Musical chairs, RHIP, and the banquet: Sunday reflection

Source: Hot Air

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 14:1, 7–14:

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. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place. Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’ Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Then he said to the host who invited him, “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Remember the game Musical Chairs? Do people even still play that game at parties and events? Perhaps that belongs to a simpler time, but the game was easy enough to play. A certain number of players would walk around a collection of empty chairs while music played, with at least one more player than chairs available. When the music stopped, everyone tried to get a chair, but those who couldn’t find one lost and got booted out of the next round. The number of chairs dwindled down to one with two players still left, and the final round produced the winner.

Given today’s more kinetic tastes in competition, this may not be nearly as popular at parties as it used to be. But it still beats the Chicken Dance.

Anyway, this comes to mind in today’s Gospel — mainly from a conceit in Jesus’ parable that He doesn’t mention. This reading focuses on humility over vanity and the absurdity of self-promotion, which Jesus makes very plain in the teaching. And for good reason, since at that time (and ever since) people equated rank with privilege, and vice-versa, especially in the material context.

Even the disciples fell into this trap. James and John and their mother asked to be seated at the side of Jesus in the new kingdom in Matthew 20:20-28, a very close parable to today’s Gospel from Luke. Again, Jesus tries to warn all three that the measure of that rank and privilege would be very different than what they expected:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons and made a request of him after kneeling before him. 21 “What do you wish?” he asked her. She said to him, “Promise that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.”

23 He then said to them, “You shall indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not in my power to grant. Those places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the other ten disciples heard this, they were indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them over and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. 26 This must not be so with you. Instead, whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant. 28 In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

This looks all the more absurd after Jesus reaches the completion of His mission and the disciples understand it more clearly. Jesus already had the “best seat in the house,” so to speak, in His Trinitarian life with the Father and the Holy Spirit since the Creation. Instead of standing on rank, Jesus condescended to become one of us so that we might gain the grace and forgiveness necessary for all of us to gain our own seats at the banquet. In terms of rank, Jesus descended from the very highest in eternity to the depths of temporal rank to achieve our salvation.

The petty squabbling over ranking at the bottom must have frustrated Jesus, amused Him, or perhaps a little of both. Thus we get the parable of a humiliation based on self-promoted rank in relationship to others at the table, and a reminder that only the Host Himself gets to make that judgment.

But even this only gets to part of the hubris and self-absorption. In eschatological terms, it’s the banquet itself that matters, not the ranking order of the chairs. It is the welcoming of all to the table, all those who wish to be admitted and adhere to its requirements. Jesus emphasizes this at the end by reminding this host to invite those who need the banquet most rather than those with whom the host wishes to curry favor. Otherwise, the hospitality of the banquet becomes just another means to assert temporal rank, a status which is laughably irrelevant to eternal life.

We miss this because of our immersion in a fallen world of limitations. The worry of the missing chairs, or at least the potential of the missing chairs, is always with us. We hoard when we should share; we consume when we should distribute. The anxieties of survival in this fallen world push the concept of rank and privilege as a survival strategy as well as a way to blindly judge from our own limited perspectives what is virtue and what is vice. Rank has its privilege, and that privilege usually takes the form of acting in God’s place rather than His stewards. Jesus’ warning to the host of the banquet at the end of this passage is keenly tuned to stripping that illusion from the host and for all of us.

The illusions must be stripped from us in our path to the eternal wedding banquet of the Lord in order for us to claim our seat. We are not going to care which chair we get at that feast in the Trinitarian life; all that matters will be a life in the presence of the Lord, not our relative juxtaposition to Him. There will be no need for competition, and rank among us will not have its privileges. The fullness and abundance of the Lord will be ours, every single one of us, in equal measure. The anxieties of our hard lives in a fallen world will melt away, leaving only love and joy at our arrival. Rank will have no privilege because rank will be rendered utterly meaningless. Every seat will be the best seat in the house, and no one will lack for access who are invited and who accept.

We don’t need to worry about which chair we get or which side of the table we’re on. What we do need to consider is where we stand when the music stops on this side of the Kingdom — and whether we’ve walked away from that abundance of chairs the Lord wishes us to use.

The front-page image is a detail from “Banquet at the House of Simon” by Bernardo Strozzi, c.1630. On display at the Gallerie dell’Accademia.Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.