Honor systems exist in our western society today: some based on economics, some based on societal norms, and some based on cultural traditions. In today’s gospel, we hear about a unique honor system of social meals found in many ancient cultures. In those days, meals were not like today. People literally lived each day not knowing from where their sustenance would come. This is unlike our experience today in, which, we are so removed from the origins of our food, even the preparation of our food. Today we can just make a drive-thru stop at Wendy’s, Taco Bell or McD’s for the latest value meal or snack wrap, or we can drop by the local Publix and grab a few of those delectable chicken tenders. No, back in the day, a small feast that prepared and brought to the diner by someone else, was something only the upper crust of society enjoyed. The wealthy threw big banquets a symbol of being the “best of the best,” and that’s the same people who received invitations to these soirees. It was an honor system of “if you invite me, I’ll invite you.” If you were on the list to the best parties, well, you had a certain status in the society.
This system of honor had another nuance of detail beyond the invitation; it also included an intricate layer of hierarchy around the seating arrangements around the table. Where you sat became an indication to all that were present, where you stood among everyone else there. Your status depended on whether you were on the inside of the table or outside, kind of like being at the “head table” versus sitting near the kitchen. For us this may seem a little trivial as we still have parties and events like this today, but in the ancient world, this honor system spoke volumes about your particular place in the community. Although the intent of this honor system seemed to focus on “lifting folks to a higher status,” the mere act of raising some up, naturally brought others down. In reality, this hierarchical value assignment served to diminish the value of certain people. Today, we have some “not so obvious” systems of honor in our culture and they either do or have the potential to serve as a means to diminish the value of others.
Some examples can be found in how society addresses the plight of poor and those suffering from addiction, the struggles of those economically depressed, and the isolation of those who don’t think, dress, act, and live just like us. Value judgments are made and these folks are said to be on the outside of the “norms.” They are not seen as worthy for association, let alone acknowledgement of their value in God’s eyes. These systems exist when we weigh-in on the value of someone, based on his or her particular brokenness. Take a look at who is in the news these days: Lindsay Lohan, Mel Gibson, Tiger Woods, and we all have heard about that upset flight attendant who made a quick getaway down the emergency slide. The other day on a major network I heard some TV commentators say, “well so and so is a terrible person, they should be locked up, or they will never recover, or he’ll be back to his old tricks soon.” I’m not diminishing the severity of the behavior of some of these broken celebrities, but I do question our motives when we devalue their humanity, because of their brokenness. Remember, we as Christians, are a people who live in the hope that there is new life after death. For those whom society makes value judgments, those whom God loves, there is always hope in the possibility that new life emerges after the death and depth of brokenness into which we sometimes travel.
Value judgments are not limited to the exploits of fallen celebrities and politicians. People like the homeless woman or man, the teen with tattoos, the unemployed, the depressed, and even the newcomer to a community can be branded as outsiders because they are not like us, which becomes the means by which we measure the value of God’s children. Is it possible that systems like this, even the one that existed at the feast Jesus attended, actually serve to shine light on the failures of some, so that it removes the light that illuminates the weaknesses, failures, and sinfulness of others?
Many of the most dramatic moments of Jesus’ life—feeding multitudes, making wine, dining with “sinners,” dramatic self-disclosures—occurred at meals and feasts. In today’s narrative in which Jesus taught the diners to take the lower seat and invite the outcast to our banquets, he was teaching that the societal norms of honor are subverted by living into our status as sisters and brothers made possible by God’s grace. In other words, as children of God, we all meet on a level place.
A friend of mine was in a coffee shop several months ago, and sitting near him was a man, a little shabbily dressed, very loud, and scarily annoying. He was going on and on about the economy, politics, and anything other topic of a volatile nature. My friend buried his head in his computer and thought, please don’t look at me, please don’t draw me into this discussion; this person has something obviously wrong with him. He made a value judgment. Well, as luck would have it, the loud fellow tapped on my friend’s computer and asked him what he thought about the economic downturn. After several minutes into the conversation, my friend learned that the man he wanted to avoid, recently had been a major executive with a large bank, had lost his job in the downturn, and was struggling just to survive. My friend’s value judgment was suddenly turned upside down. My friend learned that unless you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes… well, you know the rest. Maybe the real lesson he learned was that by humbling ourselves and inviting others into our circle, we might learn that we are not that different from each other.
Humbling oneself is not about self-abasement, it’s about recognizing the sisterhood/brotherhood of humankind as a result of God’s grace. Jesus taught, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The worth in God’s eyes of the man in the coffee shop, came no more from his occupation as an executive in a bank, than it did as his circumstances as a near homeless man struggling to survive. His value is in the very fact, that he is a child of God. When we can embrace the fact that our value comes from God, we move from living in a system of honor-based hierarchy, to a system of humility brought about by God’s grace.
One reality of the church gathered around God’s table to share in the Eucharistic meal, is that we come together where the honor systems of society crumble. Jesus taught that when you give a banquet; invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. That’s us! We are all broken in some way, yet God values us, God loves us, God accepts us and God invites us to share in his table. Each week as we gather to celebrate, give thanks and receive God’s grace, we share in Jesus’ ministry of turning the devaluing honor systems upside down. This table is not a place of hierarchy, but a place of leveling. This is a place where we come with our brokenness, our failures, and our pain. It is in this place that we are filled with the love and the grace of Our Lord, but the banquet doesn’t stop here.
God calls us out from this table and into the world so that we may follow the example of Christ, freeing others to receive God’s grace. By our baptism and by the questions asked of us in our baptismal covenant, we are reminded of this call:
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? And we respond … I will, with God’s help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And we respond … I will, with God’s help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? And we respond … I will, with God’s help. (BCP p. 305)
We are called no longer to participate in systems that degrade, devalue, diminish, lessen, and cheapen those whom God loves. We are called to humble ourselves, so that others may come to know the love, the acceptance, and the grace of God lived out through each of our lives.