Table Talk

Place-settings-at-a-large-formal-dinner.-The-host-and-hostess-may-be-seated-at-another-table

…. sermon for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proverbs 25:6-7, Luke 14:1, 7-14 …. 

It’s still August, but in many schools, students and teachers are already settling into the Fall routine. Somewhere, I read a quotation about school that seemed worthy of Dennis the Menace, Charlie Brown, or Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes fame). Some young wise sage said, “The problem with being a seventh-grader is that they make the rules before you get there.”

This week, I felt a bit like that seventh-grader, when I returned to a formal classroom setting for the first time in twenty years. Desiring a more disciplined approach to continuing education, I’ve enrolled in my first course on Tuesday nights in the Nonprofit Management and Leadership program at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Earlier this year, I completed my application, met with my advisor, had my photo taken for a student id card, and received a parking pass. I paid $49.50 to rent a digital textbook for the semester (I think it self-destructs after my final exam). I’ve learned the basics of navigating the “MyView” student profile, and the “MyGate” course management systems with instructor notes and additional class materials.

The professor’s nine-page syllabus contains a lot of rules like:

  • All written work must be typed on paper, double spaced, with one-inch margins, using standard fonts no larger than 12-point, using the APA style guide, and not forgetting a cover sheet. “Printing off your paper is NOT the instructor’s responsibility.”
  • No one will be excused from class, so please do not bring notes from your doctor, etc., to justify an absence; this is not high school.
  • Texting on a cell phone during class is particularly annoying to the instructor and to others seated around you; texting is not considered an appropriate or acceptable activity during class.

I had a moment of mild panic when I realized I sent the professor a note from my personal G-mail account, rather than through the campus mail system. The first week, and I’ve already goofed. The problem with being a seventh-grader, or an adult learner, is that they make the rules before you get there.

I imagine that Jesus might have felt like a new student the Sabbath day that he attended a dinner at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, as recorded in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. New Testament scholar Robert Tannehill suggests the scene may reflect the custom of the symposium, a dinner and drinking party that included after-dinner speeches.[1] Perhaps others were invited to speak, but Luke’s interest in Jesus alone gives us the impression that Jesus is the only one whose wisdom is being scrutinized this particular day.

Jesus observes the behavior of the dinner guests, and the unstated rules by which they operate. In such a formal affair, the couches on which the guests reclined to eat were arranged in an order according to the rank of each guest. Religious leaders were typically accorded special honor. At this meal, the guests are following rules about spiritual hierarchy that were in place before Jesus got there, and Jesus calls those rules into question.

Today, as we navigate our way through various social groups, there are still rules –often unspoken rules – about honor and prestige, who gets invited to a banquet, who gets to sit at a particular table or next to a particular person, who gets to appear in the group photo on Facebook or twitter.

Social media provides opportunities for reflection about this phenomenon. I’ve grown uncomfortable with some of my colleagues, the high frequency of tweets and posts about major news headlines. On the one hand, we say we’re not concerned about celebrity or social position. On the other hand, our actions suggest we’re involved in a great contest to amass as many followers, and comments, and likes as possible. I suggest that the feelings at the root of this phenomenon aren’t all that different from the ones of the religious leaders at Jesus’ table. We religious leaders feel anxiety to be influential rather than irrelevant, an anxiety that may be expressed in desiring a seat of honor, whether at a banquet or at the virtual discussion table of Facebook or twitter. In some groups, there are a few people who spend tremendous energy to master the rules – even manipulate the rules – to keep themselves at the head table, while others suddenly find themselves outside the banquet hall. From the perspective of the outsiders, the problem with living and working in such groups is that somebody else made or remade the rules before you got there.

The Church, at its best, models a better way, which Jesus begins to describe with a parable about the potential risk of taking too high a place, and the potential reward of taking a place too low. Like our first scripture reading from Proverbs, which Jesus echoes, this is sound, practical advice for common social functions. But, at a deeper level, Jesus is saying something important about the rules that apply in the new order he is establishing: For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. His “sweeping statement of reversal … may not always apply in human affairs, but it is the rule in God’s kingdom.”[2]

A few weeks ago at our potluck luncheon, I sat with the M. family: J., S., J., E., and C. During the meal, S. told me about her experience the previous evening of attending the Paul McCartney concert at Busch Stadium. It was a rare opportunity for people in our area to see a living musical legend, and some of the ticket prices on the resale market were quite high.

S’s nieces were there, L. and K. A person walked up to L., and engaged her in conversation. He happened to be a staff member with the show person, who made an unbelievable offer. The stadium was not full, there were still empty seats on the main floor, and they were invited to leave their seats, and come down on the main field. They ended up sitting directly in front of the stage.

The kingdom of God is something like that. It’s hearing from afar the man who wrote the music, thinking you’ll never get close. The rules about attendance were written long before you arrived. The best seats always seem to go to those with power and influence, so you listen from your seat in the bleachers. Then, most unexpectedly, someone invites you to take a better place, and leads you to the front row, a wonderful gift of grace. At its best, the Church finds ways to grant that kind of access, to offer similar gifts of grace. For, at Jesus’ table, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

[1] Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 229.

[2] Tannehill, p. 229.

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~ by JohnH1962 on August 28, 2016.