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 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. – Luke 14:7-11
Recently, I was invited to a rather special dinner for a select group of people. It didn’t occur to me until halfway through my meal that I had chosen the foot of the table, the seat furthest from the action. Thinking back on the evening, this verse stands out. My hosts weren’t the sort to play favorites and don’t exist in the context of an honor/shame society. So for that reason, the scenario Jesus said would play out didn’t, they didn’t say “you, move on up” or “you, go sit down there.”
It makes me wonder what else we’re clinging to literally even though the rules have changed. What else we say is exactly the same as in Jesus’ day, but obviously isn’t for the same reasons: we’re not an honor/shame society, we’re not an unequal society that places higher value on people of a certain class or race or gender than others, we’re not predisposed to place higher value on certain friends over others based on how long we’ve known them or how beneficial it is to be connected to them.
Ultimately, we have to pick and choose what to take literally. Some things are bound to cultural elements that no longer fly, like some seats being more honorable than others; but this isn’t the only example of something cultural. The thing is – a culture is defined by it’s customs and practices – quite a few of those are outlined in scripture, some customs we obviously just never picked up: like washing feet, some customs are part of other cultures: like greeting with a kiss. Even relationship patterns, such as how the Bible describes between two people are heavily dependent on their cultural norms as a basis upon what is expected of each role. But just what exactly isn’t cultural?
I think it’s the unseen things – the things that involve treating others with respect, being humble and kind, being patient, living out a life of love. It’s far better to carry out the spirit of the text even if it doesn’t look like literally obeying the letter of the New Testament Law.