A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 7:1, 7-14 for Proper 17C
The race to the top has become ever more frantic in our society. It’s like we’ve come to believe that we have no worth unless we’re being talked about, written about, photographed or imitated by others. Whether through reality TV, social media, or some other way of making a public mark on the world, we easily get caught up in the quest to be seen as special, different, “better” or “more”. The prophetic image of the “caterpillar pillar” from Trina Paulus’ book Hope for the Flowers has become the tragic reality in which we live.
Which is why Jesus’ parable in Luke 14 is so desperately needed. The message is simple, but dramatic – don’t seek the seat of greatest honour at the table to show off your importance. Rather, go straight to the foot of the table – the seat of least importance and prestige – and comfortably take your place there. Spoken just like this, with no further investigation into context or background, these words speak a powerful, healing message. But, if we dig a little deeper, the message becomes even more dramatic in its subversion of the values of our world.
The scene in which Jesus speaks this parable (as Luke calls it) is the home of a Pharisee in which (for the fourth time in Luke’s Gospel), Jesus has healed someone on the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is an important theme in Luke’s Gospel, largely, I believe, because it is the foundation for Jesus’ Jubilee understanding of God’s Reign, as proclaimed in the synagogue in Luke 4:14-21. In this understanding the Sabbath was to so much a day of rest, as it was a day to bring rest to others through acts of justice, compassion, service and love. It is in this spirit that Jesus constantly, provocatively, heals on the sabbath and challenges the religious leaders in the process.
Following this act of liberation, Jesus notices how the religious leaders all seek the places of honour at the table. On a day when Jubilee was to be remembered and celebrated, when the least and the most vulnerable to be healed, uplifted, restored and included, this self-aggrandising behaviour is revealed as the source of the injustice that creates oppression and injustice in the first place. It’s exactly the kind of behaviour that prophets like Amos and Isaiah confronted and condemned in the Old Testament. And it is a startling and tragic contrast to the humble, serving actions of Jesus. Which is why immediately after the parable, Jesus follows up with instructions to the host to invite, in future, those who would be unable to reciprocate – which is to embody the spirit of Jubilee justice. Then, to drive the point home even further, Jesus tells another parable – this time of a wedding feast in which the invited guests all make excuses not to come, and the host sends out invitations to the outcasts, the marginalised and the neglected.
The simple truth that Jesus seeks to impress on us in these scenes is that the race to the top always results in winners and losers – and there are always more losers than winners. The result is an inevitable skewing of society in favour of the few who manage to play the game well, bringing them fame, fortune, power and comfort, while leaving the vast majority of the world impoverished, powerless, and forgotten. But, when we deliberately chose to opt our of the race, and take our place at the bottom, not only do we find liberation from the tyranny of the race to the top, but we also bring life and belonging to others. We become channels of grace, love, welcome and sustenance for those around us, even as they become channels of these gifts to us.
For the writer of Luke’s Gospel this message was more than an academic idea. Writing to a church in which Jews and Gentiles were trying to learn to live together, it was important that the Jewish believers learned to release their sense of entitlement as the “Chosen People” and embraced the equality and belovedness of all – including their Gentile brothers and sisters. Only if they did this could the values and mission of Jesus be proclaimed and demonstrated to a world that was being oppressed by Empire and its values.
The race to the top is seductive. We all wrestle with it in subtle and destructive ways: In the drive to control our families and friends and be the one who is seen as the “best” friend/carer/supporter of all; In the quest to accumulate more than we need in the belief that this will provide us with security and/or prestige; In the desire to be seen as special, unique or above average so that we can feel good about ourselves since we are “better” than others; In the numbers game we play in terms of church attendance, or the glamour game of our sanctuaries; In the power we seek to exert through political agendas or connections that can manipulate our democracies in favour of our agendas. The list is endless, since we are particularly good, as human beings, at finding ways to compare ourselves with each other, and turn these comparisons into a competition.
Yet, when we allow ourselves to be seduced by the race to the top, we inevitably lose, not only our souls, but our relationships, our integrity, our sense of well-being, our health, our purpose, and, worst of all, our ability to contribute to making this world a reflection of God’s Reign.
So, what if we chose to opt out of the race? What if we made it a habit to choose the lowliest and least desirable seats at the table, opening up the more honourable places for those who “do not deserve” them (whatever that means)? What if we learned to find joy and comfort and connection and healing through the embrace of our ordinariness, our average-ness, our sameness with those around us?
Perhaps the only way we’ll know the answer to these “what ifs” is if we actually try. So, how about it?