got suspended for drug use to the Homecoming Dance. When Jesus told all of the guests at that dinner that they should take the lower seats, he was instructing the Student Body President to leave her spot on the podium and sit next to most socially-awkward freshman in the back corner of the bleachers.

This is not how human beings naturally behave. Jesus is upsetting the balance; he is seriously messing up the game. He’s ruining the dinner for everyone.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus does this around a dinner table, though, especially since this story comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. Scholar N.T. Wright says that “Luke’s gospel has more meal-time scenes than all the others. If Luke’s vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, from another point of view it's a party." It doesn't matter whether the eating happens in Emmaus, an upper room in Jerusalem, or the fields along the road plucking the heads of grain, in the home of a despised tax collector, or even those of respectable religious leaders who invite Jesus to join them, such as here, when an unnamed leader of the Pharisees invites Jesus over for the Sabbath dinner.

Especially in Luke, we see Jesus sharing a meal in order to draws our hearts and minds toward that image of the great feast that we will all share -- no matter who we are. Jesus breaks bread with all kinds of people in all kinds of places, upsetting what we think of as the order of things – pointing us to the table – both here and yet to come -- that welcomes all of God's children, and invites monarch and beggar alike to be fed by the grace of God.

Is it any wonder, then, that people are deeply moved, lives are changed, and we catch a glimpse of the reign of God... at this table?

This Gospel lesson isn’t an article from Midwest Living; it’s not a column from Miss Manners about dinner etiquette. This text offers us a profound lesson about humility and hospitality.

After the worship service today, we’re going to move outside to the Memorial Garden to share in a potluck picnic. I hope you will join us, whether or not you brought food to share or a plate to eat on. I especially hope you’ll join us if you’re new to East Lansing or this church and are feeling a little out of place. And if you are an old-timer at University Church, if you know a lot of names and recognize even more faces, I hope that instead of thinking of this as a time to catch up with old friends, you’ll find someone you don’t know, and get to know them.

Next Sunday we kick-off the new program year with Sunday School and the Chancel Choir and lots of people back in the pews after their summer breaks.

God-willing we’ll also have lots of new people who aren’t sure about when to stand or what to say or the difference between our two hymnals. I hope there are folks who dress differently, and act differently and stretch our picture of ourselves.

If you’re an old-timer at University Church, if you know a lot of names and recognize even more faces, if you can anticipate the words to the second stanza of the hymns and have a favorite pew that you see is occupied by someone new ... I hope that instead of fretting about where you’re going to sit, you will focus on whom you’re going to welcome.

Rev. Sam Matthews of the First UMC of Marietta, GA, tells this story about the Wednesday night suppers at his church:

There was a woman in our church who was just experiencing the onset of dementia. At Wednesday night suppers, Evelyn loved to go from table to table and in her words, "offer a toast." She would raise her iced tea glass and say, "Here's to those who wish us well. And those who don't can Savannah!" And she would laugh uproariously every time as if it was the first time she had heard the toast and then she would move on to the next table. In short order she would visit every table in the auditorium and then start over, often stopping a second or third time to offer the same toast.

I found myself directing her away from the tables where our visitors and prospective members sat. I didn't want them to be embarrassed by Evelyn's behavior, and I did that for several months. Then one evening it hit me. "What in the world are you doing? Are you trying to pretend to these new members that we don't have a little craziness here? There probably isn't a family in the world without an eccentric aunt or uncle. But you're pretending that our church family is not like that. You're pretending that we're perfect." And so I stopped and let our newcomers get a better look at their new church family. And I don't remember anyone ever leaving.

Jesus, whom our faith holds as the human being most worthy of honor, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Son of God, treated the most marginalized people he met as if they were monarchs. If he saw a card on their backs, it didn’t say “Beggar” or “Servant” or even “Noble” or “Monarch.” The cards he saw had different titles: “Child of God,” “Beloved,” “God’s Image,” “Light of the World.”

Jesus has invited you to dinner. Won’t you take your place? Right next to him and... well, God knows who else.


Sam Matthews, A Tough Call on Humility, Luke 14:1,7-14, Pentecost 15 - Year C. Day One radio program. September 01, 2013. a_tough_call_on_humility

Sara Dylan Breuer, Dylan's Lectionary Blog, Proper 17, Year C. Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 , Luke 14:1, 7-14. 17-year-.html

Kate Huey, Open Table. Weekly Seeds, United Church of Christ, 2013.

Matthew S. Brown. Seating Arrangements. August 29, 2010.

Karoline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, Matt Skinner (commentators). Sermon Brainwave #310 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Audio podcast]. Posted August 25, 2013.