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. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 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. 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 honoured 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.’ –Luke 14:1-11
There are some passages that I seem to run across somewhat often and that I always seem to stop and think about. If I were being metaphoric about it, I’d say it was like mentally seeing Hermione Granger shoot up her hand and practically bounce until called on by a professor. This passage from Luke is definitely one of those.
It isn’t so much about the healing on the sabbath. Jesus has done that before. Here a man with severe edema (which is the modern term for dropsy) could have been in severe discomfort or even a very life-threatening condition. It was probably a lot more than just a case of swollen ankles that many of us get when we sit too long. In this particular case Jesus seems to be as concerned with putting one in the eye of the Pharisees as he is with healing someone in distress. It was an opportunity for a lesson, one I am not sure the Pharisees “got,” even though they didn’t really have an answer for him.
No, the part of this reading that gets me is the wedding banquet scene and the perils of choosing a place to sit. Granted, these days wedding banquets quite often have a seating chart and each place is marked with the name of a guest so there’s no chance of two people who are at severe odds with each other will be forced to sit next to each other and struggle to behave civilly. Still, nobody these days would usually sit at the bridal party’s table unless they were actually in the bridal party itself; all other guests are usually seated at one or another of a group of smaller tables scattered about the room and their table-mates are chosen based on relationships or some other compatibility rather than social ranking. A state dinner at Windsor Castle is a totally different matter. There’s one long table and a very strict seating protocol that has to be followed based on a formula based on rank and relation to the guest of honor. There is definitely no “first come, first served” there.
I remember vividly being in church one Sunday some years ago. Everyone sat in their usual spots, usually somewhere from the middle rows of pews and toward the back. When it came time for the sermon, the interim priest stood in the pulpit for a moment, then stepped down to the nave. He turned into the first pew on the gospel side and walked the length of the floor, apparently looking for something. He then went across to the same pew on the epistle side, doing exactly the same thing. Everybody was a bit puzzled as to what he could have lost that he needed to find at that particular moment but the puzzlement was soon dispelled when he moved to the center, looked at the congregation and announced, “I’ve checked the floor up here and it’s perfectly safe. Feel free to move forward and sit there.” Needless to say, there was some amused shuffling of bodies and from then on, a few made the front pews their home. Nothing like being invited to move forward — or toward a place closer to the action, even when we knew the floor was cement and as perfectly solid as the middle or the back.
There have been times in my life when “place” has definitely been a factor. Growing up in the South, I shudder to remember my adoptive father being told by the Board of Deacons that African-Americans appearing at the church door should be told that the church for “their people” was down the road about a mile. Now I’m glad to see a church with faces that represent not just one race but many. I remember being in the Philippines and, wishing to get into town to the market, I would get into a jeepney that was almost full of people and ready for the trip. It was embarrassing to me to have the driver say something to the people already seated and have them all step out of the jeepney and go to another one so that the driver could charge me two pesos, roughly ten times the amount a single passenger would be charged for the same trip. No matter how many times I remonstrated, there was no budging. I was a “rich American”; I had to have a jeepney to myself. I’m sorry now that I didn’t have the wit to say, “Ok, if that’s how you want it, here’s my two pesos, now everybody get back on the jeepney and let’s go!”
Place in the kingdom of God is sometimes tricky to try to figure out. The Bible gives us a hierarchy of heaven, but Jesus seemed to have a hierarchy on earth that was quite unconventional. What a shock it must have been to the disciples when those they had been taught were the high ranking were, in Jesus’ words, lower on the totem pole than children, women, the poor, the ill — in short, just about everybody. Today, there are still many places where this or that group ostracizes (or worse) those of another tribe, another clan, another gender or orientation, another race, another faith tradition, another just about anything that doesn’t exactly match that of the group doing the judging. It’s led to more horror, death and destruction that most of us will ever know, but because it is somewhere else (or even happening to someone else, even the guy next door), we can ignore it — to our peril. Looking at someone like Mother Teresa, it’s easy to place her at a high table based on her example to all of us, but, in fact, she would probably choose to sit somewhere a lot closer to the restaurant kitchen door. That’s what real humility looks like, the kind Jesus would have immediately invited to the head table.
So my challenge to myself is to look to my own place and to let God take care of everybody else’s. Maybe it’s too late to invite others into my jeepney, but I’m sure there’s something I could do to show that I don’t think too highly of myself or take myself too seriously. Maybe if I look more to God and less to how I think other people see me, I might just be better off in the long run. It’s worth a try to find out, I think.