In the Gospel for Sunday’s Mass, the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for what makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world considers great and honorable is rather different from what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover its paradoxical vision.
I. THE PERSON who HONORS – The Lord is at a banquet and notices people vying for seats of honor. In response, He gives the following teaching: 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.
What the Lord is really reminding us is that at formal banquets, it is the host who determines where we sit. This is most common at wedding receptions, where seats are assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is rude, pompous, and presumptuous. The polite and expected behavior is to report to the entrance table, receive your table assignment, and graciously take your seat there.
Of course, the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. God has a place for us, but it is He who assigns each person his place.
Recall that when a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest, Jesus responded, I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).
Another time, when James and John approached Jesus for seats at His right and left (places of honor), Jesus responded, to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40).
So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.
Many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s Kingdom. That right belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich or powerful as others. Some wish they were taller, thinner, smarter, or more attractive. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others.
Be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean that it is so. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God, so being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, and good looks are all things that tend to root us in this world; they are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like someone else’s, a family like someone else’s, or a talent like someone else’s may not be what is best for us.
God gives each of us the talents and blessings as well as the burdens and challenges He knows are best for us. Don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find out His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one in mind for you.
II. THE PARADOX of HONORS – Jesus was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. In effect, He was struck by how people perceive honor and how they vie for what they think is honor. They want to impress others and be thought of as important.
Remember that this is God’s banquet. The qualifications for the seats of honor there are very different from those necessary for worldly honors. In the world, we are impressed by things like brawn, beauty, and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, and a big entourage. When a limo pulls up, just watch all eyes turn. The popular, the powerful, the glitterati, and the game changers emerge to flashing cameras and thunderous applause. These are the things that we notice; this is what draws our eyes.
What about God? As God looks around the banquet hall of His Kingdom, who catches His eye? The Lord provides the answer in many places in Scripture:
- Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43).
- Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26).
- Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar (Ps 138:6).
- But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him (1 Cor 1:27).
- Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
- Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last (Luke 13:30).
- He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:52).
So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches His eye? Is it those at the “head table”? It is those on the red carpet? No. If we apply God’s words, we see that those who draw God’s attention are not even at the table; they are the ones waiting on tables, the ones serving, the ones back in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes. It is the lowly, the humble, the servants of all, who catch God’s eye.
This is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom. It is not about being powerful in a worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car, or bank account. Our popularity does not impress Him. It is our service, humility, and love for others that catches His eye. The seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, are for those who serve.
III. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS – The prescription is clear. Jesus instructs us, 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.”
If we want to be great in the Kingdom of God, then we had better become a servant. Jesus says that we should take the lowest place, that we should serve before we sit. It is serving others that makes a person great. The greatest thing about us is not our big paycheck or our fancy house; it is that we serve.
We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents, and abilities to build up the people of God and extend His Kingdom. Even things we do for which we are paid can be service, provided that serving is our primary motivation.
Jesus then adds, 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. This is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world.
Jesus is giving us more than a moral directive (be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in His Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind, the lame, and the afflicted, because they give us the ability to serve. In the end, our greatest honor is serving others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.
A final dimension is learning that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve us. Because serving is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, clean our houses and workplaces, do our “dirty work,” serve in our hospitals, and care for and serve us in countless other ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips when that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.
For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all (Mk 10:43).
Yes, you have to serve before you sit in any place of honor at God’s banquet.
The song in the video below says, “Sit down, servant. I can’t sit down … My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down.” The video depicts quite a varied cultural expression: a Thai choir singing an African-American spiritual!
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: You Have to Serve Before You Sit – A Homily for the 22nd Sunday of the Year