My sermon this week was based on Luke 14:1-14.
Dinnertime at my house is usually pretty casual. Although we have vowed to sit at the table when we have children, my wife and I usually eat in front of the TV.
When I was a kid, dinnertime was a little more formal: no TV, no radio, and we all sat at the table and usually talked about our day. Our table was round, all the chairs were the same, and the table was in the kitchen.
My grandparents house was much different. They had a small table in the kitchen that they ate at on a daily basis, but when family visited, dinner was served in the dining room. The table was long and rectangular. My grandmother sat at the end nearest the kitchen so she could shuttle food and dishes back and forth, and my grandfather sat at the far end. His chair was the only one that had arms on it.
In perhaps a mild way, my grandparents' house was reflective of a certain cultural protocol when it comes to seating arrangement: the host (my grandfather) sat at the head of the table, which was recognized as the most important seat in the house, although no one actually ever said that out loud.
We don't have the same kind of protocol in our culture, but we do have seating arrangements: have you ever come into church and found someone sitting in "your pew"?
Seating arrangements in Jesus' time were much more formal. The host would still sit at the head of the table, but the most important guests were seated closest to the host, and the least important were seated further away.
In today's Gospel passage Jesus is invited for dinner to the house of a Pharisee, and he notices how people are following that traditional seating pattern. He warns them against assuming their seat without invitation: “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; 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. 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."
He issues this warning because "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
When we have a formal dinner in our culture, it can be pretty clear who the most important people are. At a wedding, for example, we usually have a head table that consists of the couple, their parents, the honour party, and so on.
But if we were to sit down at God's table, who would be the most important? Who would be, metaphorically speaking, invited to sit closer to God? Would the rich, powerful and famous be seated closer to God?
Jesus would say no. According to the Gospel for today, the people who would be invited to sit at God's table should and would be "the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind", and these should be the very people we invite to our table.
There are several possible explanations for this. Maybe Jesus is trying to encourage people to be humble. Maybe he is trying to convince us to sit with people we wouldn't normally associate with.
I think he is trying to make a point about inclusiveness. Society still has a way of dividing us: haves and have-nots, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, black and white, sick and well, etc, etc. The dinner table in Jesus' time acted almost as a microcosm for this: those most important to the host sat near him, and the least important were seated further away. The table perpetuated divisiveness.
Outside the dining room, society is divisive, and it was certainly so in Jesus' time as well. The poor, crippled, lame and blind were sidelined and excluded, as they still are today.
But here's the thing: if we are to be Christians, these are the exact people we should make an effort to include, and what Jesus revealed to us about God is that these are the very people God would invite to sit closer to him.
Think of it this way: the wealthy, healthy and whole are already doing ok. They already have so many advantages and things working in their favour. They don't necessarily need constant reminders of God's love and presence because evidence of that should be all around them.
Don't get me wrong, I do not believe for one second that God "blesses" or "curses". I don't think that because you are wealthy, that means God prefers you to a poor person, and just because you are poor that God dislikes you.
But those who suffer poverty, physical or mental illness, addiction, injustice or isolation already have the deck stacked against them. They are precisely those who need to be shown love, acceptance and hospitality, and that is what we are called to do as Christians.
It is only natural to want to be around those who are like us: those who think like us, look like us, act like us. This is not in and of itself a bad thing. It only makes sense, and I think it is pretty endemic to the human race.
Where this becomes an issue is when we reject, isolate or sideline others as a result of our actions. We have all seen cliques when we were in school, in our workplaces, at church or even in our own families.
Christ would call us to deliberately override this tendency. Christ would call us to be inclusive, and in fact to show a preference to those people who routinely don't get a seat at the big table.
This week, I hope we can all have the courage to step out of the comfort zone of our friendship circle, that we take the time to talk to someone we wouldn't normally talk to, to show them God's love and to invite them to his table.