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Sunday 6 October 2019 – Matins
Isaiah 59:9-20 Luke 14:1-14
Let’s start by having a little harmless fun at Donald Trump’s expense. Almost five months ago, the President of the USA and his wife made a State Visit to the United Kingdom. Although there were any number of protests about this, they were given the works, and on the evening of Monday 3rd June, having had a meeting with the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, in Downing Street earlier that day, the Trumps were the guests of honour at a State Banquet hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. There was, of course, an order of procession and a seating plan. The President was briefed beforehand about where to sit and was told it would be perfectly obvious where his seat was. As the procession made its way to the table, Donald Trump placed himself in prime position with the Queen at his side. The Queen looked at him and said, ‘Move down one, Mr President; that’s my seat!’ Mr Trump replied, ‘Oh, sorry Ma’am. I saw number one written on the place card and assumed it meant me!’
Well, if you’re not entirely sure which bits of that account are historically accurate, welcome to the world of fake news! I’ll leave you to work out which bits were made up. The simple point is, though, that such a social faux pas on the part of the President, while not being entirely improbable, would have caused offence, I suspect, throughout this country, and embarrassment back in the USA. Generally speaking, the host of a dinner or a banquet is expected to sit at the head of the table, and the place of honour would be to their right. For the guest to usurp the position of the host would be seen as presumptuous and discourteous in the extreme. After all, we’re all expected to know our place.
Much social convention and etiquette operates on the basis of things being in their right places. Even in Church circles there are orders of precedence in processions and so on. Whenever the Archbishop’s here, for example, he doesn’t need to ask, ‘Where do I stand?’ or ‘Where do I go?’ He knows he’s always at the back of the procession, taking the place deemed to be that of the greatest honour and dignity. Even a procession into a service like this observes correct etiquette: the choir first and then the clergy, taking their places according to what’s referred to as the dignity of their position and then in the order of seniority determined by the date of their installation. You can imagine at the big services, such as the consecrations of bishops, anyone who wanted to subvert such things would cause havoc. That’s why we have people like Precentors and Succentors to make sure we do what we’re told!
Now Jesus, I suspect, would play by the rules up to a point – he wouldn’t want to stand on ceremony for himself – but for everyone else he’d be totally subversive. Whatever your status, he’d say, take the place of lowest honour. If you do otherwise, you’ll find that those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Greco-Roman society – the context for what lies behind these incidents we heard in the second lesson from the Gospel of Luke – was highly stratified, in which it was very important that everyone knew just what and where their place was. Social status was really important. It’s only even in relatively recent memory that such stratification has been eroded in our own society, and politicians of all colours are inclined to speak of a classless society, in which everyone’s valued on the basis not of position but merit. Jesus calls into question any concern for social status. In fact, he confronts us all ultimately with the question: where and in what do real value and esteem lie?
To press this point, he advises those having a lunch or a dinner party not even to invite their friends – those with whom they’d ordinarily associate on the basis of status – but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Outrageous! They don’t have any status but neither do they have any merit. They’re outcasts, not part of polite, ordered society. Invite them, Jesus says, and if you baulk at the idea, ask yourself where real worth lies. For Jesus, true value isn’t determined by social status, not even by merit. The value of every human being lies in the fact that they come from God, they’re grounded in God, and they’re created in the image and likeness of God. Their value to God lies in the simple fact that they are. In the end, it doesn’t matter what our social status or our achievements are. Our dignity lies in the fact that we’re loved and valued by God for who we are. The challenge is to relate to everyone, and to build a society – what’s called the Kingdom of God – in which this is universally, unequivocally and unreservedly the case.
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