Seating Position

In the message “Love Perfect,” I made a passing comment describing people being seated across from one another, posted up at opposite ends of the table, when they have differing opinions.  This visual has stuck strongly in my mind in the midst of the great divide we see our country struggling to mend.  Many individuals and groups are clearly seated across from one another with a mountain of opinion, belief and hurt in between them.  What’s troubling to me is that no matter how noble a person’s motives may be, the moment they position themselves across from someone on an issue, the divide has already begun.  Differing opinions on intensely personal matters are a reality of life that we must learn to deal with.  In spite of this, I believe we can have great success working together, and it begins with where we are seated at the table: either across from those we disagree with, or next to them.  Fortunately for us, the Bible uses the banquet table both literally and figuratively to learn from.

I’ve come to learn that being seated around a table next to someone has nothing to do with agreeing with them.  I’m reminded of the many meals I’ve shared with people that I’m certain have an opposite worldview from me.  However, our time spent together never resulted in division, because our differences were never the focus of our conversation; only what we shared in common took center stage.  Although seated at the same table, the intentional positioning next to one another, rubbing shoulders, eliminates any confrontational or defensive posture.  This positioning also forces a person to turn in order to make eye contact and actively engage in conversation.  Being seated across from someone doesn’t allow for this type of interaction, and the table itself is an automatic barrier to becoming close.

To truly set the stage in teaching us how to invite others to sit around our table, God modeled it with His own son.  It may be hard to fathom, but a moment existed in which Christ’s will and his Father’s will were not aligned.  Isn’t this often the case that leads to being at odds with someone?  When we face the possibility that we may not get what we want…  

In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Christ intensely struggled with the fact that he was headed towards a painful death, he very honestly pleaded with God to find another way if possible.  The Bible makes it clear this death was not what he wanted.  Although Jesus sought another way, he did not position himself across from his Father, pleading his case to get out of going to the cross.  He humbled himself saying, “Not my will, but yours” (Mark 14:35-36).  What I find striking about this account is not actually found in this passage.  It’s what the writer of Hebrews says about Christ’s position in Heaven at the conclusion of his crucifixion.

“The Son (Jesus) is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Hebrews 1:3

Where was Christ seated?  Next to his Father, not across from Him!  It is a very clear picture of where we must be with people in order to work with them.  Although it pained God to watch His son die, He stood His ground on what needed to be done in that moment.  God’s will took precedent over Christ’s in order for mankind to receive forgiveness.  This was necessary, but not without God reserving the appropriate spot for Christ next to Him.

Although this positioning was perfectly exemplified in Jesus’ death, he modeled it during his life as well.  Nearly every time we see him eating with a group of people, or teaching them, it is in a relaxed position next to them.  What’s important to note is that the conversations Jesus was having around these tables were rarely, if ever, ones in which everyone agreed!  Here are a few examples:

In Luke chapter 14, Jesus is under heavy scrutiny at the home of a prominent Pharisee.  Against the law at the time, he had just healed a man on the Sabbath right in front of them, plus challenged how they were all jockeying for a place of honor at the table.  Even in an atmosphere where confrontation was a near certainty, Christ made sure he was reclining at the table next to everyone.  That simple gesture can surmount massive opposition when trying to get your point across in love:

“When one of those who were reclining at the table with Him heard this, he said to Him, ‘Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’" Luke 14:15

“When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table.” Luke 22:14

This is hardly the positioning you’d expect as Jesus speaks on the significance of his crucifixion at the last supper.  What’s more is he goes on to explain that one of his disciples will betray him and another will deny him, yet he’s still seated next to them!

And another time we see this posturing is as Christ speaks of his betrayal.  Even though the discussion was uncomfortable, as the disciples tried to figure out who Jesus was speaking of, we see that he never broke form into a position of confrontation or distance. 

“One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him.” John 13:23

My question now is this: how do you position yourself at the table of life?  If you view your opinion, worldview, way of life, or even race as more important than someone else’s, aren’t you seating yourself across from them?  Even if it’s for just a time, a moment when you may be under persecution, is across the table the place we want to be?  Statements regarding the importance of one specific type of life run the risk of implying that your way is above another.  The way we craft our words, conduct our demonstrations, and interact with those who differ from us will either position us across from them or next to them.  I can’t help but think of the words of the prophet Isaiah for insight into how God looks at this matter.

“On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all people” Isaiah 25:6

The visual I get is all people seated next to each other.  So how exactly do we make sure we are seated correctly?  A deeper look into Luke’s account of Jesus at the Pharisee’s house will tell us.

“When he (Jesus) noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: ‘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 man you 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 your fellow guests.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 14:7-11

The key to this passage is found in the last verse.  Christ uses the banquet table once again to teach us a lesson on life.  If a person enters a group looking for a way to elevate themselves above others, they’ve positioned themselves incorrectly at the table.  That approach automatically seats them across from others.  This mistake can be hard to avoid because often times wanting to be seen or having a cause heard doesn’t seem like positioning across from others, especially if intentions are good.  However, we are seeing clearly in our nation right now that no matter what side of an issue a person is on, if their opinion is expressed in a proud or provoking manner that displays “my way is better,” confrontation is soon to follow.

Christ ends with the truth that humbleness gets results.  Humbleness is taking a lower position to start, most likely next to people that you may not normally eat with.  Perhaps the most striking example I’ve seen recently that helps explain the stark contrast between these two approaches, has been the manner in which some choose to protest the iniquities against Blacks today versus the beginning of the civil rights movement.  One showing violence and riots, and the other showing Dr. Martin Luther King linking arms with others walking down the street in peace.  Dr. King took the position of seating himself next to people at the table and the effects have been transformational for our country ever since.

There are a multitude of injustices in our world.  There were in Jesus’ day too, but no matter what cause a person is fighting for, self exaltation will always position them across from someone else.  If I’ve learned anything recently, it’s that it’s much easier to break bread with someone and share in their life if I don’t have to crawl across the table first.