|| Jeremiah 2:4-13 & Luke 14:1, 7-14 || The Rush for the Worst Seat
A reflection by Dan Spragg
You can imagine the scene can’t you? Jesus has just told this parable about having humility and being hospitable and then it begins… the mad scramble to take the worst seat in the room… The rush, the fight, the elbows out, all to be seen as the one sitting in the lowest position… It is quite an easy scene to imagine, unfortunately! If it did happen this way what I imagine next is Jesus dropping his face into the palm of his hand in despair! Yet another moment where his listeners had completely missed the point! The fact that we can imagine it so easily just goes to show that the very issue Jesus was trying to address is still a thing to be confronted in our day and age too. We could describe it as a sort of false humility, a desire not to sit in the worst seat purely so that someone else can have a better one, but rather so that you will be noticed for how self-giving you are. I think we confuse Jesus’ words here that the humble will be exalted to mean that if you humble yourself then you can expect to be exalted… expecting to be exalted is a close second to saying that you are entitled to be exalted because, after all, look at what you have just given up! The problem is of course that you think you are the centre of the universe – which we all do at times don’t we? This parable really is Jesus having another go at the game of bookkeeping, the game of seeking credit, the game of comparison with others, which is a game that we cannot win because there is always someone or something else to compare ourselves to and so it is a worthless task to engage in. If you’re going to trade seats with someone simply so that people will see how humble you are then you may as well just walk straight up to the best seat in the house and demand that you sit there – at least that would do away with all the small talk and all the tedious back and forth as your ego jumped up and down and bounced around with all the other egos in the room. This parable from Jesus is not an instruction on Christian humility or some sort of teaching on moral etiquette but rather Jesus is taking the opportunity here to speak into a deeper reality, to name a truth in the midst of a deeper confusion.
Being confused has quite a long tradition in the human story and the Old Testament is full of stories of a confused Israel. This issue is really at the driving heart of the prophetic tradition – the mission of which was to bring clarity into the midst of confusion; God’s clarity into the midst of human confusion. Jeremiah was one of these prophets who sought to speak the heart of God into the life of Israel, to somehow call them to return to their original intention. One of the metaphors used just prior to the passage we heard today is that of Israel being described as a bride full of devotion towards God, one who followed out of that devotion through the wilderness. It describes them as a nation that was born out of love. Their identity as the people of God was born out of relationship. It was out of this love that God heard their cry and rescued them from Egypt and led them through the desert into the Promised Land – a place they could finally call home. But despite this, they disowned God, they forgot this love and they turned their devotion to other things; to wealth, to power, to the gods and idols of other nations. God’s message through Jeremiah was that these things were worthless ways of living where there were no gains to be made despite what they may have thought and so in return they themselves became worthless, unable to even sustain themselves. The universal truth in this speech from Jeremiah is that what we devote our time and energy towards shapes who we become. Our devotion shapes who we become, or in other words, what we worship is what forms us. One can sense the ache in God’s heart through this message towards those that were born out of pure love; where has my bride gone? “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (Jeremiah 2:5) “…my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,” God says, “and dug out for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13) Israel had forgotten its identity, it had lost sight of its story. It had pursued not the ‘with God’ life born of love but rather it had turned its devotion to the idols and gods of wealth, status and power, those things that tend to look good at face value but don’t actually hold any long lasting sustaining sort of energy. These seem to be timeless temptations do they not? And what are these things if not various forms of bookkeeping, of measuring ones worth in comparison to others using the metrics of what others define as valuable… idols and gods that we devote our lives to… what do we become because of these?
Jesus fired a deeply truthful message at these gods of recognition and status in order to disrupt and disorientate the status quo. “…when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place.” (Luke 14:10) The word ‘lowest’ or often translated as ‘last’ is interesting. In the Greek it is the word ‘eschatos’ which is quite often talked about with specific reference to ‘the end of the age’ or the ‘end time’ or, in more easily digestible words, that time when the Kingdom of God has reached its full potential. That’s interesting! There is a sense in here with which Jesus is saying, go and put yourself in the place where the Kingdom of God is to be found for it is there where you will find true life, it is there you will find true honour. The Kingdom of God is of course the reality, the lens that God sees us through. The eyes in which God looks at us are ones that only see fullness, worth and potential. Therefore as our repayment, Jesus says, we are raised to new life in the membership of God (righteousness = membership of God) and I would say that we along with everyone else have already had our membership fees paid, it is a gift of grace, and so we have indeed actually already been raised into new life. The issue is not whether we have been or not but rather whether we can see it or not. The issue is whether we are awake to this reality or not and so Jesus says, ‘step into it… go and sit in this place and see what you find when you are there!’
Hopefully we can see then that just like Israel of old, God alone is the one who gifts us our identity. We are loved by God, that is who we are and so Jesus invites us to live as people who are devoted to God – where our lives reflect the love of God already given for all so that all might come to know.
The art we have perfected over many thousands of years of clambering for social status, for reward or recognition; the art of false humility that secretly (or not so secretly) hopes that someone will notice and praise us for our sacrifice is at the end of the day us simply playing the wrong game. It is us trying to discover who we are by acts of devotion to the wrong gods and in return we are shaped by what we do and so we end up stuck in a sort of downward spiral of confused identity, not really knowing who we are and not really feeling satisfied with any of it.
The only way back from this is to live as if the Kingdom of God is real, to live as if what Jesus was on about was true – that is the life of faith – to live out our belief that we are all one in Christ, that all are included and worthy to sit around the table of God, that we are called individually and as communities to show a different way and that we do this by being apprentices of Jesus – the name and face of God among us. We live out what we are devoted to by the actions we participate in. Our actions show what we have faith in and what we hope for. It is as we step into the ways of the full potential of God’s reality that we will find ourselves truly free, truly loved and truly alive. It is as we step into this that we will remember our story and our identity, we will remember the family we belong to and the responsibility we have to shine a light alongside those who are still yet to remember.
I do wonder if the awful events that we have seen over this past week or so at the Southern American border, where children were being separated from their parents during processing, is an example of the extreme end of what happens when the false gods that we put our identity and hopes in don’t end up delivering on their promises. The gods of wealth, globalisation, technology, to name a few haven’t delivered the western world into the utopia that we all hoped they would and so we must shrink back to our tribal corners and try and defend what’s left of our fragile identity by whatever means possible. When we shift our devotion towards things other than the Kingdom of God it seems, just as Jesus implied, that we then must define ourselves by playing the game of comparison, of debts for and against, of reward and recognition, of what we are against rather than what we are for. I wonder if what we are seeing is simply the inevitability of playing a game that cannot be won. Of course it would be easy for us in this moment to think that it is simply an American problem, for us here in New Zealand to stand at a distance and condemn the actions of a few. While these actions should be condemned, as any horrible injustice should, our response can only be accompanied by compassion for all involved – we know our own history of inter-racial relations – any other sort of response would be us stepping in to play the same game… The game fuelled by fragile identity is not an easy one to escape, it is all pervasive and has a long standing history all around the world.
What on earth does this all have to say about how we be and do church? Well I believe it is that the story we are to remember is that we were born from love – individually and as Christian Community together. Our story is of selfless love, creating, defeating death and inviting all to new life. It says that we are not to forget our story but rather devote ourselves to it and in doing so find ourselves free and full of life which of course enables all those around us to be free and full of life too. God’s gifts of grace are unconditional, it is us who put the conditions on them; it is us who likes to add conditions to all sorts of things.
So, let us seek out the ‘eschatos’ – the lowest place, the last thing. Let us seek out that place where we can live as unconditionally generous people. Let us live as the presence of the Kingdom of God; not that place where one elevates oneself but rather in that ‘last’ place. Both literally where one places oneself alongside those considered the least the last and the lost, those who are at the lowest point in their existence… and in that Kingdom of God space by faith. It is here that true life, life as God intends will be found. A life lived devoted to the ways of love is a life that will be shaped by love and will indeed discover the joy that is to found there for ourselves and for those around us.
There is a reason Jesus saw the opportunity to give his message where he did at that dinner table because the life of faith always has to work itself out in real life situations… where can you see an opportunity to show the alternative story of God’s love for all in a real time and place, this week?