The story seems straightforward. Jesus arrives at a leader’s house and takes notice of the way in which people seat themselves—the inner and outer circles of the gathering, the way in which people position themselves, and vying for attention, status, and proximity to the host. It’s the Sabbath and he’s been invited which may mean that he’s made a friend or two among the religious elite. Or maybe he’s low on the guest list, but still he is there. We might deduce that this is an important gathering: the host is the leader of the Pharisees and Jesus is among the guests.
The guests who are present are watching Jesus closely…but Jesus is carefully watching them too. It’s a dance that they are doing…people taking their seats so that they might sit next to a particular person and hope to have a particular conversation, and Jesus is observing it all. And he decides to tell a parable to those gathered about a wedding banquet and to give some advice on potential invitations and seating arrangements.
I’ve been to dinner parties and larger events at which getting a seat at a table is not a given. How many times have you gone to a restaurant where you stand in line to get your food and someone– behind you in line –sends another person into the dining room to reserve a number of seats despite their being so far down the line that they will still be waiting to get their food when you have your food actually in hand, there is no where to sit. And yet, I have done that kind of thing too, taking seats before the need is actually there, just so that my little group can sit together, even if we’ve yet to pick up our food from the counter and others are holding trays.
And then, on the plane to Scotland, I was asked – ever so kindly—by a latecomer to the plane to give up my coveted aisle seat in the middle of the plane for her husband who was seated much further back, a middle seat, no less…and I just couldn’t bring myself to do that on this much looked forward to international flight – my first in 5 years. I thought that the question of their togetherness did not trump my singleness or the amount of $$ paid for my seat…and I was feeling less than generous about trading my the extra leg room given how long we were going to be crammed on the plane. Which is to say, that I really get the jockeying for position, to which Jesus refers, even if I just wanted my aisle seat and not a front cabin pass.
What Jesus describes is a parable about humility—about not putting yourself and your assumptions forward or presuming a given status with your host, lest someone more distinguished be invited to take a closer seat, and you be embarrassed in the process. I am reminded about a video that circulated not too long ago but proved to be an urban legend, despite similar scenarios playing themselves out in varying degree depending on the particular nationality, class, religion, gender identity, or race. A person of color—a man- was seated on an airplane and another person—a white woman—was seated next to him. The white woman complained about her seat next to a person of color to the stewardess. We, in the audience, are given to believe that the airline stewardess is going to change the woman’s seat to placate her and diffuse the situation. But when she comes back, the stewardess instead chooses to address the situation by apologizing to the woman’s seatmate—the person of color—and offers to move him to first class per the Captain’s orders. As the stewardess begins to address the man, the look on the woman’s face reveals her sense of privilege as she believes she will be moved according to her wishes. Yet, the stewardess promptly moves the man and apologizes that he would have to sit next to such a rude and prejudiced person.
Snopes—a online fact checker of these kinds of stories—wrote: “We’d like to believe virtue will be rewarded, hence legends such as the ones recounted above help us to set the world to rights. Even if they never happened, we’d like to think they did, and we gain a measure of comfort from them because they reassure us that somewhere, maybe if only in the realm of legend, someone is standing up to bigots who feel entitled to special treatment over those whom they harbor prejudices against or regard as their social inferiors.”
But Snopes also says, “Unfortunately, such legends, though they have their uses in helping us feel better about our world, can also prove damaging and hurtful by reinforcing stereotypes: Even though not all whites would disdain sitting next to blacks, nor Muslims next to Christians, members of those groups sometimes end up being unfairly tarred by the same brush.”
And so, in our case, we might be more careful with how Luke subtly describes the contrast between the Pharisees and Jesus in his telling of his gospel, in order to make Jesus look the better. Not all Pharisees were grabbing up seats of honor, and not all seats were taken by those with power to take a seat. Indeed, Luke himself says that Jesus was able to secure an invitation to the Pharisees party…and that could very well mean that Jesus himself had a few friends in high places among the Pharisees.
In any case, the point is that those who are overly concerned with taking the higher position in any social or political or religious setting might give consideration to the parable Jesus actually shares, rather than pitting Christian against a Pharisaical stereotype. We might consider, as Christians, the idea that our privilege can precede us even in such matters where we deem we have little say-so or malicious intent. In such matters, we might consider how our even being in the room or in the conversation is not to be taken lightly or for granted and to consider who is NOT in the room, or at the party, at the conversation, or at the table. We, who may have coveted the seats before we actually need them or because we feel that we want to secure our own place before inviting others, might also consider how God views our selective seat grabbing and our desire always to be seated among our own kind or with our own flock.
Parables are meant to be difficult. Luke’s parable reveals our propensity to order ourselves subconsciously on the social hierarchy and thereby placing others on the lower rungs that we may attain the higher. And this is not simply true of the social arrangements of Jesus’ time and ours, but also the subtle and intentional criticism of Pharisees that seemingly give some Christians leeway to Lord-it-over their Jewish brethren.
Just as Jesus notices the seating arrangements, we—too—are challenged to notice how we seat ourselves in both public and private settings. To whom do we deem worth our time to talk? Who is too much personal bother to call? How flexible are we in expanding our social or private or religious circles? And who is missing from the wedding banquet, the dinner party, the community meeting, the church event, altogether?
During my stay on Iona, I lived at The Bishop’s House. The Bishop’s House is an Episcopal Retreat Center. While there, we shared meals in common—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our host would call us to supper with a clang of a pot—like a gong—and we’d line up to be seated together. The dining room was quite small for about 25 people and 3 long tables, so we would all line up to get our food in an orderly procession and be seated together—literally. We both started and ended our meals together—if you arrived late, you might have trouble getting over to a seat, given the dimensions of space. After the meal, we would clear and set the tables together—which meant a certain necessary cooperation since moving around the tables was not easy if everyone was getting up and sitting down at different times.
I will admit that this was challenging for me. The usual jockeying for seats happened as it does in all groups at most times, but because we were seated together and in limited space, we ultimately ended up talking to everyone and changing seats from meal to meal. Because the meals were family style, we were careful to make sure that everyone had enough before dipping into seconds. So the shepherd’s pie went around the table once, and then again. And because we were to clean and set the tables afterwards, those of us who were speedy eaters and those who ate more slowly all sat together for a longer period while folks completed their meals.
At first, I found the “family meal” experience jarring, and then I found it to be refreshing and delightfully helpful with building community. After all, I talked with people with whom I might not have had a passing conversation, except to say, “please pass the salt.” With the clanging of the pot, we would first gather in the living room, prior to lining up at the dining room together to talk for a few minutes about our day. There was a certain respect and conviviality that helped us to share our meals together—no matter where we were from or what accent our speech took. And yet, I confess to finding the shared meals challenging, if only because I tend to eat by myself with the kids rushing through and am introverted by nature. And, of course, that challenge made me reconsider not only my own preferences and habits, but the kinds of habits that my children are starting to form and whether they are ultimately helpful or problematic.
Our shared table today is symbolic but it is also a foretaste of the kind of wedding banquet and dinner party in which our seats are dependent not on our status, our privilege, our ability to get there earlier or more quickly than the others, or even our deeds, but our willingness to be with and share with others—others whom we deem greater, others whom we deem less, and others whose motives, mistakes, and misfortune we have inadvertently or particularly questioned.
As Amy Jill-Levine writes, “Jesus…cared deeply about reconciliation, and so he told stories about people torn apart and how they might be brought together…Jesus insisted we should not judge, and that the criterion by which we judge others will be used to judge us. Therefore he offered parables in which those who judge others are trapped into being in relationship with them; he told parables in which those who judge themselves righteous may be wrong or many not realize the full implications of their righteousness.
“He sought to prepare his people for the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven, the time when we would recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and so he set about enacting the messianic banquet among a mixed group of saints and sinners, tax collectors and patrons, women and men, faithful and doubters. He also told stories about baking and banquets and feasts and so his stories nourished his followers even as he left them hungry for more.”
May we be nourished by the feast and remain hungry for the challenge. Amen.
 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) 298-299.