Luke 14:1, 7-14
If you’ve ever had to do a seating plan for a wedding, you’ll know what a nightmare it is. Auntie Mabel won’t speak to Cousin Fred, so they can’t be on the same table. Old Keith will be seriously miffed if he’s too near the back. Ronnie and Mildred will bore everyone to tears, so we’d better be very careful who’s going to have to endure being on their table, and we daren’t risk Mrs Barabel being too far from the ladies.
For our wedding I think we had all the names on individual little bits of paper, and kept moving them around until we had an arrangement we could live with. Until two days beforehand when an old friend phoned to say his girlfriend wasn’t coming as they’d split up, and we had to re-do the whole thing. Then there’s the dilemma of what to do with parents. All our parents are divorced, and some have remarried, but not others. If they all sat at the top table it would have been very large and unbalanced. In the end we gave them a table each. But then of course you have to be very careful to make sure no table looks more prominent than the others. Numbers are a definite no-no – that really smacks of precedence. We went four colours. Jess and Aaron went for cheeses at their wedding. I’m sure that was Jess’s ideas, as I don’t think the Americans really do cheese.
The Methodist Church has their preaching plan, and that’s just as delicate as the seating plan at a wedding. The superintendent has complete control over which Ministers or Local Preachers are sent to which churches on which dates. The best Superintendents know their preachers and their churches, and it becomes a very nuanced exercise, otherwise the scattergun approach risks offending everyone all at once.
All this is by way of saying how hard it can be to get things right without offending people. It’s just the same in church. When we ask for volunteers, do you say yes, and risk looking too keen and putting oneself forward above others too much, or do you hold back and risk seeming reluctant or unwilling? Whatever we do, many are ready to question our motives, or rather to presume our motivation and to judge it adversely.
But what does motivate our behaviour? What should? At one level the wisdom expressed in Proverbs suggests that humility should underpin all that we say or do. We shouldn’t regard ourselves as better, more important, than others. Quite the contrary. If we live like this, our true worth can be seen and rewarded by those who have authority in any given situation. The message seems to be: Be humble in all things, and in due course you’ll be granted a place of honour in the presence of God. Your reward will be in heaven.
However, if we consider the context of these words from Proverbs, it becomes evident that they’re offering advice to those who want to get on in the world. The passage is about the strategy to adopt in order to obtain a position of status and privilege. These words of wisdom about humility become a programme for self-aggrandisement at the expense, even the humiliation, of someone else. Social climbing and blatant ambition at their worst. So, here we find the crux of the problem: is our behaviour always motivated by rewards we hope to receive? Do we only do good because of what we will get out of it, be that eternal life, a place in God’s kingdom, or a seat at the heavenly banquet? In other words, there’s a moral contradiction inherent in being unselfish with an eye to heavenly gain.
This same dilemma arises in the parables from Luke’s gospel. In context, this about those who presume their own righteousness, because they belong to the people of God and follow God’s law to the letter. Their presumption is that privileges flow from a relationship with God. They’re critical of Jesus because he mixes with outsiders and sits light to religious laws. Jesus warns them through both parables that they may get a nasty surprise when the day of judgment comes and discover that they are not honoured by God, while those with no thought for themselves who follow the ways of Jesus by being generous, hospitable, welcoming to the poor, the needy, the outcasts will actually be the ones to receive God’s favour.
Martin Luther King junior, whose famous ‘I have a dream’ speech was delivered fifty years ago last week, dreamt of a world in which all people were treated equally. Surely what should motivate how we behave as individuals, how we behave as a church, must be about treating all people equally. That sounds very easy, we think that’s something we understand. However, the reality isn’t always so. Last Sunday morning we had a church full of visitors for a Baptism. Many of them clearly hadn’t been in church for a very long time, if ever. They didn’t know how we expected them to behave, so it’s no surprise that many of them didn’t behave as we hoped they might. We did very well, in the circumstances, but in situations like that who might be the first and the last? Isn’t the challenge from our readings to continually try and do just this?
Tonight we come to the table, to break bread and pour wine, to share them together. The risen Christ is the host, who invites all to share at his table. There’s a place at the table for everyone, and the last shall be first. May that be an inspiration to us in this week ahead, in whatever we face, as we try to put the dream of an equal world into practice.
For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.