Humility and seats at the table


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus talks about taking the lowest seat at the table, that is, the one farthest away from the host and therefore the least prestigious (Luke 4: 7-14). We don’t usually put the same priority on table seating, but we have lots of other places where we want the “best place”: getting into the shortest and quickest line at the grocery checkout before someone else gets there; being seated closer to the fifty yard line at a football game; or avoiding the middle seat on an airplane on an overnight flight! When we go to a wedding and see a friend or family member we have not seen for a long time, we might also want to have that coveted seat next to the person, and hope not to be seated too far away. If I were able to eat a sit down meal with Jesus, I would also really want to be the one sitting next to him, like John at the Last Supper, and not be seated at too great of a distance.

Jesus’ parable, though, is not really about closeness to the Lord or to our friends, or even about honor. After all, if a person were to take the lowest seat while secretly saying to himself “I hope the host moves me up to the highest seat when he sees how humble I have been!” this would be a terrible case of passive aggressive, covert self-aggrandizement. And Jesus is not about that.

I think the parable is instead more deeply about trust: trusting that God will give us what we need and that we don’t have to fight for it, compete for it, or vie for it . Love is there and God’s care for us is there, in its many forms, because of who God is, and even if we take the least position at the table, God will make sure we get all that we really need.

The parable, like the other readings for today, is also about humility. My favorite definition of humility is one a colleague once shared: telling the truth about one’s self, knowing my gifts and my limits. So it is not false self abnegation or false self aggrandizement, but rather reflects accurate self knowledge. If I have a sense of being God’s beloved one even with all my real human limits, then I am a bit closer to humility. Humility helps me to rely more on God than on myself, which is always a good idea.

Humility also connects us more to other people’s humanity, as well as to our own. For example, if I am being challenged to forgive someone else for what they have done to me, I am more likely to extend mercy if I also recall all the places in my own limits that I am in need of forgiveness–maybe even this same situation, I have made some mistakes, too! Or if I remember that other people have skills that I don’t have, then I won’t be such a control freak and will let other people contribute to how things work out rather than trying to run the show myself. I might even have enough humility to let God do the work in circumstances that are not easily solved, if I remember that God’s hand is in there, too.

I’ve heard that one reason that the positions at the right and left hand of the host was so coveted in Jesus’s time is that the best cuts of food would have been provided to special guests who were seated there, and those further down the table might have to eat whatever food is leftover by the time it arrives. But think about how a big meal works in reality among a loving family or close friends: people always make sure that everyone is provided for, even the vegans and gluten free folks, as well as the meat eaters seated far down the table. A good host makes sure that everyone has what they need, and not only some.

Jesus often uses food to communicate a point: as when James and Peter are out fishing and Jesus has them put down their empty nets and draw up a huge haul of fish. Jesus seems to be urging the disciples not to fight and compete for the best place, but to trust that in a loving community, God provides for everyone, even those way down at the end of a long table. We can feel and know love for a person who is not seated anywhere near us, because we trust and know that we are in the same family or community. It is there and we can just trust in it.

Jesus’ parable is also a way of urging us, Jesus’ friends and followers, to do the same for each other that the Good Host wants to do for us. Who in our own world is seated too far down at the end of the table and needs to be moved up? Where can we help to provide for their needs?