When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable…. Luke 14:7
The first time you walk into a cafeteria whether in elementary, middle or high school, in college, at work or even here in church, it can make you a tad anxious, especially when you scan the room and don’t recognize anyone. Where to sit? Will you fit in? Who might welcome you with a smile? Who might say, “Sorry, I’m saving that seat?” Or pick up their tray and move to another table? Will you be invited into a conversation or excluded and ostracize, perhaps even teased and bullied? Will you be ignored or welcome?
This is because where we sit matters, who we associate affects who we are, who we will become and whether we’ll be accepted. If you don’t think that is true on a Friday night go to the Phoenixville High Football Game, sit in the visiting team’s stands and shout out some cheers for the Purple and White. While you might be ignored, you probably will not be welcomed and perhaps even told where you can go – to the other side of the field.
Where one sat in Jesus’ day was perhaps even more important than in our time. There were strict social protocols for banquets especially for weddings. Your place was determined by status, politics, religion and hierarchy. Dining rooms were typically arranged with tables set in a “U” shape – one in the middle, two on either side with the most prestigious place in the middle – where one was the center of attention and could easily engage in conversation with anyone. The tables were set low to the ground and the guests reclined on pillows each in their place. Only there were no seating cards set out on a table to tell you where to sit You needed to figure that out on your own. Would you be the most important guest or the least, or someplace in the middle? So, when Jesus tells the parable about the wedding banquet, he’s addressing the anxiety each guest secretly carries around in their soul. Where do they belong? Are they important or not, high in status or low, welcome or tolerated? What was your role at the feast — to initiate interesting conversation, engage in debate, share humorous stories as the center of attention or to sit on the sidelines and be gracefully attentive to the others? Knowing all this, perhaps having even felt such anxiety himself, Jesus offers wise advice – not to sit at the place of honor, but at the lowest place so instead of being humiliated if asked to go lower, you might be honored by being invited to come higher.
I just finished reading a fascinating biography about Benjamin Franklin, and this is exactly the sort of advice Franklin included in his Poor Richard’s Almanac – be humble, work hard, be thrifty and prudent and you will have a good life. There is wisdom in this but I am not sure it’s life-giving resurrection Gospel. So, Jesus adds more to the story and includes the poor, the cripple, the blind and lame who might have eaten some of the leftovers from the wedding banquet. After the guests had their filled and the servants their supper and then perhaps the outcaste ones dined on what was thrown in the garbage, a first century version of dumpster diving. But when Jesus’ tells this resurrection story the outcaste are the honored guests at the table. What’s going on? This is more than packing up the left-over from a congregational meal and dropping it off at one of the homeless shelters. It’s more than volunteering at St. Peter’s lunches or Feast Incarnate dinners. It’s a whole new way of understanding.
Martin Buber, a German Jew, who in 1938 was forced to leave Germany and migrated to Palestine, wrote a book called I and Thou. It’s about relationships – that of God to us and us to God and of us to one another. Buber begins over 3,000 years ago when at the burning bush in Midian God named God’s self to Moses. When Moses asks God for God’s name, God replies with a verb – “I AM WHO I AM. God as being, as presence, God, the eternal source of strength flowing, the eternal touch waiting, the eternal voice sounding. While Jews don’t dare say God’s name but call God the Holy One, Christians take the capital letters from the Hebrew, “I AM WHO I AM” – YHWH and say Yahweh. God is verb, not an object or an idea or a feeling or a power that we can use for our purposes. God will be God for us on God’s terms, not ours. We cannot turn God into an idea, a concept or use God for making or doing. We experience God as a Presence to whom we can only be present.
At the core of Buber’s book, he writes about three pairs of words: I-It, Them-Us and I-You. I-It, Them-Us, I-You define our relationships. First, I-It. Here the other is there for me to do with as I like, to be consumed, without any mutuality. Persons are turn into things to be controlled or used, dismissed or ignored. I do not listen to an it. I tell it what I want, what I think. There is no mutuality. Our consumer economy is all about “I-It” where we are the “it” and when we get a robo call with an actual human being on the other end, we turn her into an “it” too. Unless you’ve actually asked the caller her name and get to know her and she gets to know you, it’s an it-it interaction.
The next pair of words is “Us-Them.” “Us-Them” divides the world into two – the children of light and the children of darkness. Whatever is wrong in the world is because of “them.” Complexities vanish. Everything is suddenly tidy. Us-Them turns others into the enemy, by demonizing everyone who doesn’t think or feel like Us. Oddly it also takes power for change away from Us because it is Them who’s the problem and they need to change. Us-them has always attracted demagogues who have attracted great crowds while abolishing language as a way to tell the truth. There’s lots of examples of Us-Them, but just think, Eagles Fans and Cowboy Fans…
I-Thou or I-You is the basic word in an accurately lived life, a life is lived in personal relationship. “I-You” is spoken with one’s whole being.[i] As Buber put it, “I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter.[ii] There is no humanity without relationship. A person becomes an I through a You. Think of a baby – they become an I, a real human being through every interaction they have with other people, especially their parents. Through each smile, word, cuddle the child becomes a person. One of the great joys of our life together is watching this happen. Life exists relationally. God who says, I AM WHO I AM, God embodies being and creates human beings. I-Thou. I-You. The wonder of it is astonishing!
So, when Jesus tells his host and us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind to the banquet, it is not so that we’ll feel better about ourselves while earning brownie points for the final judgement. Nor is it to correct the injustices in the world of which are there are so many. Rather, God – I AM WHO I AM – is in relationship with the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame, the outcast and the cast-off and with You, and You, and You. Recognizing such amazing grace, we become human BEINGS, fully alive with God, and with one another – I and You, You and I — Resurrected! Amen.
[i] Eugene Peterson: Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2010, 241-244.
[ii] Martin Buber, I and Thou, translation by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970, 62.