Giving Up Your Seat = Empathy

Luke 14:1-14

QUESTION: What is the worst seat you have ever had? Consider a concert, opera, game, classroom, etc.

What is the best seat you have ever had?

a-place-at-the-tableHere we are in Luke’s Gospel, and Jesus is still on his way to Jerusalem. Like a previous story about a bent-over woman, here we find a story in which a person is suffering from some sort of illness and then a healing takes place.

BACKGROUND ALERT: Jesus is warned about Herod of Antipas, the ruler of the region called Galilee. At this point in the journey, Jesus’ ideas have become dangerous to political leaders. Surprisingly, the Pharisees actually seem to be protecting Jesus from a possible threat. In spite of the danger, Jesus continues on.

And, like in Luke’s previous story about a bent-over woman, it is the Sabbath day.

Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. As I have mentioned before, in the 1st century in the Middle East, dinners were about more than just food. Great discussions [and debates] about politics, social issues, and religion would take place. Also, keep in mind that one who was hosting such a dinner would obviously invite people of the same social class [or higher], so as to guarantee an invite later on to a dinner at their house. People of low income levels would not have the home to offer so they would not be invited to such a dinner. They could not return the favor.

But we cannot ignore the man with dropsy, who is healed, on the Sabbath.

This man seems to be the male version of the healing story about the bent-over woman. Both stories occur on the Sabbath and in front of the Pharisees. So what is dropsy? The Greek word for dropsy is hudropikos, which is a derivation of the word for water. Dropsy carries with it symptoms of fluid retention and strangely, also great thirst. It’s not a disease really—just a side effect of another health problem. Just like with the bent-over woman, we do not know exactly what is causing his symptoms.

What we do know is that he is thirsty for the thing that he has the most of: water. A sad irony, don’t you think? He is retaining too much water, but is constantly thirsty.

Jesus asks the Pharisees a question, which we can probably guess the answer to:
Is it lawful to heal someone on the Sabbath?

The Pharisees give no answer, though we can assume what many of them were thinking:
The Law says that one cannot work on the Sabbath.

So I guess the answer is no.

Then, the example of the wedding feast.

At the dinner table, always sit at the worst seat in the house—never the best seat.
At first, it seems that Jesus is giving the Pharisees some good advice as to how to be falsely humble.

Sure! I’ll take the worst seat at the table, and then, later on, someone will move me up to the best seat. Sounds great!

But as Jesus continues on, it becomes clear that his point has nothing to do with false humility.

Jesus’ point is all about empathy.

The great reversal, as it is called, that the last will be first and vice versa—is about empathy. Do not identify just with your own social class, but with those who you call poor; those you call marginalized; those you call unclean. Identify. Empathize with them.

Invite them to your dinners and give them the best seats. Give up your own seat, even though they won’t repay you. There is nothing that you will get out of it, actually. The world and its social order will reject this behavior. No one will applaud your efforts, you won’t get an award or your name in the paper, and you won’t get more money or status out of it.

In fact, the only thing that comes out of it is that you will participate in God’s kingdom on earth. In other words, God already says that all people are equal. There are no social classes in God’s eyes. So the great equalizing God asks this of you in order to display God’s mercy and love—give up your seat. Empathize.

So another question for you: who do you usually welcome?

Your families, right? Or, on occasion, you might invite over a good friend, too, or someone you haven’t seen in a long time who just moved into the area. Okay, and let’s admit, sometimes we invite someone over because they invited us, and so we feel obligated. Like the Pharisees, an invitation to our home often has more to do with an exchange of favors than empathy.

And, even if we “invite” someone into our lives who is a so-called “poor” person or someone who is “marginalized” we often do it with the hope of salvation in mind—some sort of heavenly reward.

This is why I’m not a big believer in altruism, or the idea that we as people can act completely unselfishly when we help another. For each time we help someone, we are helped, too. We feel better and useful and when we see someone go from sad to content because we helped her, this gives us satisfaction. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. This positive, pay-it-forward kind of idea can have a wonderful impact on our corners of the world. We help someone with his/her best interest in mind; that person helps us, too.

But for Jesus, the expectation of reward is the problem.

We are not entitled. Oh boy…

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No reward that we should expect if we are to truly empathize. The resurrection of the righteous is not about an express ticket to heaven. It is about new life [resurrection] for all of God’s children.

When we invite those who are left out and pushed down, we empathize with them. We choose to say and show that they are just like us. We choose to say to the world that salvation is not reserved for us. We exhibit controversial, uncomfortable behavior when we radically accept people as they are.

Sadly, we live in a world that promotes an opposite idea [and many churches do, too]. We are not encouraged to empathize with others, but instead we are encouraged to stay close to those who are just like us. The media often portrays a so-called “Christian” perspective that is suspicious of this kind of empathy that leads to social justice—especially if it means giving up a good seat at the table. In fact, recently, a well-known television commentator addressed U.S. Christians, instructing them to avoid at all costs and to run away from “those churches that talk about or promote social justice.” Wow.

But friends, don’t let this kind of nonsense or propaganda make you apathetic.

We are called by Christ to be inclusive and to welcome all to our tables. We cannot say or claim the word “gospel” unless we are welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, and the outsider.

We cannot preach, teach, or live gospel unless we welcome the gay man who was sent to “conversion camp” to get rid of his “gayness”;
or the two women who have loved each other for 13 years and still cannot get married;
the boy who learns differently than the other kids and needs more attention;
the young man who just got out of prison;
the young woman who battles addiction each day of her life;
the people of Syria who are dying and suffering;
the people of Egypt who are mourning;
the families split apart in the Sudan;
the family here in the U.S. that is undocumented and discriminated against;
the Muslim communities in NY or elsewhere who are spied on;
the atheist or the agnostic who has been spiritually wounded;
the teenager searching for acceptance and love in a cruel world.

Friends, we are made in the image of the still-speaking, still-welcoming God.

We have been given a place at the table. Grace and mercy are the place settings.

All of you are invited to the feast of great compassion by God.

So may your life be a table.

And may our tables be radically inclusive.

May our tables be set with no rewards in mind.

May the movement of the welcoming Spirit invade our personal space.

May we always invite those who will not return the favor.

May our church always reserve the best seats for those in great need.

May we choose to empathize with others and accept them as they are.

May our lives be inclusive tables. Amen.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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