When [Jesus] noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable…(Luke 14:1)
For this week and next, I am writing about the parable Jesus told while dining at the home of a Pharisee – a passage on which I preached recently. This parable may be helpful to read and study in preparation for the celebration of Christmas. It can be found in Luke’s gospel, chapter fourteen, verses seven through fourteen.
The passage unfolds with Jesus observing how fellow guests attempt to situate themselves in places of honor at the host’s table. From the way Luke describes the behavior of these guests, it would seem as though concern over one’s social standing was at least as much an issue for people in first century Palestine, as it is for us today. Who among us has not desired, at some point in their life, to be popular, to be positioned among the influential or powerful, or simply to avoid being considered a social outcast? Just the other day I caught myself, much to my chagrin, sizing up where I fit in compared to other guests at an annual social function I attended with my family.
Comparing ourselves to others, noting one’s place, and who among us is deemed important, and not so important, is as natural to human beings as breathing. But, there are grave spiritual consequences that come with participating in this activity, however naturally we may fall into it. It will always give us a false sense of our true worth, a worth that is God’s role to determine. Equally as important, any attempt to gain or maintain social status will inevitably come at someone else’s expense. In a fallen world being at or near the top of the social ladder only has value if others are at the bottom.
Jesus addressed this timeless problem by telling his host and fellow dinner guests a parable. He instructed them not to head immediately for the most honored seat, when invited to a wedding banquet, because the host may have invited someone else more distinguished, whom he plans to seat there. If one takes such a seat, and ends up having to move, it will prove to be very embarrassing. That person will then have no other option but to take the least important seat. Instead, Jesus advised, when invited to a feast, find the seat farthest away, the lowest seat, so that the host may come and say to you, “Friend, move up higher.” (v. 10)
At first hearing it may seem as though there is no gospel in Jesus’ parable. It may sound, instead, like he is simply giving his audience a lesson in social etiquette, or worse, a shrewd way of beating the game: Feign humility if you want to get a better seat. But, his words deserve a closer reading because Jesus is saying something important here about our standing before one another, and ultimately, before God.
The parable Jesus told is actually a version of one told by other rabbis at the time – but with a noticeable difference. Other rabbis advised that one should take a seat two or three places below where one would normally sit – but not all the way at the end. However, Jesus contradicted this advice and directed his hearers to take the lowest seat – a seat no one would envy. That’s because in first century Jewish culture, the person who sat at the lowest seat – and there was always a lowest seat, according to custom – would be expected to serve at the table, if no servants are present. So in taking the lowest seat one would be indicating to everyone else that he or she is not unlike a hired servant or slave.
Luke tells us the guests to whom Jesus told the parable were Pharisees and experts in the law, the same sort of people he addressed when he told his parable of the Good Samaritan. (See my post The Good Samaritan (part one) for more information about the tension between Jesus and these men.) These religious leaders would never think of taking the lowest seat or serving at any social function.
Yet, Jesus himself did the work of a servant at a table one night – on the night before he died. In the gospel of John we are told that Jesus picked up a towel and tied it around himself and washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:4-12). If a servant had been present, the foot-washing would have fallen to him. A servant always washed the feet of guests at dinner. So at that Last Supper, one of the disciples, whichever one of them happened to be sitting in the lowest seat, should have taken it upon himself to wash the feet of those present, beginning with Jesus, their host. Apparently, though, none of the disciples thought of himself as a servant.
As if to highlight this point, Luke notes twice in his gospel how the disciples argued with one another over which of them should be considered the greatest (9:46-48 and 22:24-27). The second time was during the Last Supper. One would think that after all the time they’d spent with Jesus, and the teaching he had given them about humility, they would have known better. But, as with us, it was difficult for them not to think about status when living in a world where it mattered so much.
Next week: Part Two – Humbling ourselves before God.
Beginning in January: Losing Control.