It’s easy to be a good host, right? Just anticipate the guest’s every need and make sure there’s more than enough of whatever the guest could possibly want. And it’s even easier to be a good guest. Just say “No, thank you” to everything because you don’t want to put anyone to any bother.
Which makes for some awkward dinner parties, doesn’t it? Maybe the point with Jesus in today’s reading from Luke is not to redefine the game and how to beat the game – what if, instead, in the Kingdom of God there are no more games, no more winners and no more losers? What if the table in the Kingdom of God looks so radically different that we can be both host and guest?
To get to that table, though, it is important that you and I recognize the trap that trips us up on the way to the welcome table. Because that trap is still a way to play the game, a way to be a winner. Finding the difference between humility and humiliation is still playing the game.
Joan Baez is a singer and songwriter who recently retired after almost sixty years of performing and touring. Her memoir And a Voice to Sing With recounts something that she learned while touring in the late 1960s: “At some point in my career I had learned not to assume that the flowers at the bottom of the airplane steps were necessarily for me, having once lunged for a large bouquet of roses and had the bestower leap backwards, clutching them to her bosom, as they were not for me at all, but for some diplomat who was following three people behind.”
It’s a two-part trap. The first part of the trap, as Joan discovered, is to believe that of course the best seat is where you and I belong; of course those roses are for me; of course we get the seats to the right hand and left hand of the host, where we get not only the choicest food but also the host’s close attention and rapt interest.
But to overcorrect, to go automatically to the humblest seat, is still playing the game. Jesus appears to be advocating for winning the game by going low when others go high: Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. Jesus is an observant Jew steeped in Scripture, and here he is expounding on the wisdom from Proverbs. And if winning the game, if magically finding the exact right seat at the table, is what Jesus is after, he’s offered some pretty game-changing advice.
The Butler, a movie that came out in 2013, is based on a true account of a man who began life in a sharecropper’s family on a cotton farm and became a White House butler who served eight presidents, ending with Ronald Reagan. As he nears his retirement, Nancy invites him to a state dinner.
“Oh, I’ll be there, ma’am,” he says.
“Oh no, Cecil,” she says. “I want you and your wife both there. As our guests.”
His wife is thrilled to be finally inside the place where her husband works. But it feels very strange for Cecil Gaines to be on the other side of the table. There’s very little dialogue in the scene; instead, we see the stiff expressions of Cecil and of the other butlers as they serve him as flawlessly as he serves guests every day. Whether you’re guest or host, Jesus seems to be saying, when there are some serving the champagne and some accepting it from a silver tray, it’s still a trap.
Winning the game is not Jesus’ goal. The Jesus that you and I encounter in Luke’s Gospel is one who delights in turning the established world upside-down, or rather, God-side-up. One who looks at the table the way it has always been and says: That doesn’t really work, does it? What if we completely change the table?
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Jesus is encouraging the Pharisee to invite precisely those people whom he probably spends his days avoiding. If the Pharisee takes Jesus’ advice, he will certainly become ritually impure by virtue of his contact with these people. Jesus is taking a hard look at his world’s ideas of honor and shame, who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down: and he’s turning it all on its head.
And when that happens – that ends the game. That takes away the dinner party trap. Here is the Kingdom, Jesus tells the Pharisee, and the guests, and you, and me. Here at a table where nobody has the place of honor, because everybody gets the best seat.
And that’s really good news for you and me and whoever has ever felt like the fifth wheel. For every child who has ever surveyed the cafeteria and tried to figure out where it’s okay to sit. There is no head of the table and no place “below the salt.” The really good news is that there is no game, there is no trap, and everyone gets a good seat.
And there is challenging good news for those of us who have been sure we knew who was on God’s A list or B list (or Z list!). For those of us who have enemies… people we can’t stand, whether they are in our families, in our offices or in the newspaper. The challenging good news is that there is no game, there is no trap, everyone gets a good seat.
And there is heart-stirring good news: for everyone who has ever belonged to a community of faith, or longed to belong, or who is even mildly curious about the whole enterprise of religion. For everyone who believes that the Kingdom of God might actually be near at hand. There are no games and no traps in the Kingdom of God. In this Kingdom, the table is open to you and to me and to everyone. And every seat at this table – is the best one.
 Joan Baez. And a Voice to Sing With (1987), p. 137.