When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the maid of honor’s seat unless you are the maid of honor. And stay away from the best man’s chair unless you’re the best man.
Jesus speaks about being invited to a wedding banquet, but I get a feeling he’s avoiding the most difficult part. You know that at a wedding reception the guests can’t just wander in and choose a seat, whether it’s at the head table or in the corner with their back to the sweetheart table, the cake, the dance floor, and everything else. Somebody has to decide which guest will just have to sit on that chair in the corner that nobody would choose to sit in. Somebody has to come up with the seating chart.
Heather Lee at brides.com suggests, “Begin by grouping guests according to how you know them: family members and friends from different aspects of life (childhood, high school, college, work, etc.). Seat younger guests closer to the dance floor and older guests a little further away. Use your seating plan to introduce people with similar interests and backgrounds. Try to make everyone feel comfortable by offering a mix of familiar and new faces at each table. Be tactful: Avoid seating people together who have a history they wish they could forget."
Be tactful. That sounds doable, but the folks at theknot.com seem a bit more willing to tackle the real challenge: “Your cousins have been feuding since the ‘80s, your last single girlfriend is hypersensitive to being seated at the ‘wrong’ table, and you have one couple coming from out of the country who only know you and your fiancé. What to do?” In the end it again boils down to being tactful: “With a little tact, diplomacy and common sense, you can create a seating plan that will make, well, almost everyone happy.” Almost. Don’t they know that word can hide a world of hurt?
Elizabeth Clayton tells it like it is at apracticalwedding.com:
For many of my clients, the wedding seating chart is one of the most stressful parts of planning—I’ve seen clients both cry and fight with each other (and their families) over them. Just recently a client of mine posted something on Facebook about their wedding seating chart, and one of the responses summed it up perfectly as being, “Like Tetris, but with emotions.”
Elizabeth is the practical one in the wedding consulting business. “Just remember,” she writes at the end of her column, “your guests are adults (or have an adult with them); they love you and are happy to be there, and will hopefully be gracious about whatever table they end up being placed at. If not—just remember that a well-stocked bar can go a long way towards soothing things."
Jesus has been invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees for dinner. The other guests are watching him closely; they are not all friends there. But Jesus is paying close attention as well to what the other guests are doing. He notices how they go for the best seats, and he starts to comment; he sounds like somebody who writes a column for weddingguest.com or receptionetiquette.net: “Do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host.” That would be so embarrassing. He sounds very practical, like somebody whose mission is to teach the masses the difference between the salad fork and the dessert fork. But Jesus didn’t come to offer reception advice, and he didn’t get crucified for teaching people how to be nice.
Is he really talking about the best strategy to get to the best seats without embarrassing oneself? How to lay low and hold back until the moment is right? His words sound very similar to the wisdom of king Solomon recorded in Proverbs, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told ‘Come up here’ than to be put lower in the presence of the prince” (Proverbs 25:6-7). Is he telling us to choose the lowest place and to linger outside the lime light, waiting to be noticed, and when the moment has arrived, to step into the light, the envy of all the other contestants? I don’t know, that sounds a lot like humility as the ultimate technique of self-promotion; it just doesn’t sync with who Jesus is and with his other teachings.
Let’s look at it from a different angle. Why do the guests desire the places of honor? Why are we so eager to identify and occupy the good seats?
We have an image to cultivate. We have a position to maintain. We have a status to preserve. And you don’t just sit in the place of honor once you’ve arrived there. You worry and you never stop wondering: Am I projecting the kind of persona my social position requires? Am I being shown the kind of respect I deserve? Am I getting noticed by the people who matter? Will I remember to invite the guy three seats down to my next dinner party? Knowing him and being seen with him could be useful.
You don’t just sit in the place of honor, you constantly monitor your performance and your place on the big seating chart we constantly create and rearrange together in our minds, in the social pages and on social media.
Jesus isn’t talking about seating strategies. He is talking about how we see ourselves. We want to know where we stand, how we are doing, how we measure up – always in comparison to others. We find our place in the world by competing for a better place on the grand seating chart. There are, after all, only so many seats at the head table, only so many seats in the front row, only so many positions at the top, and so we learn to live with constant comparison and unending competition, anxiously worrying about our place.
In the ancient world, a dinner party was much more than an occasion for family and friends to hang out. A dinner party gave wealthy, influential families and individuals an opportunity to display and maintain their elite status. Every dining room was a hall of fame, and while the many worried about survival, the few worried about power and fame.
You invite me, and I invite you. You honor me, and I honor you. Quid pro quo.You introduce me to the people who can help me with my projects, and I introduce you to the people who can help you with yours. You invite my friends, and I invite yours. It’s how things get done in this city.
That’s how it works, isn’t it?
Jesus challenges the rules of the game. Against the habits of upwardly mobile networking and conventional patterns of reciprocity he lives and teaches kingdom etiquette. He grabs the dinner table and flips it over.
When you give a luncheon or a dinner, don’t invite your friends and your rich neighbors. Invite those who can’t do anything for you. Invite those who never know where their next meal will come from. Lift up the lowly. Surprise the poor, the lame, and the blind. Open the door and invite Lazarus to sit at the head of the table.
Why would anybody do that?
The biggest dinner party of all is life itself and God is the host. And no one gets to sit at God’s table by out-competing the others. Anyone who gets to sit at God’s table does so solely because God delights in shouting, “Friend, come on in.”
When Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, he performs the great wedding banquet of heaven. The invitation goes out to all, and there’s nothing we have to do or can do to get our names on the guest list. The occasion is the wedding of Christ and the bride, the blessed communion of heaven and earth, and God desires nothing more than for us to be part of the glorious joy. “Friend, come on in!” shouts the father of the bride.
We forget the seating charts because Jesus opens our eyes, our hearts and minds to the boundless love and hospitality of God. In his presence we know we belong to the household of God and we take our seat at the table where all belong. Here we learn how to let the kingdom shape our table manners. We lift up the lowly because God has lifted us up. We surprise the poor because God has surprised us. We open the door and invite Lazarus to dinner because God has opened the door for us.
The word invite rings out repeatedly in Jesus’ story of the great banquet and his words about dinners, luncheons, and receptions. The word invite rings out constantly in Jesus’ life because he embodies God’s invitation, “Friend, come on in.” Your dignity, your honor, your worth are not the result of anxious striving and self-monitoring and comparing and competing. You belong to God. Isn’t that why we’re here? To be reminded of God’s desire for communion with us? To hear that voice saying, “Friend, come on in!” and realize, “You are talking to me, you really are!” Isn’t that why we’re here? To forget ourselves for awhile and to remember that we are God’s own – chosen, invited, and honored? To forget ourselves for awhile and catch a glimpse of our true selves, all of us at home in God’s boundless hospitality? To practice living as God’s friends and learn to speak God’s word of friendship?