Well, what an interesting little pair of parables. Jesus all of a sudden takes time out from teaching about the kingdom of God and about the good news to become an advice columnist.
“Dear Rabbi: When I go to a dinner party, I never know where to sit. Can you help me? Signed, Dopey Dinnerguest.”
“Dear Dopey: Well, don’t take the best seat. Take the worst one until the host comes and tells you to come sit closer to him.”
Now, our culture has different ideas about public shaming and honor than Jesus’ culture did. They considered public humiliation at a dinner – especially the kind where you had to give up your seat to someone else — a much bigger deal than we would. We would think this a minor embarrassment and maybe a good story to tell on ourselves. They would not.
The host would sit the person he most wanted to honor to his immediate right, and then the next to his immediate left, and so on. We might have a head table at an important banquet, but we tend to not care much about it after that.
In fact, we often prefer the seats away from the head table and near the door. They’re closer to the bathroom, closer to the exit if the speaker is boring and closer to the bar – which is a big deal for some folks. Especially if the speaker is boring.
But if I went to such a dinner in Jesus’ time, I would have to judge how important the host thought I was and seat myself by that. So I would have to know everything about all the other guests and a bunch of other stuff that would pretty much keep me from enjoying myself because of all the worrying I’d be doing.
Jesus offers this bit of wisdom for several reasons. One, it’s what rabbis did. Teachers said wise things that people who followed them were supposed to listen to and follow to improve their own lives and act more wisely. The book of Proverbs is a collection of these kinds of sayings.
This may be one of the few saying of Jesus most Christians obey, as it happens. Look at the pews on any Sunday morning and see which ones are empty and which ones are full of people waiting for Jesus to say, “Friend, go up higher.”
We’ll get to his other reasons in a minute. First, let’s look at our second letter.
“Dear Rabbi: I want to give a dinner and invite a bunch of people, and my planner wants to know where to send the invitations. Who should be on my guest list? Signed, Confused at the Caterers.”
“Dear Confused: You should invite a lot of people who can’t invite you back. That way you won’t get paid back for your hospitality.”
Here Jesus wants to get his listeners to understand real giving requires offering something for nothing.
We don’t have to scratch our heads too much to see the connection between this idea and the grace through which God offers our salvation, do we? Jesus certainly offered himself for us though he knew how imperfect a job we would do of offering anything back.
And that’s one way I see these two parables operating for us today. Jesus wants us to see in them a certain way to live. We live that way when we make grace the operating guide and principle of our lives.
Our world teaches us one way to live: We give what we get. We give to those who can give back and ignore the rest. We reward those who treat us well and punish those who don’t. If we’re strong enough, we take what we want, and if we’re not, we try some other way.
But Jesus commands us to live differently. We don’t operate our lives according to a balance sheet, where we make sure what comes in is at least as much as goes out or more. We are to operate according to the idea of grace.
And in that way of living, we don’t seek honor for ourselves, as would a dinnerguest who took the prime seat. We acknowledge that any honor we receive is the free gift of God and accept it gratefully.
We don’t think of how our gift to someone will end up benefiting us, but rather of giving to someone who truly needs it.
I sometimes see it as Jesus asking us to live like this so we can get used to grace – it’s unfamiliar to us, after all. But it is his way, it is the way. The Kingdom of God he proclaims operates this way.
And one day, God willing, so will we.