his morning we wont find Jesus walking on water or healing
someone of leprosy or expounding truth on some mountain or hanging with the down and out
crowd. Oddly enough, well find Jesus among the high rollers, the movers and shakers
of Jerusalem. Hes an invited guest in the home a leader of the Pharisees. To read
the entire passage youd imagine that this leader has invited the same old crowd that
usually shows upimportant family members, successful merchants, and rich neighbors.
The leader of the Pharisees stands by the door like a Macy Mannequin, all robed in
"They were watching him closely," the scriptures tell us. Jesus is under
close scrutiny by the elite of Jerusalem. They can't afford to have anyone rock the boat.
But still, this Jesus is famous in his own sort of way; a man of the common people, a
cause celebre by sheer force of his immense popularity. So he's been invited by the guy
who's throwing the big bash. Yes, Jesus is at a party of sorts.
So why does Jesus accept the invitation? Has his ministry run out of gas and so he's
seeking some shekels from wealthy patrons? Maybe hes trying to expand his market to
reach the wealthy and not just the poor. Of course, the whole party thing could be a set
up. Things like this had been happening to Jesus lately. This very crowd has tried to
discredit him and to put him away. Maybe they think give this guy enough rope and
he'll hang himself. Of course, it might simply be that Jesus just seeks a few
lighter moments from an otherwise arduous and depressing journey to Jerusalem. We honestly
don't know what brings Jesus to the party; the text just tells us that he just shows up at
the affair. Apparently his presence causes some stir, turns a few heads. He has just
minutes earlier turned the happy hour into a healing service. So, now several of the
guests are assigned to watch his every move to make sure he doesn't rain on their parade.
Whether by simple invitation or interruption, Jesus shows up.
He enters the dining room with a table that seems as large as a bowling alley. And way
at the other end is this head table--like at a wedding reception. That's when Jesus makes
this startling observation. He notices that the room is lopsided. No one down at his end
of the long table. Plenty of place settings, but no guests occupy them. All the action is
at the other end of the room where the guests are trying to elbow their way to the head
table. The host and the most honored guests would sit at the prominent table, slightly
elevated and in front of the room.
Now to help us see what Jesus must have seen that afternoon, you must recall that their
tables had no legs and so were located on the floor. To eat from it you had to lie supine
around it. It must have been a Charlie Chaplin scene from where Jesus was sitting.
Everyone trying to squeeze in around the head table. Imagine instead of the usual eight
persons sitting around one of our tables for the after-church potluck, we have instead
thirty full-grown men grunting and pushing to fit around that same table near the pastor.
Not a pretty sight.
Why such a scene around the head table anyway? Probably it was this ancient idea that
whoever ate closest to a prominent person also shared in that person's status; shared
their accomplishments and honor. So they're all squeezed around this table like thirty
piglets all trying to get lunch at mom's diner--and not enough stools. Everyone is body to
body in order to get a bit of the honor and glory spilling from a leader of the
Pharisees. Borrowed honor.
I discovered a little of that sort of thing when I attended Princeton Theological
Seminary. I call it "borrowed ivory." Goes like this: Someone asks,
Where do you go to school?
Oh wow, Princeton, huh?
Of course, we didn't feel it our duty to tell them that Princeton University and
Princeton Seminary were two different institutions with little in common. We seminarians
preferred to have others think of us as Princeton University scientists and physicists,
Oxford scholar types. Borrowed ivory. Borrowing a little prestige from such a renowned
university to boost our self-esteem.
So Jesus--sitting near the back of the room and able only to have a conversation with
himself finishes his meal quickly. By the time everyone gets their menu at the head table,
Jesus is probably on his second cup of coffee. He taps his spoon against the water glass
until everyone pipes down.
"You've got it all wrong, friends. Start out humbly, in the back of the room--as
if you really don't deserve to be here--and then perhaps the host may come and say,
"Oh hi, I've been waiting for you! Please, join me at the head table. That will
really give the dinner guests something to talk about," Jesus laughs. He finishes up
his words with a simple rule of thumb: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and
those who humble themselves will be exalted." A paraphrase has Jesus saying,
"If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on
Those words are familiar, arent they? Theyre kingdom words. Words of
reversal and surprise. The way to the top is down. To get to the front, go to the back. To
be exalted, be humble. Jesus is not giving us hard fast rules for attaining honor; he is
not giving us a principle that if followed diligently, will result in a promotion or
raise. He is, however, telling us something about the Kingdom of God as it is lived out in
If youve been to the self-help shelves lately, youll discover how timely
Jesus words are for our culture. So much is published about how to get to the other
end of the tablewhere the power and prestige is.
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