Know your Place
One of the things I enjoy about the opportunities I have had to travel in some of the rural villages of Uganda is the parallels I see to common life in Jesus’ day. On Sunday, we will hear about Jesus’ advice to guests at a banquet to make sure they sit in a lower place so they are not embarrassed by being told to move down. (Click here to read it.)
While we do have vestiges of this idea of “place” at a meal (head tables at banquets and wedding receptions, sitting at the “head” of the table, being relegated to the “kiddie table” at family gatherings, etc.), it does not hold the social force it did in Jesus’ day or in village culture today.
When we would arrive at a site for a reception, or even a meal, there would often be clear rankings. Upholstered chairs up front for the most important guests, with shelter from the sun and a small table (preferably with a doily), then wooden chairs for the next rank, and moving on to plastic chairs, then benches and finally to the standing room at the outer edge.
One learns very quickly to take a low ranking seat, as it is much better to be asked to move up than to be told to move down. The worst was when some Ugandan (Americans could be forgiven for the faux pas of sitting in the wrong place) would presume to sit in a spot above their station and would be told, with great disdain, to move down.
It is easy for us to snicker at such conventions, and I’m glad to live in a culture that strives for a more egalitarian life. But does Jesus really care about seating arrangements? I don’t think so. His advice really appears to be about avoiding embarrassment, rather than supporting the conventions of ranked seating.
Yet, I also don’t really think Jesus is too concerned about your embarrassment over a social faux pas any more than He is over banquet seating arrangements. So, what are we to learn? Why is this passage here?
Right before this account is the story of Jesus healing a bent over woman on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees were critical of this. Jesus was quite concerned to get across the idea that Sabbath-keeping is not something to beat people over the head with. In fact, the attempts at rigid enforcement of the Sabbath were really about the authority of those who taught it. Seating arrangements were similarly an attempt to bolster one’s own authority both by guaranteeing one’s place and by being the bearer of the rules.
Now, we begin to see that Jesus is more concerned with breaking down the human-imposed structures and rules, even those enforced in the name of religion, and the related concerns with who gets and keeps authority in the community. This does not mean that there are to be no rules or norms for Christians, but it does mean that we must work to strip them to the basics and not let peripherals rise up.
Let us work at being very cautious about what we judge as properly “Christian” behavior. Ask yourself if this is really essential to the faith, or just the way I happen to like it. Then the challenge is that those things that really are essential to the faith truly must be followed. The essentials really are essentials, and the non-essentials are not.
Where might you be making non-essentials into essentials and visa versa?
This column appeared in the August 28, 2022 edition of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
If you are reading this at a different time, you may click here for the current eNews.