Jesus’ parable of the important seats is easy to understand. It’s one of the first parables I learned as a young child in Sunday school. It could easily have come from any of the sitcoms I watched at that age. I can imagine Jackie Gleason barging into a dining hall and rushing for the best seat at the table, followed by his spluttering rage when he’s told he has to sit over in a corner.
In this parable, Jesus shows a profound awareness of social contagion, a phenomenon analyzed with much insight by René Girard. What Girard articulates is our human tendency to receive desires from other people. In the case of the banquet, the more some people want the best places, the more other people will want the best places just because other people want them. If some people think some places are the best and rush for those, then other people will desire those places because other people want them.
One way to get some perspective on this parable is to reflect on the kind of person who rushes for the best seat and the kind of person who holds back. The kind of person who holds back is apt to be more kind than the other, or at least not so unkind. The thing is, reaching the best seat can be a kind of pyrrhic victory. One might have the prestige of being a CEO, the president of the United States, or the center of a social set, but if such a one treats people badly, that person will not be liked or respected on a personal level, even if there is respect for the position. It’s a way of saying one might gain the world and lose one’s soul. One has lost one’s soul to the social contagion that blunts concern for the well-being of other people. In fact, although this parable doesn’t speak of darker alternatives, it is easy to imagine the rush for the highest place resulting in a violent free-for-all. This is what Girard says is likely to have happened at the dawn of humanity, and the free-for-all resulted in everybody converging on a victim. It isn’t easy to escape the power of this social contagion but if one takes notice of Jesus, then one sees an alternative.
To begin with, Jesus is not giving us a social strategy for getting the best place by being laid back. Jesus would have us realize that grabbing one of the best places at a dinner party or pushing for social dominance over others is not where our priority should be. Rather than trying to get the highest place, one should be content with the place one happens to have and do the best one can in that place while attending to the needs of others, which is the best way to be given a higher place due to one’s accomplishment. But there is more.
Jesus didn’t just take a middling place; he took the lowest place. His preaching ministry, for all the acclaim it received from many people, gained the opprobrium of those who thought they had the highest places and wanted to keep them. These people sentenced him to a criminal’s death, death on a cross. That was the lowest place there was in the Roman world at the time. But then Jesus was raised from the dead by his heavenly Abba and raised to his Abbas’s right hand in Heaven which is about as far up as one can go. Such is the Christological level of this parable. Who would have thought that a sitcom scenario could outline the story of our redemption?
For more on René Girard, see Violence and the Kingdom of God, Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim, and Living Together with our Shared Desires.