Seats at the Table:

Jesus’ response to Nietzschean Power

Photo taken by my friend, Michele Perez

A friend recently sent me a video where John MacArthur was asked to give a “Biblical and Christ proclaiming view” on the events of Charlottesville. While I am in no position to critique MacArthur for his response, I think his comments were broad theological statements rather than a direct response to Charlottesville. No doubt others will have opinions about this video, but I just want to give the question a second look considering the discussion we started two weeks ago about “power.” What does the Bible tell us about the display at Charlottesville? Is the Bible capable of reorienting the world so that “power” isn’t grasped for with such violence and coercion?

Two weeks ago, I concluded my own thoughts on Charlottesville with a brief definition of privilege. “Privilege is the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power” (Crouch, 150). It’s important to remember that privilege is neutral. That is, privilege is neither good or bad, and it is usually invisible. Privilege can originate from oppressive or benevolent acts of power. Privilege can even be shared for the benefit of another. Just go back to my story about Steve if you want an example. In his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Crouch makes a distinction between neutral (though potentially dangerous) privilege and status. His definition of status is as follows:

“Status — at root, “where you stand” –is about your place in line. It is about the human drive to be ranked above another, to be counted more worthy than another … Status is about counting, numbering, ranking and ultimately excluding … We rarely have any control over where we land in these rankings; they are assigned based on realities that long preceded us. Status is by definition a scarce resource … Status is rarely anything but dangerous” (Crouch, 156–7; italics are mine).

Jesus and the Status-Obsessed

Though I suggested previously that the protestors at Charlottesville were more concerned about privilege than power, I think status is an even more precise term for what the alt-right group wants to retain. To that end, to the pursuit of status, Jesus spoke directly. Luke tells of a day when Jesus went to dine in the home of the ruler of the Pharisees (Lk. 14:1–24). Pharisees were the religious elite of the day, and they enjoyed a great deal of status. One historian wrote, “They had the greatest influence upon congregations, so that all acts of public worship, prayers, and sacrifices were performed according to their injunctions. Their sway over the masses was so absolute that they could obtain a hearing even when they said anything against the king or the high priest” (quoted by Unger in his entry on Pharisees, 998).

Given that this was the home of this elites’ leader, no doubt only the “supreme” Pharisees were in attendance. Jesus observed them as they took their seats at the table to dine and noticed that they worked their way around the room trying to position themselves in the places of honor. Every greeting was calculated, ever step intentional, every smile was a mask hiding their anxiety about their place. The Pharisees wanted their seat to reflect their supposed importance. In the middle of all the networking and posturing, Jesus gives this advice:

“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 14:8–11, NIV).

At first, it seems Jesus is giving the Pharisees a new trick-of-the-trade, the kind of advice expected from Dale Carnegie or Tony Robbins. We know that can’t be the case because of what Jesus says to/of Pharisees in other instances. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat … But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach … Everything they do is done for people to see … They love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues … Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matt. 23:1–13). If Jesus is so strongly against the Pharisees status-hungry posturing, there is no way He is telling them how they can more easily obtain status. Instead, Jesus is making a powerful point about status. Status should be dismissed into the hands of the master of the meal. In other words, status should be disregarded, for honor, the recognition of one’s power and dignity, is never taken but bestowed.

If the Pharisees heard Jesus and missed his point, I’d imagine they all raced to the worst seat at the table, turning their eyes to their host waiting for him to assign the proper seating arrangements. That would be a sad sad scene, if that was in fact what happened, but Jesus’ next words suggest he stopped them just before they moved to reposition themselves at the table. This time, He directs Himself to their host:

“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Lk. 14:12–14, NIV).

Jesus’ words reveal the naked truth about this entire dinner. The guests were only present to either gain more or demonstrate their existing status. To be invited to the house of the ruler of the Pharisees to dine with the most influential and popular new religious leader, Jesus, was sure to boost their profile. And, all the guests there were looking to elevate in that way. But, there host was playing the same game. If they were invited to that dinner with Jesus, it was because the host believed he was gaining some leverage on them by having them there that night. The entire event was a display of Nietzschean power dynamics (see description in my previous article) played out by people competing for their own interests, for their own power, for their own status.

The Dinner Table and Charlottesville

Unfortunately, many people, including the alt-right protestors, vie for status. In fact, anyone who works in an office setting with any number of meetings has likely seen a microcosm of the posturing on display at that dinner with Jesus. It’s no surprise that books like Survival of the Savvy: High-Integrity Political Tactics for Career and Company Success are growing in popularity, even in Christian institutions. Note the first word in that title: survival. In the last office I worked for, this was the dominating sentiment. Meetings were often perceived as miniature Hunger Games where uneasy alliances were made in hopes to survive and retain one’s status at the table. This pathos is at the core of the protest in Charlottesville, but the world does not have to be this way.

Someone asked me, after reading my previous post, to comment on the counter-protestors. My hope is that this exploration of Luke 14, power, and status starts to make my position clearer for everyone. My suspicion is that some counter-protestors still live in a world where power is a limited resource exchanged in zero-sum transactions. Success for any counter-protestor who believes this might look like a reversal of roles, where the underprivileged, low-status, and disempowered assume all the status available to today’s elite and use it to dominate space. This is no victory for anyone! And here is where Jesus’ response becomes most important.

After calling out the guests and host, Jesus transports them to a greater banquet by telling them a story. In this narrative, a man gave a magnificent banquet and invited many, but by the time the meal was prepared, guests made excuses and did not attend. Each excuse Jesus retold was rooted in the acquisition of new wealth, either relational or monetary. In frustration, the host of the banquet commands his servant to bring the poor, the crippled, and weak. This had already been done, so the servant is commanded to compel people on the streets to come to the banquet because there was still plenty of room at the table. At this banquet, the real world is clearly envisioned for Jesus audience to consider. There is room sufficient at the table for the wealthy and poor, for the strong and weak. This banquet host gives no regard to previous status, but simply makes room for the dignity of everyone who comes to the meal as invited guests.

Conclusion

The seminary I attended had a meeting dedicated to discussing issues of reconciliation called Mosaic Gatherings. I’m very proud when I think of these gatherings because of one particular story. While the group of students sat discussing privilege, the minority students were dominating the conversation. A white student asked with sincere consideration, “What place at the table do I have to talk about this issue?” The conversation turned, to my surprise, to the acknowledgement that this student belonged in the conversation along with his minority peers. Only together could Christ’s church be made visible in this small group, and only together could their power multiply for the service of others. It was a powerful moment.

There is a vision of the world that suggests power is limited, and people must fight to control it if they are to retain their dignity. Jesus promises a different way around “the table” all together. In the world He creates, power is multiplied and servants are honored. His people disregard their own status and have no problem taking the lesser seat at the table, for this makes room for others to flourish. His people make connections with the weak, knowing this does good and not harm to everyone. While he didn’t know it, a Pharisee trying to clear the air after Jesus’ uncomfortable speech was right when he said, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!” (Lk. 14:15).

Indeed! Blessed is everyone who leaves the Nietzschean world for the world of Christ.

Books Cited:

Crouch, Andy. Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2013. Print.

Unger, Merrill. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Chicago, Illinois: Moody Bible Intitute, 1984. Print.