Once a month, we deacons of the diocese of California have a zoom conclave. The
purpose is to catch up on what’s happening throughout the diocese from a deacon’s
perspective. It is also a time when we provide mutual support and prayers for one
another, listening to concerns and needs to perform our diaconal ministries.
One of our sister deacons related a concern she had concerning an interfaith clergy
group in the Fremont area. This interreligious group had sent out email invitations
to clergy to participate in the group. It stated that one must possess an M.Div. or
Master of Divinity degree to become a member.
Well, this raised her ire quite a degree. She was invited as clergy yet dismissed
because of academic standing. She is a scientist, a geologist specifically, so she has
no lacking academic standing. But here in the diocese of California, the School for
Deacons awards a bachelor’s degree. It’s as if she had been invited to a party but
not allowed to attend.
It may be that the individual heading up the group (a rabbi) did not know of the
Episcopal Church’s clergy structure, or he only meant to include rectors and
pastors in this ecumenical group. At any rate, she felt excluded based on some
perceived status. The Episcopal Church’s three ordained orders, Bishop, priest, and deacon are considered full and equal orders. There is no hierarchy of orders but in the tasks
done. Indeed, the order of the laity is at the top of the hierarchy.
In today’s Gospel, we experience a glimpse of the first-century Mediterranean
honor-shame culture when Jesus attended a Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee
leader. Jesus watched the guests jockeying for the seats with the most prestige. The
basis for the seating arrangement was the guest’s prestige and honor. Seating at the
table was currency, and it was the stage on which political and social relationships
played out. It was the public display of an individual’s or family’s place on
society’s spectrum of honor and shame. (1)
Seeing this, Jesus tells them it is better not to choose to sit at a place of honor
because if a guest with more prestige shows up, you would be asked by the host to
move to a seat of less honor, bringing dishonor upon yourself. Contrariwise, if you
sit in the lowest place and your host sees you. He might tell you, “Friend, move up
to a higher place.” In this way, you will have the spotlight of honor bestowed upon
you. (My paraphrase).
In many parables and teachings, Jesus turns many societal norms upside down. The
ones that do not fit within the realm of God. One of the most moving parts of this
Gospel is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “This entire status-by-seating
system is phony, and I want you to dismantle the whole thing.” Jesus proceeds on
the assumption that we will work and live within this system.
In this case, Jesus offers sound practical advice to choose the lowest place so you
can be invited up, but he also points to something more profound and richer. He is
emphasizing how the realm of God establishes its own social and spiritual order;
trying to presume a place in that order is unwise and perhaps even unfaithful.
Think James and John in Mark’s Gospel, asking to be seated at Jesus’ right and left
hand. Jesus voices the famous saying, “For all who exalt themselves will be
humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The realm of God is also about how God offers an invitation in our lives to receive
a genuine blessing when we learn that it is grossly unfaithful to store up spiritual
brownie points. To note our virtuousness and then make it worse by showy
displays of that goodness. Receiving a blessing that invites us to grow into a deeper
relationship with God is not something we can work our way into through acts
designed to display our worth. No. God asks us to live into the person she created
us to be through our everyday actions toward each other and in and through our
relationship with God and creation. Jesus wants us to understand that our all-too-
human drive to seek the best seat in the house or at the party will not mark genuine
participation in God’s mercy or love. (2)
Think for a moment about what it feels like to jockey for position as we do so often at work, socially, and church. The endless competition. The unspoken cues and subtle put-downs. The unfairness of who is rewarded and who is shoved down to a lower seat. It can be exhausting and spiritually draining. When we get caught up in these games of who’s getting promoted, chairing the new church committee, or got a new car in the driveway, we become disconnected from God and our true selves. And that drains us of life and vitality. The love and seeking for status become idolatry. Before Jesus leaves the party, he tells his host, “The next time you throw a party, don’t invite your rich friends and neighbors so that they might return the favor someday and invite you to one of their lovely parties. Instead, invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed because they can’t
In this seemingly tricky passage, Jesus is not laying a “guilt trip” on us who would
have a gathering of family and friends. Instead, Jesus is teaching that service to
others is not done for reciprocation or reward in the realm of God.
Jesus’ healing and practice of table fellowship become metaphors for the realm of
God, where they “will come from east and west, north and south, and will eat in
the kingdom of God.”
Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, says the community of God’s people, the church,
“would be mortally sick if it were to identify itself with a class, or its concerns with
the interests, its faith with the ideology, or its ethos with the morality of such a
class.” Barth’s pastoral theology offers us the Christian practices of hospitality and
welcomes to heal national, ethnic, racial, cultural, and class divisions worldwide.
In the reflections of this great theologian, hospitality and fellowship become
central to the church’s ministry.
Jesus’ counterintuitive message tells us that our tables should be surrounded by
strangers, who are the “poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” (3) in essence,
we should populate our tables with those who are at the most social disadvantage.
Hence, Rev. Deb invites all people to share in Christ’s table at Communion.
Although this instruction is patently this-worldly in its orientation, it also says
something about the nature of God’s reign; it lets the hearer know that the
attributes ascribing favor in this world are not the same as those that do so at the
coming feast. Those viewed as lower are to be treated with greater respect, receive
more favor, and enjoy places of honor in our lives; after all, they may be angels!
(1) What Seat Do You Choose? Proper 17 (C) – 2016.
(2) From Humility to Exaltation.
(3) Invite the Poor, the Crippled, the Lame and the Blind | FaithHub.