What would Emily Post or Martha Stewart say? Where should you sit if Oprah invites you over for a dinner party at her Montecito estate? Should you try to get there early and try to grab a seat at the head table? Or do you take a seat near the back of the room? Oh, surely it would be more fun and interesting to sit up front with all the important people, but . . .
Proximity to greatness suggests greatness. Think back to the old Soviet era, when we’d read articles about the presumed order of succession. Kremlin watchers believed that the closer you stood to Gorbachev or Brezhnev during a public spectacle like a May Day parade of the troops, the more important you were. Changes in proximity suggested changes in the line of succession. This sense that proximity to greatness can rub off, drives our culture’s craze about celebrities. For some reason we hope that an autograph or a picture with a celebrity will change our lives.
We live in a society that worships success, and nothing breeds success like success. And so even if we don’t have much to show for ourselves, we like to pretend that we do, which is why we have to keep up with the Jones’ even if keeping up will bankrupt us.
But successfully climbing the ladder is an art form. If you’re going to win friends and influence people you don’t want to presume too much, which is the point of this proverb: "Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, "Come up here," than to be put lower in the presence of a noble." (Prov. 25:6-7). In other words, if you want to be successful –- then know your place. Be sure to show proper deference to those in leadership and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be noticed.
KNOWING YOUR PLACE
Jesus would occasionally get invited to dinner parties, and usually he was the guest of honor – sort of. I think many of the hosts saw him as curiosity – that itinerant preacher who was stirring up the people. On this occasion Jesus is watching the guests, and he notices how they all seem to be jockeying for the best seat in the house. After all no one wants to sit at the kid’s table!
As he watches them, Jesus makes a comment that seems reminiscent of Proverbs 25: "
When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host."
Indeed, who wants to suffer the embarrassment of being reseated at the back of the room. Why not start at the back of the room and then hope your host will see you and invite you forward.
There doesn’t seem to be much difference between the advice given in Proverbs and what Jesus offers. The only thing is, Jesus didn’t normally give advice on etiquette. So maybe he’s getting at something a bit different from what we read in Proverbs.
The key to understanding this conversation is to remember that Jesus isn’t interested in what we should do to get along in society. No, Jesus is concerned about the kingdom of God, and his message of the kingdom usually turns things upside down. Our society tells us to be concerned about our status – where we stand in line – but in the kingdom of God things are different. "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." In other words – "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first."
But that’s not how the world works. We know and we believe that if we’re going to succeed in life, we have to promote ourselves. I do it! You do it! We all do it! As parents we teach this to our children from day one. If you sit around and wait for people to notice you, nothing will ever happen. There is some truth to that, and to some degree we have to promote ourselves. The problem is that too often we promote ourselves at the expense of others. If climbing the ladder means climbing over the backs of others, then so be it. After all our national motto is: "Look out for number 1, because if you don’t, no one else will."
The way of the kingdom, however, is different. God is the one who exalts and humbles, which is why the last are first and the first are last. Mother Teresa seemed to understand that, which is why she has been honored by so many. Father Damian of Molokai is another who understood this premise of giving of himself without concern for his status.
Living in the Kingdom isn’t easy, because it requires something of us that’s not easy to do. To follow Jesus is to take up the cross, and taking up the cross isn’t something we find easy to do. So how do we live the way of the kingdom -- besides not taking a seat at the head table?
Jesus suggests that one way of living the kingdom way is to invite people to your party who aren’t in a position to invite you back. That’s not the way things are supposed to be – You invite people hoping that they’ll invite you in return. But Jesus says: "Go out and invite the poor, the lame, the blind, the deaf. Open the door wide and let everyone in." I don’t know about you, but I find this difficult to live out.
But the principle here is quite simple. We’re called to live our lives on Sunday through Saturday in such a way that we honor others before ourselves. Instead of climbing over the backs of others, we reach out and help others climb up the ladder. In the kingdom of God, theologian Patrick Henry writes:
Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before Administering the entrance exam.1
The Table of the Lord serves as a sign of God's invitation to the world. In the ancient world, who you ate with was a sign of your social status. We like to invite people to dine with us who will make us seem important. But in the kingdom of God, God opens the table to those who could never hope to repay the debt. Jesus says to the host, when you give a dinner party don't invite your friends, relatives, and rich neighbors, though you know they’ll return the favor. Instead, "invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind," knowing they’ll never be able to repay the debt.
To "know your place" isn’t the same thing as staying in your place. It’s not a call to passivity in the face of injustice. It’s not about not rocking the boat. Instead, it’s simply a reminder to put the other ahead of ourselves. That may not be the American way, but it is the Kingdom way.
1. Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian's Companion, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1999), 150.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 1, 2007
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost