(Luke 14:1-11, Ephesians 4:1-6)
My wife and I don’t get to fly very often, and when we do we book as far ahead as possible - in the hope of getting decent seats. Of course economy class is much of a muchness wherever you sit. But on a long, cramped flight just a couple of inches extra legroom, or an aisle seat, or being able to sit together makes all the difference.
We’ve had our reservation messed around once or twice, but we’ve never had the experience of someone I know: getting to his seat only to find it occupied by somebody else – and that someone was very reluctant to move. If that had happened to me I don’t know how I’d have reacted. But my friend didn’t hesitate: he doggedly ploughed his way up the aisle against the tide of struggling humanity to speak to the cabin staff.
And of course, once he’d done that, the issue was speedily dealt with. A large and slightly intimidating flight attendant bore down on the culprit and said, “Excuse me, there seems to be some confusion over seating. May I see your ticket, please.” And the interloper was on his way in seconds.
I’d like you to try and imagine it’s you in the wrong seat. Imagine the impatient flight attendant standing over you. Picture your fellow passengers craning their necks to see what’s going on as you gather your bits and pieces together, grinning as you get your bag and coat down from the overhead locker and shuffle your way back to your allotted seat. Humiliation.
Jesus painted a similar word picture for the ambitious socialites at a banquet he attended. He saw them jostling for position at what we’d call the top table, and he gave them a very shrewd piece of advice: If you really want to impress, don’t make a beeline for the top. Sit somewhere lower down the pecking order. Then, when the final seating is sorted out, rather than being evicted from somebody else’s place, everyone will see you promoted.
Good social advice, but is there anything else to it? After all, it’s not particularly punchy as parables go. In fact, if the Gospel writer hadn’t said ‘he told them this parable’, then I wonder how many of us would have noticed that it was one! On the other hand, there is a twist at the end – just enough of a twist to make clear that this is about more than just etiquette: ”For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted”.
And yet, even that seems a rather commonplace thought, doesn’t it? A thought that’s expressed more punchily elsewhere in Scripture. “Pride comes before a fall” or “Blessed are the meek”. It’s such a familiar idea that we could easily miss just how pointed and punishing Jesus’ words are in this particular setting. And in order to see that, we need to go back to the beginning of the episode.
The story starts when Jesus goes to dinner with a senior religious leader on the Sabbath. He knows they’re watching for things they can pick him up on, and no doubt he’s looking for a chance to make a statement about his priorities. As it happens, there’s a man there with a distressing medical condition. Jesus knows how rigid his fellow-guests are about working on the Sabbath. So he asks an outright question. It’s effectively, “OK, what should I do here guys: follow the rules or do good for somebody.”
The sad thing is, when he puts it like that, he meets a stony silence. In their hearts, they almost certainly know what’s right. But no one will risk being the first to say it in front of their peers. So Jesus goes ahead and heals the patient. And can’t you just see them exchanging smug glances. “Hah!” they’re thinking. “We can tell he’s no holy man.”
So Jesus begins to reason with them. “Come on,” he says. “There has to be a limit. Suppose you saw a child fall down a well on the Sabbath, would you leave her there to die for the sake of your rules.” The answer is obvious, of course. But they can see that this is the thin end of the wedge, so again they stay silent.
And that’s the point at which Jesus draws attention to their jostling for the best seats. But it’s not the jostling itself he focuses on, so much as the pride and self-importance that drive it. Remember, he’s still tackling the misguided leaders who put rules before people. And here is what Jesus is saying to them:
You are so proud of your ancient traditions that you’re neglecting the amazing things God is doing right in front of your eyes. A time will come when the things of which you’ve been so proud will be revealed as worthless, and you will be humiliated. In contrast, those who have humbly embraced what God is doing will be seen as the really important ones – the true heirs of God’s promises.
I wonder if Jesus sees a similar inversion of his priorities in the disagreements shaking the church apart today – the splits over worship styles, gender, sexuality and so on. He certainly valued the law and his people’s traditions, but not when they got in the way of healing and justice. And he demands that our first allegiance should be to him in person. He won’t accept second place to our religious or ethical traditions. He won’t be coopted by either traditionalists or reformers.
His words challenge us to think deeply about whom we are hurting, whom we are oppressing, whom we are excluding, and what it’s doing to our relationship with God, when we put our causes and traditions before him and before other people. And whatever we see as our justification for doing so, whether it’s Scripture or Church tradition or the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or an exalted view of human rights, we can expect to look back on our words and actions with shame when we see at last what our Lord and Saviour is really like.
The Apostle Paul cuts to the heart of the message in our reading from Ephesians, when he calls us to live in a manner worthy of our calling. Be humble and gentle, he wrote; be patient. Live in unity and peace. Because there is one body and one Spirit, one hope for all of us; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all.