“Where are you sitting?”
Anyone who has ever attended a wedding has heard this question.
A group of family or friends gathers at the table with the place
cards, everyone running down the alphabet to find his or her name.
Once the cards are in hand, the question is asked: “Where
are you sitting?” Sometimes there is disappointment that
a group has been split up, and sometime happiness that everyone
will sit together. But hanging over both situations is another,
unspoken question: “How high is your number?” Has
the group been given a high number? Or, if split up, who has the
highest number? Who is sitting higher up? Who is more popular?
What does a table number mean? It means love. The higher the
number, the more the bride and groom must love you.
That sounds absurd, but if we’re honest, we have to admit
that some people see it just like that. A higher table number
means they are special; and not just special, but more special
than all those less popular, not-so-beloved guests with low table
numbers. In a contest, some win and some lose; and some folks
look at wedding receptions as a contest to see whose number is
higher, who will get served their meal first, who will be seated
closer to the wedding party.
And if you have ever been involved in planning a wedding, you
know that such considerations make table arrangements a nightmare.
Parents and children already have to spend long hours trying to
make sure that feuding relatives aren’t seated together,
that an unmarried guest doesn’t wind up at a table with
only couples, that children are seated with their parents. But
they really sweat over the table numbers. Of course, parents and
grandparents and brothers and sisters are expected to rate a high
number. But what then? Can friends be seated higher up than distant
cousins? What do you do if you have many aunts and uncles? What
about business associates? There are always a few guests who must
be treated with kid gloves, because if they don’t like their
table number, everyone will hear about it, especially after the
I have known couples try to avoid the problem by using non-numeric
systems, usually pictures of flowers. It’s a nice idea,
but in practice it really doesn’t work. The contest continues,
because some guests want the rose and the lily. They are not happy
to be seated at the petunia table.
Not surprisingly, Jesus counsels humility. Whether you are given
a seat or allowed to choose your own, be modest. Do not take part
in the undignified jostling for pride of place, or complain about
your table assignment, or compare your table to others. Christ
did not cling to his own seat in heaven but emptied himself into
our world, accepting the humility of Mary’s womb, the cradle
of Bethlehem, the company of sinners, the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
None of these were places of honor for the Son of God, but he
accepted them for our sake, and he commands his followers to imitate
his humility. Jesus says: The Father and I are one, yet here I
am with you, living as you live, suffering as you suffer and much
more, in order to establish a new covenant through my death. How
can you make a fuss about where you sit at a banquet?
This is Christian humility: not a good deed we proudly give
to God, but the virtue of imitating God.
That’s the easy part of today’s gospel. It’s
hard to argue with humility. Non-Christians see the value of humility.
Few of us enjoy spending time with the non-humble. People who
must always trumpet their accomplishments and demand constant
recognition either have incredibly patient friends, or no friends.
So when Jesus says, “Be humble,” although that is
a lesson we all need to hear, no one is likely to disagree with
him. We may not always act with humility, but we all agree it
is a good thing.
But then, as usual, Jesus unveils the stinger, that part of
being a disciple which is not simply hard but reasonable, like
humility, but something impossible, not just hard but completely
unreasonable. Jesus says, “Be humble; and be so humble that
you invite people to your wedding who are too poor to bring gifts,
too crippled to dance, too blind to appreciate the beautiful flowers,
the bride’s dress, and the tasteful decorations. Invite
people so hungry that your wedding meal will be their only meal
That does not sound like a party. It sounds like trouble twice
over. Not only is your reception going to look like a cross between
a hospital waiting room and a soup kitchen, but your friends,
relatives, and wealthy neighbors are going to wonder why they
weren’t invited. If figuring out where to put everyone was
a problem, imagine how much of a headache it will be to explain
why blind strangers got the rose table and old friends got the
Is Jesus offering advice on how to plan a successful wedding?
I don’t think so. He is doing what he often does, saying
something so extreme and unthinkable that he gets the attention
of his audience. When speaking of the dangers of sin, Jesus says,
“If your hand is your problem, cut it off; and if your eye
is your problem, pluck it out.” We would be wrong to take
this to mean that Christians must perform surgery on themselves.
So, too, today’s gospel is not, I think, a prescription
for how to draw up a list of wedding guests. What does it mean,
Recall how the passage begins: “On a sabbath Jesus went
to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people
there were observing him carefully. He told a parable to those
who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places
of honor at the table.” Jesus is not speaking in general
terms, throwing out proverbs about how to live a happy life. He
is at a reception, watching people jostling for seats, and watching
the host take pleasure in the display. Christ is there, but no
one is rushing to make him comfortable, provide him with a place
of honor, make sure he is made welcome. The host has welcomed
the Son of God into his home, the guests have been given the gift
of sharing a meal with the Messiah, but the age-old contest goes
on. They don’t recognize who is with them.
Here, Jesus Christ is our host. Here, we have been given the
gift of sharing a meal with the Messiah. Here, the host is the
meal. We are sinners, yet all of us have been called higher, out
of the darkness of original sin and out of the isolation of our
personal sins. Here, we are given a higher table number than we
have any right to expect. Here, we are seated with the bride’s
So perhaps Jesus does not want people to ignore their family and
friends and invite only poor strangers to their wedding. Perhaps
he does not expect our receptions to look like a cross between
a hospital waiting room and a soup kitchen. But if we are given
Christ’s body and blood, if our sins are forgiven, if we
receive an undeserved place of honor here and are promised an
even greater place of honor in the life to come, a place among
the angels and the firstborn - if Christ gives us all that, but
we, in turn, never see the inside of a soup kitchen, never make
our way to the hospital bed of a sick neighbor, never find ourselves
offering a poor stranger food or clothing, then we have not recognized
who is with us here. We have accepted our high number, sat at
the head table with the host himself, heard him speak and shared
his life and taken him into ourselves. But nothing has changed.
The contest goes on, the contest for a comfortable seat at a table
of honor in a worthwhile reception. We don’t win that contest
by sitting with the poor, consoling the lost, sitting by the side
of the sick.
But the real contest, the Christian contest, the race we struggle
to finish and the fight we strive to win, is a contest we can
only win with the poor, with the lost, and with the sick. Christ
humbled himself to become a man. Christ humbles himself to come
among us today in the sacrifice of this altar. God makes a home
for the poor in this church.When we invite the poor and the sick
into our lives, all we are doing is imitating the host who has
welcomed us here today. And the privilege of imitating Jesus Christ,
who came not to be served but to serve, is the greatest honor
any of us can be given.