What would Emily Post say? If the President invites you to a party at the White House, where should you sit? If you arrive early, should you go and save that empty seat up front at his right hand? It sure would be great to sit as close as possible to the center of attention, but maybe it would be better to take a seat farther back in the crowd. Of course, proximity to greatness does suggest greatness!
Back in the Soviet era, when Leonid Brezhnev was still running things, Time Magazine would try to figure out who was next in line to succeed him. Since the Soviets weren't too keen on letting out the secret, the analysts at Time would watch where Politburo members stood on Kremlin wall overlooking Red Square during important events, like a May Day review of the troops. The assumption was that the closer you stood to Brezhnev, the closer you were to the top of the list. If you’d moved down a few spaces, well obviously you were on the way out of favor. You know that if Kremlinologists were paying such close attention to these details, there must have been a lot of jockeying for position on that wall.
Books, videos and audio tapes that carry titles such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People offer advice about climbing the corporate ladder and becoming all you can be. You’ll find something similar in the book of Proverbs, which also offers advice on successful living. The general theme is this: if you do this, you’ll succeed; if you do that you’ll fail. Generally speaking this is all good advice – consider for instance this word from Proverbs 25, in which the ancient Jewish advice columnist says: "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" (vs. 6-7). In other words, don't presume too much. If you want to be successful, then know your place, and show proper deference to your superiors.
The problem with Proverbs 25 is that it talks about deference, but not humility. Sometimes, advice like this can lead to manipulation. Consider that old Marabel Morgan book The Total Woman, which was a big seller back in the 1970s. Morgan told women to worship their husbands, greet them at the door in sexy outfits, and pretend to like sports. The flip side of this book was, if you give him what he wants, you’ll get what you want. If he thinks you’re submissive and attentive to his every need, then you can be in control. Believe me. Many women learned the lesson well, especially in the church. They may not have been up front or sit at the table at the board meeting, but their husbands didn't do anything without their permission.
1. KNOWING YOUR PLACE
Knowing how to behave in society has its place, and as you can see from Proverbs, Emily Post and Dale Carnegie didn’t invent the social advice genre. When it came to meals in the first century, they could often be important social events. That meant that you needed to know how to behave at them – something my mother tried to teach me at a young age.
Down through history, when important people have thrown big banquets and parties, they’ve invited the rich and famous to join them for their celebration. Anyone who is anyone will be on the guest list. If you’re not on the list, well I guess you simply aren’t all that important. On the day of the dinner, the host brings out the best china, the finest wines, and kills the fatted calf. After all, why bother with a dinner party, if you can’t impress your neighbors. But back to the guest list – an invitation isn’t enough. The seating chart is also a prime concern. Like the Kremlin wall, the seats closest to the host are always reserved for the most important guests. Which means, like a group of children playing a game of musical chairs, the guests will jockey for the best seats.
According to Luke, one day a wealthy pharisee invited Jesus to his house for lunch. When Jesus arrived, he noticed the other guests were jockeying for the best seats. Everyone was trying to find a seat at the head table, and therefore avoid sitting at the proverbial kid’s table. Jesus’ comment about this jockeying is reminiscent of Proverbs 25. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host." After all, you don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of being reseated at the back of the room, or worse, at the kid’s table. No, instead find a seat at the back, and then maybe the host, seeing your humility, will bring you up front.
Of course, Jesus isn’t in the business of offering advice on social graces. He isn’t interested in helping people climb the social or corporate ladder. Despite the many attempts to turn Jesus into a self-improvement teacher – remember ad man Bruce Barton’s 1920's classic: The Man Nobody Knows, which tried to portray Jesus as the greatest salesman in history – Jesus has something else in mind. Instead of offering a seminar on 10 Easy Steps to Social Success, Jesus tells a parable about finding one’s place at the table. It’s a word that calls for humility, because God isn’t all that concerned about our social status or whether the team wins the big game, despite what some athletes would have us believe.
2. KINGDOM REVERSALS
In the kingdom of God, which is always the focus of Jesus’ parables, the rules in life get reversed and turned upside down. What you think should be true in life, may not be as true as you’ve been led to believe. The rules of etiquette get turned on their head, because, as Jesus says: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is a difficult concept to get our heads around. That’s because we know that if we’re going to succeed in life we have to promote ourselves. To give you a personal example – I’m a writer and I want people to read my blog and my books, which is why I set up a Facebook fan page for my blog. After all, if I don’t promote my blog or my new book on the Lord’s Prayer, which is due out in October by the way, then who’s going to promote them?
Yes, in our world, self-promotion is the name of the game. Do you think that the Heisman Award voters don't pay attention to the hype surrounding certain players? Why else, would colleges paint big posters on the sides of buildings in New York City or make video presentations available for the voters that lay out all the wondrous things the player has done. Yes, if you’re going to succeed in life, you have to market yourself. Because, if you don’t "look out for number 1,” then nobody will!
Unfortunately, Jesus has a different take on things. Remember that parables speak of what God is doing in the world. In telling his parable, Jesus reminds us that God is the one who humbles and who exalts. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, it is God who reverses the expected order of human relationships. That means, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
3. NO RECIPROCITY
In making his observation about the way in which God reverses our social rules, Jesus also touches upon the issue of reciprocity. Proper etiquette requires you to return the favor if someone invites you to a party. For the most part, that’s good advice, and to say otherwise will get me in trouble at home. But, Jesus wants us to understand that things are different in God’s realm. That’s because God is doing the inviting and not us. And so, Jesus tells us to send out invitations to people who can’t reciprocate. Instead of inviting the rich and famous, invite the poor, the lame, the blind, and the deaf. When you open the doors, be inclusive rather than exclusive, starting at the Lord’s Table, a Table that Jesus has set and at which he is the host. He has invited everyone, no matter their gender, their social status, their ethnicity, or even their theology to join him at his table. Yes, he has even invited you and me, even though we’re not in a position to reciprocate in any meaningful way.
What begins at the Lord’s Table should influence the rest of our lives – from the coffee hour to SOS, and beyond. I mention SOS for a reason. This is a ministry that we share with Congregational Church of Birmingham, along with many other churches and religious organizations in Oakland County. When we participate in SOS, we’re serving people who by and large can’t reciprocate. At the end of the week, we feel pretty good about ourselves and our ministry, which is okay, but we must beware of that human tendency to consider ourselves better than the people we serve. We must beware also of the tendency to think that we’re earning brownie points with God and with our neighbor. We serve not to impress others, but because it’s the way of the kingdom. We give to the Week of Compassion and Disciple Mission Fund, not because by doing so earns us a spot on the Top 100 Giving Churches in the denomination, but because we’ve been blessed with financial blessings, which we’re able to share. And the same is true of our increasing involvement with Motown Mission. We’re not going into Detroit believing that we’re going to save “those people” from their plight. We’re simply following our missional calling.
As we hear Jesus’ observation and the parable that follows upon it, we would be well served to remember that in the kingdom of God, as theologian Patrick Henry writes, Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian's Companion, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1999), 150). In the kingdom, hospitality comes with humility and a concern for the welfare of the other, instead of concern about our own social standing. That is not to say, that there are no blessings to be obtained in following our missional calling – our ultimate blessing comes in the resurrection, when we’re able to stand at the right hand of God with our elder brother, Jesus the Risen One!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 29, 2010
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost