I feel really challenged by this reading. Perhaps others do too.
I think, in this parable, Jesus is critiquing all jockeying for position; all attempts to rank ourselves ahead of others, in how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.
Unlike the modern wedding breakfast, where a huge effort is made to decide where we sit, in relation to the host, it seems in first century Palestine, it was more of a free for all; people would scrabble for the most senior positions near where the host was to sit, with embarrassing consequences if they chose to sit in the wrong place if you perceived yourself to be more important to the host than you were in comparison with others who may be there or may be coming later. So Jesus is giving good practical advice to put ourselves at the bottom of the pile and the host, will raise us up to our proper position and a high reputation in the eyes of all the other guests.
But, as I have said, this is not really relevant in the context of weddings today, where the seating plan is sorted well in advance. But, nevertheless, I think that the parable is still relevant for us today because we still jockey for position and sometimes do so without even noticing that we are doing it, without intending to do so; sometimes we just feel ‘entitled’ to being taken seriously to being recognised for who we are.
You see I think the parable is as relevant now as it was in the first century; is relevant to how we act in relation to others, the others who are, after all, all invited guests at the Lord’s ultimate wedding feast which will stretch across eternity.
You see, we tend to act and speak, according to how we perceive our ranking, in relation to the person in the community we are interacting with.
We may not intend to be jockeying for top position but that is how the other person may perceive it and that is what matters.
We have to be so careful when we are talking to those who have not had the material, intellectual or social advantages that we have had in life, or who, perhaps, have not had the Christian heritage that we have had, when we are talking about or alluding to those advantages, because it is so easy to refer to our former careers, or our glittering success, or our social connections, in complete disregard to whom we are speaking.
Even genuninely well meaning efforts to help poorer people may be seen by them as a put them down: ‘please do come and swim in my pool’ will be meant really kindly, by lovely people, but unless said to someone we really know well and who knows us for the kind person who we are, may be seen to be establishing a ranking over them a scrabble for the top place at the dining room table, as it were. This can be done quite unintentionally.
An English pastor, a friend of mine, went to speak in Scotland and after the talk a Scotsman came up to him and said ‘you English are no better than us you know’ then after a pause ‘but we are no better than you!’ But even the suggestion that that ‘better than’ issue was an issue for that Scotsman was a surprise to my friend.
It’s the same with academic qualifications, or knowledge, with schools, with ranks, in the Services etc etc; the way we handle or talk about money; even with language….we have to be so careful not to use special vocabulary which we know will identify us as having a different background from the person we are speaking to; a difference which they will be acutely aware of from our dress and behaviour even before we open our mouths….Because, shock horror !!!!!!, middle class Hampshire life almost certainly does not extend into eternity…and one day there will come a time when, as Christians together with billions of others, we are resurrected with all of those who have not had the advantages which we have had those who Jesus describes as the poor, crippled, lame and blind and we will, we hope,at least be their equals in that endless time frame.
But, we may argue, why can’t we be authentically us? When we want to tell a story from a time when we were at Oxford University or when we bought our first yacht….or launched our first company or want to discuss the emotional challenges of choosing the material of the curtains for our new home, we need to be very very sure that the people we are speaking to have the same issues in their lives as we do.
But how do we speak to someone from a different background?
Basically, we just shut up and ask them questions, speak to them about what naturally flows from their life experiences, enthuse about the things that they love doing, express horror about the things that they are appalled by and wait to speak until they ask some questions.
Of course, our homes and our dress will silently speak of our backgrounds. And there is a limit to the extent to which we can, or should, deny who we are. We don’t rearrange our homes to reflect the culture of our guests! That would be crazy!
This is all about emphasis and sensitivity but my take home point from reading this passage, and I admit I need to learn this as much as anyone, is that, instead of allowing ourselves to be thought to be scrabbling for the best position at the “wedding feast” or in relation to others when we speak, we need to make the effort to show humility. We need in our communication and listening be focused on those we are speaking with…so that they can feel as comfortable as possible in the circumstances, despite our differences.
And then the divine host may be able to say to us ‘go up higher’
Luke 14:7-14 Humility and Hospitality
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 14:7–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.