I might be in a weird age gap here, but does anyone remember MySpace? Before Facebook, MySpace was the social media for middle and high schoolers. But among its many features, one enduring thing that it had was your friends list. And the friends list was important, very important, to the teens who used it, because your friends were ranked, and you could change that ranking any time you wanted.
Let me tell you there was a lot of drama around the MySpace friend ranking. Inexplicably being bumped down someone’s list could easily lead to anxiety about what went wrong in your friendship. Being bumped up was a source of joy and pride. It’s a little weird how much hung on something as simple as a list on a website. It was a lot like the seating arrangement Jesus spoke about in the gospel today.
Ranking was important. And knowing where you were ranked was just as important. Not everyone here experienced the roller coaster of emotion that was the MySpace friends list, but I’m certain we all understand—or will experience—the politics of cafeteria seating in high school. You don’t just go and sit wherever. You very quickly discover where you can and can’t sit, where your friends will be, and where certain groups of people have staked their claim.
It’s just that, in Jesus’ day, that’s how the whole society ran. Everyone basically knew their ranking in relation to other people, and a lot of public time was taken up improving your ranking. These banquets like what Jesus went to were opportunities for the host to show off how well-connected they were, and an opportunity for guests to angle for a better position with the host. If you played your cards right with these parties, it just might get your business off its feet, or win you that loan you needed, or get your son into that important post in the government.
When Jesus chastised the dinner guests for attempting to get the best seat, he wasn’t instructing people who had no idea if they sat too close to the host they might be downgraded and embarrassed in front of everyone. These people knew where they were supposed to sit. The desire to make it up the ranks was still a careful game to play. But like every social system, the rules were a bit fuzzy. So everyone was trying to get to the most honorable seat they figured they had a right to take so that they could be seen by everyone.
It’s why Jesus’ instruction to take the lowest seat was so radical. People didn’t voluntarily give up their place at the table. Sitting lower than you needed to risked people talking about why you were sitting lower, and that could have real-world effects. It would be like a popular kid suddenly sitting with the uncool kids at lunch. It would be like turning down an invitation to dinner at a potential employer’s home. And even more, sitting at the lower seat might open up other people to take the higher seats from you.
But that’s just the risk Jesus is calling the dinner guests to take. Humility—not a virtue in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ day, by the way—is about putting others before yourself. It’s about making space for people who don’t have your clout, or ranking, or connections, so that they are lifted up and recognized. It’s about seeing the advantages you have in society, and setting those advantages aside—sitting at the lower seat—so that someone without those advantages can have a chance.
What about when you don’t realize the advantage you have? One thing that’s as true now as was true then is that there were some people who never even had to think about where they were supposed to sit, because they always sat next to the host. They would have found Jesus’ instruction to sit at a lower seat particularly confusing, because when would they ever be asked to move down a seat?
It’s like how, at Churchwide Assembly three weeks ago, it seemed like every time an issue was being discussed, there were always half a dozen men who shared essentially the exact same point. Meanwhile, there was never more than one woman offering the same opinion—despite being half the people in attendance. Like the guest who never imagined a situation where they wouldn’t have the highest seat, the men at assembly never imagined their opinion wasn’t adding anything to the discussion.
And that’s why it’s so important to listen to Jesus’ instruction to take the lower seat. The more unaware we are of the advantages we have, the more easily we imagine we don’t have to make room for anyone else. It’s like if I were to ask why on earth we need an elevator in the church, since clearly I have no need for an elevator? If I ignore Jesus’ command to give up my seat, then I won’t recognize that the elevator is not for me, it’s for people who don’t have my advantages of mobility. I need to move down the seating chart to make room for people without my advantages.
That’s the essence of the humility Jesus calls us to embody. Humility doesn’t mean having a low opinion of yourself. Instead, humility calls you to really recognize who you are and what benefits you have in your social circle, at your job, at school, and in society; to see where you have something that someone else doesn’t; and then use those benefits for the sake of people who don’t have them.
So if you are the popular one at school, use that popularity to sit with the less cool kids who get bullied. And if you have the benefit of authority that comes with being older, use that authority to lift up voices that get ignored because they’re younger. And if you have the benefit of food on the table every night, use that stability to make sure others have enough to eat. Jesus wants you to notice where you are, to see your advantages, to recognize what seat everyone expects you to take—and use that position to help others.
Living in the kingdom is about upending the ways we rank and divide ourselves, and it all starts with advantaged people giving up their seat for the less advantaged. When we can do that with confidence—when we can recognize our advantages and point out the ones who don’t have them—we can see the kingdom start taking shape in our midst. It all starts with making room.
Thanks be to God. Amen.