In the process of moving from primary to secondary schools I was required to sit a number of examinations. I could not tell you now what they were about, but the oral examination, the interview that followed them as I competed for a scholarship, is still clear in my memory. I was interviewed in a room with two teachers from the school. At a certain point in the conversation we moved from me having to provide (in quick fire succession) the capital cities for a range of countries, to the meaning of wise sayings, most of which I had never heard before.
What did ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ actually mean? I did not know, but stabbed at something to do with the pop singers. What was ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ all about? I ventured that it had something to do with runners in a relay team race getting a stitch in the height of the competition. So excruciating were my responses to these sayings that I had never previously heard (I was only ten at the time) that they have remained etched in my memory.
At first hearing we come across such a saying in our Gospel reading at this Eucharist. In what could be described as a combination of wisdom and tips for good etiquette, it seems that Jesus is teaching people how to behave at dinner parties. If you are going to a dinner party and you don’t know where to sit, head towards the bottom end, that way the host of the party can come and find you and bring you to the top of the table. It would be much better for you if everyone saw you being raised up higher, than for you to have to endure the embarrassment of sitting at the top table only to politely be told that there are more important guests than you, and that you need to move further down.
At this point I could illustrate the wisdom of this advice by telling you all kinds of embarrassing stories about things that have happened to me at dinner parties. Like the time that I was invited to pray the grace at a wedding reception from the top table only to discover, as people sat down, that that literally had been the invitation to me and that they weren’t expecting me, and therefore had not laid a place for me to stay and eat.
Is that really what Jesus’ teaching is all about in this Gospel encounter? Should it go along with more modern day advice about only passing the bottle of port to the person sitting on your right, and beginning with the outer most knives and forks and then working your way in? Surely, whatever else Jesus is talking about as he observes this Sabbath day meal in the home of a leading Pharisee, he is not providing his disciples with the equivalent of lessons from a ‘finishing school’. But if he is not doing that, then what is he doing?
We are familiar with the idea that the Bible is much more like a library of books than one single large volume. We know that it includes texts that were written over hundreds of years, by many different authors, in many different places. And that somehow guided by the wisdom of God’s Spirit at work, these texts were edited and compiled to form what we have now received as the Bible in its entirety. What is true for the Bible as a whole, is true also for many of its parts. The Gospel of Luke was not written down chronologically by a by-stander to all of the events in the life of Jesus, but was gathered together long after his death and resurrection and ascension by a community which sought to ensure that the story of Jesus would be passed on to another generation after they had gone. Just like the Bible as a whole, each of the Gospels contains a number of different types of writing and ways of accessing the good news that Jesus is alive, and the significance that that has for the whole world.
Whenever we approach a portion of our scriptures we begin by asking a whole series of questions about the nature of the text that we are reading. Is it history? Is it poetry? Is it reflection? Is it something else? And then depending what kind of text it is we will have a few more clues about how to deal with it, and respond to it. The writers of the Gospel of Luke preface this Gospel teaching of Jesus with a short phrase that helps us to understand the kind of text that we are reading. They say, “when Jesus noticed how the guests chose the best seats he told them a parable.” So what we know as we approach these words of Jesus, about where to sit at the dinner table, is that they are a parable. If you missed that important point then you are in good company, many of the writers of Biblical commentaries seem not to have noticed it either.
If we want to find out what Jesus is on about, we need to be sure that we know what a parable is. Just think for a moment of some of the other parables that you know: the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan may be somewhere near the top of your list. When we encounter those parables we become aware that what is important in those stories is not so much on the specific details of what the characters are doing, but whether what they are doing can shed any light on what we are doing today. Parables try to explain through a story that we can understand and see in our minds, other things that we find a mystery. They place a story that we can all imagine happening alongside a deeper reality which we struggle to understand. Just as the father welcomes back the prodigal son, so he welcomes back those who have ignored their faith. Just as the father continues to treasure the older brother in the story, so God loves each one of us who have remained faithful.
At the very least as we approach this Gospel parable we should be alert to the fact that we will find a double-meaning, another insight alongside the one that we read on the surface. In the Gospel of Luke we find more meal-time scenes than in any of the other Gospels. Eating and drinking is fundamental to the ministry of Jesus, and through his example we find in our partying a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, that Kingdom which has already been inaugurated and which one day will gloriously come to fulfilment.
Let’s suppose then, that when Jesus tells stories about eating and drinking he is actually telling stories about how God sees the world – how a world shaped as God’s Kingdom will actually look. These stories are not so much about the actual meals that are described. They are much more profoundly an image which explains how things are, and will be, in the eternal reign of God’s love. When we hear parables about meals, such as the party at the end of the story of the Prodigal Son, we are being taught something about what the Kingdom of God looks like.
In the time of Jesus, there were all kinds of presumptions about who was important to God. The wealthy and the educated believed that they were superior in God’s eyes compared to the poor and the uneducated. This idea came from the presumption that the structures of this world would simply be mirrored in the structures of heaven. That kind of an understanding was not just unique to the people in the times of Jesus. Throughout history people have presumed that God sees the world the way that we do. So that those who are important on earth are important to God, and those who are forgotten on earth are forgotten to God as well.
But at the heart of Jesus’ teaching as we discover it throughout the Gospels is one message which breaks through all of these understandings; it is simply this: those of us who may be tempted to believe this kind of mirroring effect have got things the wrong way around. Because according to Jesus it is actually those who are counted as the least now who are in reality at the centre of God’s Kingdom. Which means that those who in pushing themselves forward in the belief that they will become more important to God by doing so, will be greatly disappointed. Because just like guests at a meal who clamour to be at the head of the table, people who believe that they are more important than others in the eyes of God have missed the point of what the Kingdom of God is all about. What they haven’t grasped is that if the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks can be likened to a table at which people gather to feast together, the table doesn’t extend longways, it is actually round: and round tables don’t have a top or a bottom at all no matter how hard people try to create one.
Now this will be bad news for those of us who want to be special because other people are not, but it will be profoundly good news for those of us who want to be special because we know that everyone is special in the heart of God. If we can grasp one thing from the images of this parable, I hope it can be this. Everyone at the table of the Kingdom of God will be there because they are equally worthy, or to put it more accurately, we are all equally unworthy but in Jesus – and only in him – we have become equally worthy to feast and to celebrate in the love of God.
So the message of Jesus is clear: we can go on living as if there is a top table and a bottom table, a more important end and a less important end, or – as members of the banquet of the Kingdom of God – we can embrace the truth of the Gospel, that where Jesus is present all are equally valued, and loved together. That is, after all, why we have come to share this life-changing meal together today.