Sunday, August 28, 2022

Places at Table

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth [Act 3, Scene 4], when Macbeth welcomes the various Scottish lords to dinner, he automatically assumes that they all know who ranks where. He simply says: You know your own degrees; sit down. That’s the way it is in aristocratic societies. Everyone knows his or her proper place in the social order. That’s the way it is in all functioning societies. Revolutions overturn the established order, and in the process they sometimes produce a period of egalitarian chaos. But, sooner or later, life calms down and order is restored – a new and different order, perhaps better, perhaps worse, in which different people from a different class are on top, but a recognizably stratified system of social ranking nonetheless.

In today’s Gospel Jesus went to dine at a Pharisee’s home, and the people there were observing him carefully [Luke 14:1]. What do we suppose they were watching for? Were they like modern journalists, on the lookout for some word or gesture in which to trap him? What actually happened, however, was that they were so busy observing Jesus, they didn’t notice that he was watching them, and the social stratification among them as they were seating themselves at the table. They must have been quite taken aback by Jesus’ response, which echoed the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of the great; for its better that you be told, “Come up closer,” than that you be humbled before the prince[Proverbs 25:6-7]

About 30 years ago, the mayor of a major American city was visiting Jerusalem, and the local mayor held a lunch in his honor, to which a certain American priest was invited. As he told me the story, he wandered in and just sat down where he saw some empty seats. No one paid any attention, until suddenly someone came up to him and said: “Father, here you are. You’re supposed to be at the head table!” As he followed her up to the head table, he noticed how some of the same people who had ignored him a few minutes before were now suddenly very interested in knowing who he was!

Of course, someone might do as Jesus recommends in a manipulative manner, posing as humble, hoping to receive a contrary compliment from others. Or, lacking what we nowadays call “self-esteem,” some might minimize their accomplishments and hope to be contradicted and so get the praise they think they deserve (but are afraid to claim for themselves). Of course, this can prove problematic, if your low self-esteem turns out to be accurate - if, when you take the lowest place, no one says, “move up.” Most of us, I suspect, might be reluctant to risk confirming that we do really belong down in the lowest place. So frightening is that prospect for most people, that, rather than risk it, we willingly spend much of our lives playing the dangerous game of constantly competing with one another for the next higher position, whatever form that might take.

The kingdom of God, however, as Jesus never seems to tire of trying to teach us, is about the complete reversal of all our ordinary priorities and values. It is not about claiming power, autonomy, self-esteem – any of those things that we value in our secular, consumerist, acquisitive, capitalist culture. Jesus’ somewhat strange lesson in table manners served as a lesson to us to rethink those priorities and values and adopt different definition of what is really important and what we should actually care about in life.

In the gospels, when Jesus is a guest at someone’s home, Jesus the guest typically tends to take over and act as host. This incident is no exception. Jesus, having instructed his audience on how to be a good guest, goes on to give advice on how to be a good host – advice which highlights what kind of host God himself is, which highlights God’s behavior toward us, inviting imitation in response.

The gospel began by telling us that the people were observing Jesus carefully. In some ways, the tragedy of so much of our history has been how much and how often we as Jesus’ disciples have failed to observe him carefully - and having observed him to imitate him.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, August 28, 2022.



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