When I first started teaching High School English, it was part-time, teaching one section of 12th grade Modern Literature. I love all books, but it is the 19th and 20th centuries I love the most, so it wasn’t hard for me to share my passion and excitement for the books we read; Faulkner, Twain, Hemingway… these were authors that spoke to me.
When a full-time position opened up, I was able to pretty easily slide into it, however, it also meant that I would be teaching 10th grade… which was Medieval Literature… that meant the period from around 500 through to the Renaissance… Not really my cup of tea. I was especially daunted when I realized I would have to, for the first time, actually read Beowulf. But alas, I had to. So I gritted my teeth, brewed a big pot of coffee, and put myself on the “cookie plan” (which is where I would reward myself for every ten pages read with a cookie).
Funnily enough, I soon forgot about the cookies, and became so enraptured in the book, that I finished it in about a day. It’s not a long read, but it is complex enough that it takes some time. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it!
If you are not familiar with it, Beowulf tells the story of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon warrior who fights the evil monster Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, and finally a dragon, all in quest of glory, honor, and to save his friends and kin. But mostly for the glory.
As I read this story with the sophomores, I would also walk them through the beliefs and culture of the Anglo-Saxons. For that culture in that time period, there was a strict code of honor, as well as various rules and protocols for conducting oneself in public.
The gathering place for Anglo-Saxon culture was the Mead Hall, where a King would gather with his warriors to feast, celebrate, mourn, and even sleep. But this was not a place of chaos and disorder; rather, the social order within the Mead Hall was quite structured, and the hierarchy quite distinct.
In Beowulf, the king he has traveled a long way to help, Hrothgar, sits in his Mead Hall, with his sons next to him, and his most trusted friends and advisors next to them on either side. The places of honor, which Beowulf is quick to occupy himself, are closest to the king. As a warrior proved himself in battle, his rank and standing would improve, shown in his nearness to the king in the hall.
It is similar to when we would all make that jump from the “kids table” to the “adult table.” I remember the first time I was invited to sit with the adults, leaving my cousins and younger siblings behind. That was such a feeling of honor and importance.
Jesus brings this type of social ordering to the forefront in our scripture lesson this morning. There is a bit of danger in reading this text as simply a scene where Jesus is laying out good rules for having good manners while you are the guest at someone’s home. There is a lot more here going on than meets the eye (which, let’s be honest, is usually how it goes with Jesus!).
First of all, Jesus is using the cover of “good advice” to subversively lay out a more radical, counter-cultural ideal. In the first part of our story, Jesus says, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.”
Let’s parse this out a little bit. What Jesus is advising here is, when you go to a party, or a feast, or wherever, take a place of low standing. Sit in the nosebleed section, in the back by the kitchen, or at the kid’s table. That way, the host will see you there and then say, “Hey! You belong closer to me! Get up here!” That way, you’re honored. On the other hand, if you were to, say, take the spot at the head of the table, you’ll only be embarrassed when you’re told to get out of the seat, someone more important needs to sit there. On the surface, this is good, practical advice for how to save face, and maybe even get a little bit of honor thrown your way.
But it’s not just about etiquette. “Etiquette, after all, is not simply about manners in the ancient world; it’s about honor and shame and social position and political standing, and these things matter more than just about anything in Jesus’ day. So he’s not simply giving good advice… Rather, he’s turning convention on its head. He’s challenging the status quo. He’s inciting something of a social revolution. And for all these reasons he’s inviting the death sentence he eventually gets” (Lose).
It’s really rather striking just how masterful an observer of human nature Jesus is. He tells this parable after watching how the guests at the feast he has been invited to choose their seats. Maybe there was a little scuffle over a seat, or perhaps someone was shamed for taking the wrong seat. Whatever it was that inspired this parable, we see the power that cultural practices and norms have on those gathered.
“In an honor and shame culture, avoiding shame is of the utmost importance. This is not simply embarrassment. Public shame may have tangible implications for the shamed. A family’s bartering practices or marriage proposals can be negatively affected by a public shaming, if the shame is significant enough.
“On the opposite end, public honor- determined, in this story, by the host- may come to those who express public humility. Jesus expresses expectations for hosts (cf. 14:12-14). His words are a challenge to the honor system embedded in first-century culture. To secure one’s place in this system, it was appropriate to invite friends, family, and rich neighbors. Reciprocal requests would ensue, as the public acknowledgment of an honorable person may bring its own rewards.
“But Jesus calls into question this type of caste system, imagining instead hosts who choose to associate with people who are ‘poor, crippled, lame, and blind’ (14:13) as their new network. The problem for hosts, however, as Jesus explicitly recognizes, is that no honor is forthcoming in return” (Powery).
See, what Christ is exposing of his culture is that showing honor was always expected to return the honor. It is a quid pro quo existence; the karma idea that what goes around comes around. And really, isn’t that how we expect our world to run? We do something good, we expect to be rewarded for it, or at least get a little recognition. Because
“we humans are just insecure enough… that there are few things we crave more in this topsy-turvy world than a little order. We want to know where we stand, how we’re doing, how we measure up. And given how small we feel- and, for goodness’ sake, really are- in comparison to the vast cosmos of which we are a part, more often than not we seek that sense of order by comparing ourselves to others. This is why social pecking orders are so important. Love them or hate them- or both- it’s rare that we’re not keenly aware of, and just a little invested in, the pecking order of the various groups we’re a part of” (Lose).
But Jesus calls us to stop counting and to stop expecting anything in return. That’s essentially what he is saying when he tells us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, instead of the rich and powerful, our friends or even our family. When you have a dinner party, no, even fancier, a wedding feast, invite the homeless family that has been living in their car for the past three months; invite the refugee couple with dark skin; invite the transgender teen who has been struggling with bullying at school; invite all of those who society dubs “less than,” because here, at God’s table, there is a seat of honor for them. And we are to do all of this inviting, all of this honor giving, for people who are, in many respects, unable to give any honor back to us.
Here at this table, when we break bread and drink wine, we are living into the two most important relationships made evident through scripture:
“the relationship we have with God, and the relationship we have with each other and creation. [We] can’t, of course, separate these two- that is, [we] can’t claim much of a relationship with God if [our] relationship with the people around [us] stinks. But,” as David Lose points out, “that works in reverse, too. As we see in today’s reading, precisely because we have been invited into relationship by God- because, that is, God has conferred upon us freely a dignity and worth we could never secure for ourselves- we are free to do the same for others. We are free to put them before ourselves, to lead them to seats of honor, to invite them to be our dinner guests, not because of what they can do for us, but because of what has already been done for all of us” (Lose).
We are called, this morning, to stop counting; “to stop distinguishing one from another, in order to structure our contemporary world.” To put aside “these distinctions [which] hinder us from true fellowship with one another” (Powery).
Standing up to cultural norms is hard, and sometimes painful. Walking the walk, so to speak, is difficult. In a culture that values quid pro quo exchanges, and puts a value on everything, giving up the possibility of receiving something back (goods, services, honor, whatever it may be), is really hard to do. But this is the community we are called to build; the kind of fellowship Jesus desires for us. “As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood, ‘Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a quantitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives’” (Powery). It’s a hard change to make, but when we gather at this table, we see the beauty of God’s kingdom reflected back at us. And that’s worth counting on. Amen.
Lose, David. “More Than Good Advice [or] Why Jesus Gets Killed, Pt. 2.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 22 Aug. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.
Powery, Emerson. “Commentary on Luke 14:1, 7-14.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 1 Sept. 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.