Sunday, September 1, 2013

using your gifts

May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

What kind of an image pops into your head when you hear the parable in today's Gospel about the guest who gets it badly wrong about where he should sit at the banquet – do you see a long dining table with chairs at either side and the host sitting at the head? If you do, you have the wrong picture entirely – but it's not your fault! The problem lies with the translation – our English version talks about sitting at the table, while in Greek, the language it was written in, it says recline. And that's important, because it tells us exactly what kind of a dining-scene Jesus is talking about.

What we have here is a triclinium, the formal dining arrangement of the Mediterranean world. To give you an idea of what it looked like: in the centre was a low, square table; On three sides were a couch, wide enough for three men. On these the diners would recline on their side, with plenty of cushions to keep them comfortable, reaching the food from the table with their free hand. The fourth side of the square was left open, in order to allow the servants room to get in and out with the dishes and wine. It also allowed the diners a view of what ever entertainment might be on offer as part of the banquet.

The arrangement was very formal; the host reclined on the side of one of the couches closest to the free side; the guest of honour lay next to him; and so on from the most important to the least until all the places were filled. And in a rigidly hierarchical society, the rules surrounding such a formal banquet were rigidly adhered to.

Now at a wedding, the example Jesus uses, this would have effectively been the 'top table.' There may have been one or two other such triclinium elsewhere in the room or perhaps not. All the other guests would probably have to make to would low chairs around the walls, or maybe cushions on the floor, well away from the top table.

Knowing this gives a clearer picture of what Jesus was talking about in the parable. At such a small, intimate group as the triclinium, there could be no quiet word in the ear of the guest who had wrongly decided that he was higher up the pecking order than he actually was. All who were already reclining would see and know exactly what was going on. They would see the host approach the man lying in the best place, and then see him get up and move away … and not just to the next place down either … in the parable, Jesus indicates the man is sent to the lowest place … the host isn't going to make everyone shift down and inconvenience and embarrass all his guests … this man was the one who got things wrong, let him be the one to suffer the consequences and go sit in the only place left, the lowest place at the table, even though it is quite certainly a place that is far below his station … in such a society, this would be a crushing humiliation … he has not only been publicly rebuked, but he has openly demeaned … his social standing might never recover …

Understanding the implications of what has gone before gives us an insight into how shocking the advice that Christ then gives to his listeners. He doesn't say, be careful to judge things right so that you recline in the right spot; he says deliberately chose the lowest place. In the parable, such a one is rewarded by being moved higher up the table. But the point Jesus has to make has nothing to do with playing games with the social customs of his day. He is making a profound theological point, one with Christological overtones. He is calling his followers to a life of perfect humility, even as his life was one of perfect humility. He, God's Son, humbled himself becoming man – and a man in very humble circumstances at that – and a humiliating death on the cross. From that lowly place he was raised to the highest place possible – the right hand of the Father.

We also are called to try our very best to imitate that perfect humility. To care nothing about worldly glory, to care nothing indeed for any of the things of this world. Because if we seek only for the better place at the table of this world, we will ultimately fail … the glory of this world ends in the grave for us all … and it is at the moment that we will discover whether we will be raised up to the better place to join with Christ in the glorious banquet in heaven, or be crushed to discover that we are instead being sent to the lowest place. I pray here will seek the perfect humility that Christ calls us to and so be called at the last to be with him in that higher place; even as I even as I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen.

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