At a formal meal, seating arrangements are important. Usually the most distinguished guests sit at the top of the table. To avoid the embarrassing situation described in today's Gospel a wise host will decide the order of precedence beforehand.
Here Jesus makes fun of those pretentious people who scrambled for the most prestigious places, only to be demoted lower on the arrival of someone of greater importance. How ridiculous would the status-seeker then appear! All would have had a good laugh -- except the butt of Christ's observation! Beware, Jesus must be getting at you and me, whenever we have an inflated idea of our own importance!
But Jesus wasn't interested in table etiquette, nor in helping us to avoid public humiliation! Still less is he urging a false humility in the hope that people, recognising our true worth, will give us a more prestigious place. Such a person would simply be a crafty status seeker -- far worse than someone who simply grabbed the best seat.
This meal, like all the others in the Gospels, anticipated the heavenly banquet. Here Jesus is telling us that we are not the ones to decide which position we deserve. Our very presence at the heavenly banquet is God's gift. None of us deserves this. He will overturn our sense of priorities and will give the highest places to those whom the worldly consider to be the least important.
The meal described in today's Gospel provides an interlude on Christ's journey to Jerusalem and the cross.That context gives special force to the folly of being status seekers.
Jesus himself came to serve, not to be served. While Adam fell through his pride leading him to strive to become equal to Almighty God, the Son of God emptied himself of the glory which was his by right. Jesus became humble and obedient, even to death on the cross. The God of glory became despised and rejected. And yet it was precisely in his lowliness that Jesus revealed his true greatness. On the cross he showed the power and generosity of his love for his heavenly Father and for us sinners. Jesus, who lowered himself to become the least, was raised to become the first in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The crucified Christ shows us where our true greatness lies. Not in the honour or status we may bestow on ourselves, but in following Jesus along the way of the cross. Like him, we are called to serve, rather than be served, to give of ourselves, rather than grab for ourselves. Sometimes that will be costly, painful and humiliating. But, with the grace of God, this will bring out the very best in us. And God will give us a place of honour at his heavenly banquet.
We Christians could easily make the mistake of thinking that this parable was directed at the Pharisees alone. If so, we should remember that the disciples were forever bickering among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. The sons of Zebedee even sought privileged positions in the Kingdom.
The full meaning of this parable is brought home forcefully in the light of the Last Supper. As Jesus and the apostles celebrated the salvation God had brought to his people in the past, Christ committed himself to saving the world through his death on the cross. While he was preparing to be brought low, his followers were striving to exalt themselves. They started arguing as to which of them was the greatest -- immediately after Jesus had celebrated the first Eucharist and had prophesied that one of them would betray him. What a dreadful, frightening irony! This should warn all who are too full of their own importance. Possibly any one of us!
Certainly we should take God very seriously. But let's be able to laugh at ourselves and our ridiculous posturing. That's far better than God and other people despising us as pretentious fools! Rather than our instinctively thinking we're the greatest, we should humbly recognise the dignity and worth of other people -- and leave the ranking to God.