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Sermons

”The Best Seats in the House”

August 28, 2022 Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost The text is Luke 14:1 7-14.

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1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.             8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In a moment we shall delve a bit into the nuances of the importance of banquet seating during Jesus’ time and the impact that the Greco-Roman concept of an honor/shame society had upon all aspects of the lives of our ancient forebears.  And, we will take a deep dive into the way in which Jesus, once again turns the accepted cultural tradition upside-down.

But I thought that first we ought to take a look at the one word that defines Jesus’ message in Luke this morning, as he proclaims that those who exalt themselves will be “humbled”.  I suggest that Jesus’ parable of the seating chart at a wedding banquet is meant to serve as a lesson on “humility”.  The origin of this word in English comes from the Latin.  There are two words that share this Latin root; “humilis”, which translates as “lowly”; and “humus”, meaning “ground”.  In fact, this same word, humus has been incorporated into English usage.  It is spelled with only one “m”, and it isn’t the chickpea spread that is served on pita bread; that hummus has two “m’s”.  No, the single “m” humus refers to the decaying organic matter that is found on the forest floor.  It’s what compost turns into when it is fully decomposed.  It’s made up of the dead leaves and other materials that were once the pride of nature.  So, you are invited to keep this in mind, as we examine Jesus’ admonition that we should strive for humility.  He is instructing us to think of ourselves as the lowest of the low.  But don’t dwell on it too much; Jesus also tells us that we, the lowly ones will be exalted, and that in the eyes of God, we are the highest of the high.

But back to the seating arrangement and the shame and honor system that this was the perfect example of.  In first-century Israel the host of a dinner was at the center of the group, surrounded by an ever-widening ring of places for the guests to sit.  The greater one’s importance, social standing, economic class, or status in the community, the closer that person would be seated to the host.  And as social and economic status declined, the further people would find themselves being seated from the one giving the banquet, at the center of it all.  In addition to the seating arrangements, it was common that the higher ranked quests would be served the finest wines and the more luxurious meal.  The ones in the “cheap seats” would likely be drinking the lowest quality wine in the house and the meal would be likewise be rather lacking. 

Then there was the whole concept of shame and honor that permeated every aspect of life in ancient times.  Being bestowed honor in public would likely result that one would find themselves seated closer to the host at the next dinner party, while a public shaming might have dire consequences.

In this culture which viewed shame with such fear and avoidance, a public humiliation might result in being shunned in society, being excluded from business opportunities, and possibly being viewed as unworthy for marriage.  Thus, the importance of not assuming a place of honor in first-class, only to be told to move back to coach if someone more important shows up after you’ve taken one of the “good seats”.  The shame would be unbearable.  It would have been so much better to settle into a seat further away from the host and be invited to move closer, to a place of higher rank.  This is the ultimate prize, to have it announced publicly that you are more deserving of honor than you think yourself to be.  But let’s not get too carried away just yet; don’t forget about the whole “humility” thing.  It’s not being humble if you select the less honorable place at the banquet only if you’re secretly hoping the host will elevate you to a higher one.

But if we view ourselves as being truly humble, Jesus tells us we will be afforded honor in the coming kingdom of God.  But Jesus never limits his teaching to the way things will be in the coming kingdom; he also intends to turn the traditional views of this world upside-down.  After admonishing the guests to not think quite so highly of themselves, he next turns his attention to the host of this lavish banquet.  Here comes the really counter-cultural part of these verses.  “Don’t invite those who you feel are equal to you to your fancy parties, think of yourself in a more humble manner and ask those who are not privileged to come and dine with you”.  How do we think that went over, considering the emphasis that was placed on the importance of garnering honor and avoiding shame that so permeated life in that society? 

Whether or not this host, or any others for that matter did, in fact adopt this reversal of societal standards, Luke doesn’t tell us.  Perhaps it wouldn’t have been possible, or even thinkable for these socially conscious people to invite the lowly ones to a fancy dinner; I would venture to say that this would have been too much of an overthrowing of the cultural norm.

But what Jesus was conveying to the people he was dining with that evening, is that this way of behaving toward others, while it’s not how people act in this world, it is exactly the way in which God treats everyone in God’s kingdom.  And that it is God’s will that we emulate this behavior, socially acceptable or not.  Paul reiterates this theme is his letter to the Hebrews this morning.  We are reminded to never neglect to do good, to show hospitality to others, for these things are pleasing to God.  When the kingdom of heaven is established, everyone will be on the guest list, for God doesn’t exclude those who are deemed unworthy by human standards. 

So, let us try to do the same.  It’s much easier to elevate those who would not otherwise be invited to partake of the blessings we’ve been given if we remind ourselves that, just like them we are all “humus”, humble, forest-floor compost.  And in the eyes of God we are all equally worthy to sit in the best seats at the Lord’s banquet table. 

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, teach us humility so that we may not think ourselves to be more worthy than we are.  And also remind us that we are made truly worthy to come before you as your redeemed children, made worthy through the saving work of your son.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who invites us all to the “best seats in the house” at his Holy Table.  Amen.

God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.

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