“Go and sit in the least important place….” Jesus was speaking to men gathered at a first century Palestinian dinner party. (Due to cultural circumstances only men would have been invited as guests to the party. If there were women present, they would have been expected to serve the invited men.) They were doing the very same thing that you and I tend to do at any of our social engagements, jockeying for social status and relational affirmation. Their social status, and therefore relational worth, would be affirmed by the place in which the host, in this instance a leader from the religious community, seated them at his dinner party.
You see, these dinner parties common to first century Palestine had very strict social protocols and a very rigid hierarchical seating chart. As guests arrived they would be greeted by and would gather around their host who would make available for them water to wash their hands and feet and would offer other forms of hospitality as his guests settled in. There would be servants and a household staff to attend to the guests as well. The evening would progress and it would be time to be seated at table. Culturally, people sat around a low tables arranged in the shape of a U, well, actually a U with squared corners, and they would be seated not in chairs, but on pillows on the ground. The host himself would be seated in the middle of the U and the most prestigious seats were those immediately next to the host, but any seat in the middle section of the U was considered honorable. If on the other hand, you were asked to be seated at a cushion on one of the wings, you were being asked to sit in a spot less desirable and less prestigious. The least important seats were those seats at the far ends of the U’s wings, closest to the exit of the room and furthest from the host and the center of the U, which served as the hub of the evenings social activities.
Every man who was invited to this party had the same goal, to be honored as the most valued guest. Every single invitee had the hope — to be exalted above all the rest and thus be ascribed worth that exceeded the other invitees. Every guest in attendance had the same fear —to be banished to the wing-tables and exposed as someone of insignificance. The people gathered for dinner some two thousand years ago were turning to their host to provide them with esteem and affection and were in fact dreading rejection.
But Jesus was not playing this game. Upon his arrival, Jesus immediately begins to play the role of the awkward guest. After all, apocalyptic, messianic prophets usually don’t make good dinner party guests because they tend to introduce strange conversation topics. True to form, Jesus, countercultural as ever, resists behaving as all the other dinner guests, but instead offers his observations (in the form of a story) that exposes the social jockeying of the evening.
Instead of trying to be awarded the seats of honor Jesus says, why not willingly take the place of least honor. Would it feel good to have your host then come and invite you to sit nearer to him? How affirming would it feel to be so publicly esteemed? How worthy would you feel?
Imagine being invited to a wedding celebration where friends, relatives, neighbors, even the whole community was gathered for an extravaganza. Now imagine you were a brash person a person who did not demure to the social expectations and spectacles and simply walked straight for the table of honor and sat down in the highest seat of honor at the highest table. This would have at least drawn a chuckle from Jesus’ audience because this kind of behavior would never have been considered by any guest in his right mind because it would have so violated the cultural expectations. Guests did not simply seat themselves, they were invited to be seated, in some way shape or form, by the hosts, based on the host’s perception of the guests’ level of importance and prestige.
Nevertheless, imagine then that this brash person was just making himself comfortable when the host’s attention is drawn to this rogue and in full public view asks the person who has usurped the seat of honor to remove himself and to be seated at one of the lowest tables and in fact to take his seat at the seat of lowest honor. This would have been the epitome of mortifying embarrassment. No greater act of dishonor could have been initiated against another human being in this culture. No one would be blamed except the haughty and presumptuous guest; the host certainly would not be blamed for acting in accordance with social customs and traditions. The guests social undoing would have been all because of his own sense of pride and ambition. What if he had chosen a more humble seat to hover around before being invited to sit?
Similarly, Jesus continues, imagine someone who instead of playing the usual social games of hovering around the host near the table of honor and silently pandering to be seated in a place of honor, walks straight for the table of least honor and plops down on the cushion situated at the seat of least honor. Imagine the scene that would ensue when the host of the party notices the guest and insists that he come and sit next to him at the table of honor in a seat of prestige and privilege. How wonderful would that guest feel? How affirming? And how far superior would this guest feel to all the other guests? So, Jesus concludes, if you are looking for affirmation and esteem, why not go and sit at the place of least importance, then you will receive such public glorification you will be able to gloat and hold it over others for years to come.
Of course, Jesus speaks the conclusion of this parable tongue-in-cheek. Jesus is not giving advice on how to practice manipulating hosts, putting down fellow guests, or feigning humility only to have one’s sense of self-importance and pride only confirmed at the sake of dishonoring others. Jesus instead invites the other guests of his dinner party to consider a new alternative; what if they actually grew in their own sense of self-worth and stopped turning to others and the cultural and social structures to give them a sense of importance and worth? What if they could be filled with a sense of worth and beloved-ness without having to go chasing it through these social gymnastics?
“Go and sit in the least important place…,” but of course Jesus is not really talking about cushions or chairs, and he is not really giving us advice on seat selection. Jesus is inviting us to experience liberation. Why are we so obsessed with being affirmed by others? Why do we turn to social customs and social hierarchies to make us feel good about ourselves? Why is it that in order to feel good about ourselves we have to put others down, or at least feel like we are more superior to others?
We may not hover around hosts waiting to be seated on cushions of importance, but we have other ways of turning to others to try and affirm ourselves and give us a sense of worth. Money, prestige, fame, power, position, intellect, education, class, family, nationality, language, politics, athleticism, vocation, and careers are all ways we seek to have our sense of worth affirmed; they are also ways we seek to distance ourselves from others, affirming our achievements and progress in these areas as we look down from our perches at those who are beneath us.
Why do we do these things? We don’t do them because we are horrible people who like to be mean to others and put others down. We’re not inherently evil or wicked people. Instead, we are inherently hurting and wounded people. To live is to gain a collection of scars and hurts that continue to sting as we go through life. This entire world seems determined to tell us we are not good enough and the only way we can become good enough is if we achieve a level of status that supersedes others. We are led to believe that we are in a competition against every single other person; what that competition is we’re less sure, but we know we must win it. We have been formed to make snap judgements about others based on the neighborhoods in which they live, the color of their skin, the language they speak, the cars they drive, the schools they attended, the jobs they have, the money they make, and the social or political clout they enjoy. And every experience we have ever had in this life in which we have felt rejection, felt like we have lost the competition, not measured up as good enough, or experienced a sense of rejection from others has left gaping holes in our hearts and souls that we usually just ignore and never really get the help we need to bring healing and lead us to wholeness. We are emotionally and socially immature. We are emotionally and socially wounded. And what do wounded creatures do? Wounded creatures tend to wound others.
But Jesus offers to free us. Jesus wants to liberate us. When the world says we are not worthy, Jesus says you are worthy. When the world says to us you must prove yourself and achieve in this life if you want to be esteemed, Jesus says you are esteemed by your very nature of being created in God’s image and carrying the Divine spark within you. When the world says you are not good enough to be loved, Jesus says you are loved, you are loved, you are loved.
When we experience liberation from our need to seek esteem and affection from a world that refuses to grant it; when we find esteem and affection in our union with God, then we will be freed to be people who do not give a flying fiddle where we are seated at the proverbial wedding feast so we will find ourselves naturally gravitating to the table of lowest esteem, not because we don’t consider ourselves worthy, but because we do not need social or culture affirmation to make us feel good about ourselves. We will become people we are liberated to serve to willingly enter into places of suffering, insignificance, and marginalization. We will become people who are freed to love because we know we have infinite worth and we are beloved. We know this because we have union with God. Jesus invites us towards union with God so we might be liberated then to truly love others. “Go and sit in the least important place…” and experience the presence of Christ; experience your liberation.