When I was a teenager, my family went to counseling. On our first visit, one of the things that that counselor did was place chairs of various size and comfort level in his office, and as the family entered, he paid attention to which family members took which seats. Before any of us opened our mouths the counselor was already able to analyze some of our family dynamics by observing how we entered the room and which seats we chose. For example, I, a youngest child, had often been relegated to the “kid’s table” or the folding chairs in any given setting. For that reason, even though I was the first person to enter his office, I chose what I perceived to be the least comfortable seat. The counselor took note.
In the fourteenth chapter of Luke, we see Jesus making similar observations. He had been invited to the house of a high-ranking Pharisee, and as the other guests arrived, he noticed that they were coming in and taking the best seats at the table. The master recognizes a teachable moment when he sees it, and he offers a lesson in etiquette–one that applies to both guests and hosts.
Lately I was drawn to consider this story through the lens of missions. As missionaries, we are guests. Those in the countries to which we go are hosts. And I think the points that Jesus makes here in Luke are relevant to us. In fact, I think they’re critical. After having spent the last year studying missionary effectiveness and sustainability, I’m seeing some connections to this story.
The passage begins with Jesus noticing “how the guests chose the places of honor.”
When I read that, I asked myself, “Might Jesus make the same observation about missionaries arriving on the field?” Do we, too, tend to come in and assume leadership roles? Do we enter with a sense of self-importance? Do we consider that what we have to offer (the Gospel!!!) entitles us to occupy places of prominence and visibility?
While our motivation and urgency may be holy, our means are messy and broken. Yes, we have a call. Yes, we have a mission. Yes, we have a message. Yes, we have vision. And yet…we are guests. And how we enter will necessarily impact the way in which that message is received.
If we come expecting to be heard, needed, respected, and valued, if we have confidence in our resources, tools, and agendas, we will naturally gravitate to the highest places. To the head of the class. To the front of the church. We will be tempted to tell our hosts how it should be done, offering our classes and training seminars, as if we—the guests—should serve the main dish. But it isn’t even our house. It’s not our party. Not our place.
So how should we enter?
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, because a person more distinguished than you may have been invited by your host….But when you are invited, go and take the least important place.”
What would happen if missionaries arrived and took “the least important place”? Could we come in and serve? Could we offer what we have from below or beside, rather than from above? Think about Jesus, the first cross-cultural missionary, who chose to be born in a barn, raised as a commoner, minister with fishermen. He could have stepped into a head rabbi position at the local synagogue. Instead he touched lepers, talked to scandalous women, and washed feet. I’d say, in most ways, Jesus took the least important place. And his means of sharing his message only helped to illustrate its truth. Even he did not come to be served, but to serve (Mk 10:45).
Jesus modelled the way.
For me, that means I, too need to enter humbly, grateful for the privilege of even being invited. I need to sit back, quietly, watching and learning. This is different than biding my time until I see a place that I can jump in and take. It’s different than waiting for a lull in the conversation when I can speak up and propose my ideas. It’s setting aside my plans and agendas—for a time. When I watch and learn, I’ll ask more questions and offer fewer solutions.
When I watch and learn, I’ll marvel at the wisdom and insight of the hosts. I’ll give my time, energy, and resources to serve their plans. I’ll work for their success. I’ll take their advice. I’ll adapt to their way of doing things. And as I watch and learn, I’ll begin to see the weaknesses and flaws in my own plans. I’ll invite the host to give me input, to help me modify, refine, or even scrap my plans. Until I am invited to do otherwise, I will stay in that “least important place”—washing feet and dying to myself.
But there is another side to the story. The host has a role to play, too.
Here are Jesus’ words to the hosts:
“…when your host approaches he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up here to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who share the meal with you.”
“When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
The role of the host is to invite the other and outsider to come inside. The host is to recognize the strengths and the gifts of the guests, and seek to provide those guests places of honor. Jesus knows that we tend to be more comfortable with people who are like us, and so we can often build our lives and ministries around our own affinity groups. Our friends, brothers, relatives, fellow nationals. Jesus invites the host to look beyond her normal network to those who are different.
The nationals are the hosts. They are the only ones who can open the door into the culture for the missionaries. They are the ones who can pull out a seat at the right place at the table, so that each missionary is able to make his best contribution to the Kingdom work that is going on in that country. Missionaries can and should bring valuable energy, perspective, and gifts to the host countries. And if those gifts are left to languish at the kiddie table, then Kingdom resources are sadly wasted. Insiders, too need to seek to understand and discover the contributions that outsiders can bring to the party. They too, could benefit from a dose of humility that acknowledges gaps and weaknesses they have in their own systems and welcomes the missionary as an emissary sent by God to fill in those gaps.
If going to a country where there is a Christian presence, the missionary must submit to the nationals. We are their guests. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We must start by showing respect, admiration, interest, and teach-ability. We must build trust and genuine friendship. We need, yes need to sit at the lowest place until we are invited up. And the hosts need to extend those invitations
But what if there is not a Christian presence? Even then…even then, I would say there is a mandate for a period of watching, learning, and listening to the culture before we begin to implement plans. When Paul arrived in Athens he made observations about the culture before he began to preach.
For this reason, I am working to create a multi-cultural association in France that will accompany missionaries in their transition to the field. That association is going to be called Elan, and I’ll be telling you more about it in the weeks and months to come. The vision was birthed out of my heart’s desire to see greater collaboration and cooperation for the sake of the kingdom of God. But it is rooted in the belief that God calls us to community…around a table…where etiquette matters.