We find it easy to connect with Jesus as a healer, as our saviour, as a teacher and even as a prophet. But Jesus as someone who speaks against the way our society works is harder to stomach, especially when we realize that he is preaching against behaviour that we engage in regularly.
We all have met people who have a sense of self-importance, who feel they deserve special treatment and consideration. There are sports and media celebrities who imagine they deserve the best tables in restaurants and the impossible-to-get tickets to shows. And there are the people with their shopping carts loaded with groceries standing in the express line because they think they deserve to get out quickly—it all sends a message about our worth and prestige, usually based on our economic power. We buy a rung on the ladder as often as we “earn” it.
These signals were conveyed in Jesus’ time by the seating at a meal. And the seating as arranged by the host was not just a signal but a tool. If you hosted a dinner and wanted an advantageous marriage match with a certain young man for your daughter, you could seat her father at a higher place at the table than he usually would have. If a competitor in business beat you in a deal, you could seat him lower at the table to communicate your displeasure. Seating at the table was the stage on which political and social relationships were played out. It was the public display of an individual’s or family’s place on the spectrum of honour and shame.
One of the most interesting parts of this gospel is what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “This entire status-by-seating system is bogus and I want you to chuck the whole thing.” Jesus proceeds on the assumption that we will work and live within this system. Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “My friend, move up higher.” In that way, everyone with you at the table will see you honoured. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted.’
So Jesus leaves the status system intact. At least that’s how we would interpret it. But what if there’s another way to think about it?
Let’s think for a moment about the unspoken cues and subtle put-downs. The unfairness of who is rewarded and who is shoved down to a lower rung. When we get caught up in these games we are disconnected from God and our true selves. And that drains us of life and vitality. Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” He’s telling us that as long as we search for satisfaction in ways to put ourselves above others, we will find ourselves with many shiny things but with empty hearts. Exalting ourselves drives us to new lows of integrity and new poverty of happiness. So the exaltation Jesus promises is liberation from the whole status system. Suddenly, that craving to be the best, to have the most, to win at everything, starts to ebb and die away. This is the exaltation Jesus promises the humble. And if we keep working at it, small choice by small choice, the seed of peace starts to flower.
“Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” When we are still trapped in the status system, we might assume that Jesus means that at the Great Dinner Table in the Sky, the humble will finally, finally get to have the choice seats at the head of the table, a never outdated smartphone, and an infinity sign where their Facebook like number used to be. But that would not be heaven. It would be the same prison we lived in on earth.
We can’t free ourselves from the status system. Jesus points that out by assuming that there will always be a table and there will always be fighting for higher positions at the table. Where we have a choice is where we choose to sit. And if we ask Jesus to be with us and help us to take the lower seat, help us to quit playing the game, help us to abandon the quest for success and money and power, he will exalt us to freedom from the need for status at all. We won’t need to make a big show of it. We will know our true worth. We will know deep in our bones that our worth is not determined by where we sit, but by whom we are loved. In the celebration of the Eucharist, we have the assurance of God’s nearness to us. At Mass, our faith doesn’t make God present so much as it finds God present in scripture, in sacrament, and in one another. In the one Bread and one Cup of Christ, we have a foretaste of our eternal banquet feast of heaven. Yet we receive the Body and Blood of Christ neither as rewards for good behaviour nor as passive acceptance of bad behaviour. Rather, we receive the Lord’s presence only by virtue of God’s gracious mercy and our sincere efforts to locate God in the midst of our lives.
We may not know our seating location at the eternal banquet feast, but we can still take heart. The host continues to invite us, and the doors to the hall remain unlocked. And we are loved by Jesus. Amen.