Summary: Jesus teaches Pharisees about judgement and grace
When I was a kid, school was my favorite place. I felt comfortable, confident and knew how to meet the expectations. School was my safe place. When I got old enough to go to Saturday afternoon matinees by myself or with friends, the movies became an important part of my world. For 2 hours I could sit in the dark and escape to other worlds where I had no obligations or responsibilities. The movies were my free place. When I was 17, two months before I graduated from high school, my best friend Annette took me to church (my parents finally allowed me to go after years of asking). It was the first time I had been in a church and I didn’t know how to act, what to say or any of the words of the songs. But the Holy Spirit spoke to me in a clear voice and told me God made me, and God loved me. School was where I felt safe, and the movies were where I felt free, but church was the first place I ever felt love. It has been my place every day since. Today’s lectionary passage shows Jesus our Lord reflecting on the idea of placement.
Jesus was out of place
The first part of the passage shows Jesus dining at a banquet of the Pharisees. That’s as unusual a picture as you get. Imagine a black tie dinner with the men looking sharp in their tuxes and the women in fine evening gowns. They invite a homeless man off the street to sit at the head table with them. He is wearing his daily clothes and when he looks down at the line of silverware set before him (who isn’t intimidated at those dinners with 3 sets of silverware, a dessert spoon and a finger bowl?) he skips the whole thing and starts eating with his hands! Their jaw drops open and they shake their heads in horror. That’s what this Pharisaic dinner was like.
Here were the church leaders - the super holy - inviting this itinerant, homeless rabbi with dirt on the bottom of his robe to dine. He sits with them and speaks of the Torah in a way they never imagined and before they get a chance to bring out the gourmet dessert he breaks the rules and heals on the Sabbath! Then he justifies this healing instead of acting ashamed. The Pharisees just stared in disbelief. The Bible tells us twice in the opening part “they had nothing to say”. Now there’s an awkward social situation! Nothing like stony cold silence to make the meal pass by quickly. What is Jesus doing in a place he clearly doesn’t belong?
Jesus was giving them a chance to be in his presence. He was hoping to teach them where they were most comfortable and reach to them in their own arena. People always get so excited when they remember that Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes. It makes him seem so “on the edge” – but the truth is he also hung out with wealthy judgmental church leaders – and they were probably much less fun. Jesus is where you are, no matter where you are – because he is above petty social conventions and status issues and wants people to know that every place is a place he can be found. You can laugh with Jesus, or stare at him in horrified silence – but he is there.
Jesus reminds them of their place
Since he has pretty much ruined their appetite, Jesus goes on to give seating instructions. The Pharisees were a status oriented bunch. The more rich or powerful you were, the better your seat in temple, and the better your place at the table. It got so bad people were fighting or arriving early just to take a better seat. Jesus advises them that it is not wise to take a high seat if you don’t deserve it, because you’ll just get humiliated in the long run when the host has to ask you to move. Take a lower seat, then you get to joy of being moved up by the host. It’s a good social strategy, to be sure, but why does Jesus care where they sit?
Jesus is telling them about their spiritual attitude, not just table arrangements. With their status-mindedness, they had placed themselves above other Jews. They thought they knew all the secrets, understood the Torah better than anyone and were the top of the faith. They sat in the front row of temple. Jesus was warning them. He is the host of God’s banquet and if they keep seating themselves (and thinking of themselves) too highly he will have to ask them to move down. It is better if Jesus lifts them up. I find that is Christ’s desire for all of us – not to see us glorify ourselves in our holiness, but to let him lift us up to the place he says we belong at the great feast of God’s love.