Maybe the first thing we should say about this morning’s Scripture is that Jesus eats with Pharisees. I’m one who is always eager to point out that Jesus welcomes and eats with the outcast – the poor, the marginalized – the sinner and the tax collector. But here in this scripture – and at other points in the gospels – Jesus eats --- with Pharisees.
The Pharisees are by no means “outcasts.” They are much closer to the centers of power – not at the top of the hierarchy – there is an Empire after all – but they are men of relative power and privilege. Often in the gospels, they are presented as antagonists of Jesus. Jesus is making a point – a gospel point – and the Pharisees are counter-pointing. They challenge Jesus. They threaten Jesus. Some of them will ultimately be part of those who conspire to imprison and kill him. This is part of how broad and wide and deep the welcome of Jesus is: Jesus eats with Pharisees. He gathers at table with those with whom he disagrees, with those who oppose him, with those who threaten him.
And, Jesus is still Jesus. Remember: In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is turning the world rightside-up. Those who are humble are being raised up; the powerful are being brought down. We are living into the New Creation that will be birthed in Resurrection. So, when Jesus walks into a dinner hosted by a Pharisee – into a roomful of people with lots of relative power and privilege – we can expect that Jesus is going to say something – or do something – that will shake up their world. It’s no surprise that, in this morning’s Scripture, the Pharisees are watching Jesus closely.
That’s how the story begins: One Sabbath day, Jesus was going to dinner at the house of a Pharisee, and they were watching him closely. The lectionary reading leaves out what Jesus does first. On the way to the Pharisee’s house, Jesus heals on the Sabbath – again. Last week’s Scripture was the second time Jesus heals on the Sabbath; this is the third. In these three sabbath healings, Jesus couldn’t be clearer: The purpose of Sabbath is to do good; to set people free; and to heal.
Healing on the Sabbath again, Jesus arrives at the Pharisee’s house. And maybe as we walk into this room and into the story, it might help to ask a few questions. And the first: What is going on in this room? As Jesus walks into the Pharisee’s home, what does he see?
Jesus walks into the Pharisee’s house, and he sees the privileged and powerful guests all jockeying for position at the table. Their world is a hierarchical world based on honor and shame, and their social interactions reflect that. A better seat at the table reflects more honor, more power; a lesser seat carries with it less power, and some shame. And so Jesus watches the powerful and privileged climbing over each other to get the best seats.
We also might want to think a little bit beyond the table and ask, Who else is in the room? We’ve got powerful people scrambling for seats – but there are others there, too. Servants, who aren’t allowed to sit. Maybe women, serving too, but with no seat – no place – at this privileged table.
So, Jesus says to the gathering, let me tell you a story:
When you’re invited to dinner, don’t rush in and take the best seat. You never know. Someone more important than you might show up, and then the host will come up to you, and tell you to move on down the table to your proper place. And that will be embarrassing.
(It’s kind of like when your seats at the Giants game aren’t that great, and you see a bunch of empty seats on the third-base line, and so you move yourself into the better seats. But then an usher comes with the folks who should be sitting there, and says, “Excuse me. Can I see your ticket? Your seat is back there.” In front of everybody.)
Don’t take the best seats. Instead, Jesus says: Walk in and take a more humble seat, on down the table. And then, you never know, the host might invite you to move up. “For everyone who exalts themself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles themself will be exalted.”
Now at first, that might sound like advice for proper etiquette. Here are the social rules for a dinner party. Please, don’t embarrass yourself.
But we know: Jesus is talking about privilege. Privilege is the relative power that someone has within a system because of who they are and because of their power-location within that system. In Jesus’s world, the privilege and power that someone has are reflected in the seat they have at the table.
We know what that can look like in our world. We talk about privilege in our anti-racism and other justice work. It’s the privilege that someone has – that we have – to the extent that we are part of a dominant group in the culture – on the basis of our race, or our gender, or our sexual orientation, or our wealth. Because of privilege, we have been sitting in better place at the table – closer to the center of power – at the expense of others who are harmed by the same systems of power. We know what that looks like at our tables.
Workplace studies show that at conference-room tables members of the dominant group tend to dominate conversations – they get more speaking time at the table. Those dynamics can restrict the participation of people of color, and, along with that, their opportunities within the workplace. Gender studies show that in male-majority settings, in the average business meeting, the participation of women is 75% less than that of men. This dynamic also shows up in educational studies of who gets the chance to speak in the classroom – where students of color in white-dominant settings can be relatively silent as compared to their white counterparts.
When Jesus says, “Don’t take the most privileged seat at the table,” at our tables, that might mean checking our privilege and giving others the room and the space to speak up. As Lee Jourdan writes in the Harvard Business Review, it means paying attention: “Who is speaking up? Who is not? Who is given the automatic benefit of the doubt? Who must work harder to prove themselves?” It’s about naming our privilege – understanding how it functions as part of unjust systems that disadvantage others – and being willing to relinquish it. To give up our seat.
A few weeks ago, I talked about “Step Up/Step Back,” which I adapted for us as a spiritual practice. This is where I first experienced this practice – as a guideline for participating in workplace, and civic, and educational conversations:
1. Listen. Pay attention. Be aware of your own voice in a conversation.
2. Do you hear yourself talking a lot? That may be your privilege showing. So, Step Back. Give others some room and space to speak. And... listen to what they have to say.
3. Or, do you not hear your voice talking much at all? What might you need to Step Up – within this complex system of power and privilege?
To Jesus’s point in this story: Step back, so that others might step up.
We see this power-and-privilege dynamic at our literal tables – but there’s also privilege of place writ big – where we sit and live within our systems and structures of power and privilege. There is privilege of place reflected in American housing patterns. Within the Bay Area, we live in segregated Marin County. We know the history that brought this about. Black Americans moved to Marin City during WWII to work in the wartime shipbuilding industry in Marin City. When the war ended, white folks could use their GA Bill benefits to buy homes throughout Marin County, but Black folks couldn’t because of restrictive covenants and racist mortgage practices. This resulted in Marin County’s segregated housing patterns and segregated schools – racism-generated privilege of place. Marin’s black community is concentrated now in Marin City, while other communities in Marin are predominately white – San Anselmo for example, which is 90% white and 2% black.
When Jesus says, “Don’t take the most privileged seat at the table,” and we think about the privilege of place in segregated Marin County, that means working for the well-being of folks in Marin City – putting them first – helping them secure the space to speak and to lead us. It means working for real change in housing patterns – including advocating for affordable housing every chance we get – in neighborhoods throughout Marin County. Standing up to the NIMBY movement. Yes, in our backyard.
Jesus tells the guests at that dinner, don’t take the privileged seats at someone else’s expense, be prepared to give up your seat so that everyone can find a place at the table. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is turning the world rightside up. This is a New Creation, a new world – where power is shared in relationships of mutuality so that everyone can thrive. And just in case they missed it in the story, Jesus says it explicitly right at the end: Those who exalt themselves are being humbled; those who humble themselves are being exalted. When you’re invited to a dinner party, give up your seat so that someone else might find theirs.
And then... Jesus goes one step further... Jesus turns to the host, and tells one more story: When you’re throwing your dinner party, don’t invite your friends; your brother, your sister, your siblings; the powerful and privileged – don’t invite the ones who can pay you back. When you throw a banquet, invite the poor and the marginalized – the ones who can’t repay you. When you privileged folks stop your scrambling for power, give up your seat, and invite everyone to the banquet. Get up from your seat, and pull out your chair, and offer it to the poor and the marginalized. Serve them – and feast together. And then, Jesus says, because they cannot repay you, you will be repaid in the Resurrection.
Well, whatever does that mean? Here’s what I think.
Have you heard the word Schadenfreude? I will confess -- I spent a number of years pretending that I knew what it meant. Someone would say, “Well, oh, now that’s someschadenfreude.” And I’d say, “Oh yes [nods meaningfully], schadenfreude.” Schadenfreudeis experiencing joy in someone’s downfall – taking pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Imagine – a politician with whom you disagree gets embarrassed publicly – and you think, haha, he’s finally getting his. That’s schadenfreude. It's different from seeking justice, and insisting that wrongs be made right. That, is healthy. Schadenfreude is when the experience and emotion cross over into enjoying the squirming – enjoying someone else’s suffering. It’s not a pretty emotion.
Here's the word I learned this week. I learned it while reading Brenée Brown’s excellent – Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Experience and the Language of the Heart.After mapping out schadenfreude, Brown says this: The opposite of schadenfreude is freudenfreude. Freudenfreude is enjoying someone else’s success. Experiencing real joy when someone else is lifted up – when they experience wholeness – and healing – and reparation – freudenfreude. For the privileged, it might mean relinquishing privilege and finding real joy as others finally experience the fullness of opportunity they’ve been denied by oppressive systems. Rejoicing at giving up your seat at the table. Rejoicing at inviting others in. Rejoicing at serving them. Rejoicing as we feast – all together. Freudenfreude
For the past 10 weeks, we’ve been talking about Living an Imperfect Life Well. We’ve talked about living life grounded in the fruit of the Spirit; living for freedom; looking for the grace and healing of small things; learning to travel light; living a balance of work and resting in the presence of God; finding ways to live and love and grieve a world we have damaged to the point of collapse; living out a good day, and then the next. What this morning’s Scripture adds to our conversation is the sense that living an imperfect life well almost always involves living life for others – living life for the well-being of others – for their good as much as for our own.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is turning the world rightside up. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Jesus is re-making a world – and we are all being made whole – a New Creation – one that Jesus has brought into fullness in his life, death, and Resurrection. One that is present to us right here, right now – our very humanity recreated into life more loving and healing and just than we ever could imagine. And in this morning’s Scripture, Jesus invites us all to a table of mutuality and justice, where the privileged give up our place at the table as we celebrate those who are finding theirs – as we celebrate together, and rejoice together, and feast together – as God reshapes and recreates the world for good. At the end of this morning’s Scripture, Jesus points those gathered at that Sabbath feast – and us – to Resurrection. He points us to Resurrection – this life we can live – now.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 For more on the complexity of Jesus’s relationship with Pharisees, see Mitzi J. Smith, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-3/commentary-on-luke-141-7-14-4 This reading draws on Smith’s commentary, as well as Emerson Powery, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-22-3/commentary-on-luke-141-7-14-3 ; Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), pp. 193-97; David J. Frenchak Commentary in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year C (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), p. 366-68.  See Emerson Powery, Working Preacher, supra.  See Robin Diangelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017).  See “Speaking of Psychology: The invisibility of white privilege with Brian Lowery, PhD,” at https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/white-privilege  See Shadé Zahrai, “How To Speak Up In Male-Dominated Meetings And Get The Visibility You Deserve,” https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/02/10/how-to-speak-up-in-male-dominated-meetings-and-get-the-visibility-you-deserve/?sh=3b648eb75b73 ; Christopher F. Karpowitz, Tali Mendelberg and Lee Shaker, “Gender Inequality in Deliberative Participation,” American Political Science Review, at p.6, https://www.bu.edu/wgs/files/2014/12/Karpowitz-et-al.-2012.pdf ; Shari Kendall and Deborah Tannen, “Gender and Language in the Workplace,”in Gender and Discourse (Ruth Wodak, ed.) (London and Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publishing, 1999).  See “Harvard EdCast: Unconscious Bias in Schools,” Interview with Tracey Benson and Sarah Fiarman, at https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/19/11/harvard-edcast-unconscious-bias-schools  Lee Jourdan, “Talk About Privilege at Work,” Harvard Business Review, at https://hbr.org/2021/08/talk-about-privilege-at-work  https://www.marincityclinic.org/marin-city-health-and-wellness-center/health-equity/  https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/sananselmotowncalifornia (This statistic has been updated with the 2021 census estimate.)  Brenée Brown, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Experience and the Language of the Heart (New York, NY: Random House, 2021), pp. 35-37.
Photo credit: Nadia Valko, used with permission via Unsplash