“It’s a me, it’s a me, it’s a me Oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother, it’s a me Oh Lord, not my sister, it’s a me Oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” A great old song from when as a youth I sang in a gospel quartet.
Now the truth of the matter is that sometimes, where you sit, sometimes depends upon where you stand.
Every so often my brother, who is six years older than I, would come to visit. Often as not, when we sat at the dining room table, he would automatically sit at the head of my table, in my chair. He did this with complete grace and aplomb, assuming the position of host and dominant personage. Being kind and charitable, I didn't let this bother me much, but have from time to time I considered putting Ipecac in his coffee or loosening the legs of the chair. My brother-in-law has also taken the chair at the head of the table and assumed the role of host. Even though he is bigger than I, I have somehow managed to convey to him that since I pay the mortgage, the head chair belongs to me.
There is a protocol, sometimes spoken and sometimes unspoken, about seating arrangements. Where you sit often defines or reflects your standing in the community or family. Try figuring out where to sit people at a wedding dinner, and you’ll see what I mean. We have gotten fairly casual in society now days, but newspapers still run Miss Manners' columns to help us with protocol, etiquette and seating arrangements.
Moreover, social scientists have discovered that it is possible to change the dynamics of a group by changing the seating arrangements. Something happens to the flow of conversation, to the pecking order, and to group dynamics. In fact, during the peace negotiations with the Vietcong in the 60's a lot of time was spent negotiating the shape of the table. Like King Arthur's Court, a table was chosen which did not imply a hierarchy of importance among the participants.
For thousands of years individuals, societies, and cultures have grappled with the problems of the ranking of places of honor at the table based upon standing within the community. Where one sits often depends upon where one stands. This is a basic human dynamic.
Now many of the parables and stories of Jesus deal with basic human dynamics. This is one of the reasons why the stories were remembered, told and retold. Such is the case with today's Gospel lesson from St. Luke. Luke tells us that on one occasion Jesus dined on the Sabbath at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. When Jesus saw how people were seated He told a parable to the effect that one should not presume to sit at the head of the table, but rather take a lower one so that the host may move him higher. All who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. Likewise, Jesus continued, when you give a banquet you should invite not only your relatives and friends but also the poor, crippled, lame and blind.
You and I need to remember that Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi. It was assumed that He would give a teaching in various situations. Seated with the Pharisees, it was appropriate to make comments and to enter into debate. Jesus seizes the occasion to push the implications of the meal. His teaching that those who humble themselves shall be exalted is right out of Proverbs (25:6-7). Proverbs, as you know is part of Wisdom literature, and assumes that common sense observations reflect not only the natural happenings of nature and society but also reflect God's intention. One can sometimes deduce the will of God from common sense observations on life. So it is that Jesus re-presents the saying from Proverbs. But Jesus does not stop there. Rather, He goes on to push the symbolic nature of host, guests and meal and says that the dispossessed should be invited and given the places of friends and relatives.
Jesus is not dictating economic or social policy. The meal, particularly the Sabbath meal, is a symbol of the heavenly banquet where all will have a place with God at the end of time. Jesus is saying that social standing does not dictate where one will sit with God. Rather God recognizes the humble and those who are shorn of pretense and self-importance. When you and I stand before God in utter vulnerability, utter openness, in utter humility, without pretense, then we are open to God and respond to God appropriately.
By reaching beyond Wisdom literature's observations of the world, and by standing conventional values and behavior on their head, Jesus is defining how you and I should worship God. Jesus is defining ethical and religious behavior. This in turn defines who Jesus is. Part of the messianic hope is that the blind would see and the lame walk. Jesus is reaching out to man's sick and unadorned condition. He is saying that God asks you and me to join Him in humility. And Jesus, as we know, goes on to be revealed as the messiah by Himself being stripped of all honor and dignity. It is through His degradation on the cross that Jesus is exalted and raised from the dead.
So by talking about where you and I sit at the table, Jesus defines our proper relationship to one another and to God. Moreover, Jesus goes on to be defined by His own humiliation.
In summary, you and I are reminded by today’s lectionary passage from Luke of three things. First of all when we stand before God, our proper stance is one of complete humility. When you and I let it all go, when we say, “it’s me, Oh Lord”, when we stand before the ultimate and eternal power of all existence, our status, our trappings, our social distinctions are really pathetic. I have been present so many times when people have died to know most profoundly that in the last analysis wealth and status don't count. The only viable posture is humility.
Secondly, when you and I stand before God in humility, then we stand not alone but with others in humility. Yes, we have positions and relationships and pecking orders. But when we realize that they are superficial and don't truly define who we are, then we can stand with the lame, the halt, the poor and the blind. We stand not in contempt, not in condescension, but in humility, which the precondition for love.
Thirdly, the meal, which defines our lives, which defines our relationship to God, the meal at which you and I sit with Jesus is the meal of the Eucharist. This is the meal, which has been prepared for us by Christ's total dedication, humiliation and sacrifice. It is in the Eucharistic meal that you and I participate in God's presence in the body and blood of Christ. The only stance at the Lord's Table is one of self-surrender and humility. When you and I join with our brothers and sisters in faith and humility, we are privileged and exalted in a new and special way because we receive the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life. “Standing in the need of prayer”, standing in faith and humility, you and I are assured by Christ Jesus of a seat at the table of the communion of saints in God's eternal kingdom. Amen. - Fr. Gage-