I am learning that the Christians have been the ones who have usually willingly taken the cheap seats and offered the expensive ones to those who cannot afford them.
I am learning that this way of being human has been the consistent mark of the Christian community across the centuries, and across the world, particularly in those first three centuries and then again in those ‘Dark ages’.
I am also learning that there have been many times when we were not this too. We have often taken the best seats (by force and violence) and not cared at all about those out the back.
This is according to a fascinating book by an Australian Christian historian named John Dickson. It is called “Bullies and Saints”. It is an attempt to tell the truth about the history of the Christian church as both – bullies and saints; our best high points and worst low points; our very good behaviour and absolutely terrible behaviour.
According to John and the others he brings into the conversation, in those first three hundred years when the church was never in the first seats of honour, always out the back with no honour and mostly under pressure; sometimes extreme pressure of violence, the defining mark of the Christians was charity – serving the underserved in the community, loving the unloved, treating the deathly sick, living among the dying, burying the forgotten dead.
You can tell why.
They took Jesus at his word.
There is a highly charged dinner party with some after dinner speakers speaking on philosophy or doing a stand-up comedy routine or speaking some wise or beautiful words in front of chairs arranged in rows. The expectation is that those of highest honour in the community get the closest seats (unlike Lutheran worship gatherings where no one ever sits at the front unless they have to!).
Jesus uses the scene to show that coveting, playing the politics and jockeying for the highest place of honour in town is not his way.
Jesus says that getting the best place can be dangerous because it can backfire. Even the best can be shamed by some ‘bigger fish’. You can be moved to the cheap seats while everyone watches on.
Don’t we know it. It happens daily to the next politician, church leader, business leader or whoever being found out for some corrupt or wrong or damaging thing and swiftly put to the lowest possible shamed placed.
On the other hand, Jesus says that the people who settle for cheapest seats at the back maybe a good option. They could find themselves one day moved from that low place right up to the best seats in the house while everyone is watching.
We see this too: the person who does some amazing thing that everyone thought was either impossible or just plain dangerous actually pulls it off and is exalted as a hero! I am thinking Eddie the English Olympic ski jumper or the bobsled team from Jamaica in Cool Runnings.
It seems that Jesus is saying that for Christian people, who live in the promises and presence of the risen and ruling Jesus, the real ‘Master” of the this world house, it is much wiser to take those cheap seats because with Jesus, we already have the very best seats and the highest place of honour with him and the only way he movers his people is up!
So, Christians are invited to do what Jesus is actually doing as he speaks these words to these people – taking the low positions and hanging out with all the other people in low positions. He will do this way more than anyone would or could have thought as enters that human shaming and dying and the rising.
They will see all this, and they will never forget it. He did it for them and they knew it. They also knew that Jesus’ future resurrection life will be higher than any front row seat for those who trust in him.
And this giving up the best place in your town cuts both ways. What if we are the ‘master’ of the show?
‘Invite those who have no chance of paying you back in any way’. If you invite your friends and relatives and other people of the same or higher status as you, even if the part is not that great you would have at least firmed up your position in family and town.
Jesus calls his people to give up the ‘you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours’, way of making your way in the community.
We live totally unconcerned with the front row status. We can charge to the back and sit with the sinners and saints because we are both and we are his.
This kind of self-giving became the character of the Christian community wherever it lived. In those first centuries before Christianity became the religion of the empire, it would have been unthinkable for any Christian community anywhere in the world to even think that they would ever be anywhere near the front row seats of honour in Roman society.
In Roman philosophy, poetry, theatre culture there was no such value at all placed on assistance for the vulnerable. There was the opposite. ‘Get rid of them!’ It was ‘natural selection’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ before these things were coined by later thinkers.
So, when plague came to Rome in the second century, the elite and middle-class people simply left them to it. Guess who stayed? The Christians.
When a poor person had no place of burial secured, fearing that their body would be left to the elements and wild dogs or the crows to dismember in view of others, who came and buried them whether they were Christ followers of not? The Christians.
When women lost their husbands and so, all income, honour and status in the community and were left to survive somehow, who came to their aid by running food sharing programs in Rome – up to 1500 people on the list at one stage apparently? The Christians.
When the gospel of Jesus took root in a family and then in a town or city an amazing, rag-tag, unique community of nobody’s and somebody’s formed. Roman wealthy elite mixing with beggars, children, woman and any other vulnerable people. This was unique. It is how the whole community knew the Christians had arrived in town. It was what disturbed the community.
John Dickson suggests that the early Christians never expected to win anything from the state. In fact, they learnt to be very ‘good losers’. They lost much at times: status, positions at work, sometimes their freedom, sometimes their very life, sometimes their church buildings burnt to the ground, bibles confiscated.
In their society they were mostly right back there in the cheap seats with all the other back seat people of the community, and in that space, they kept serving, kept seeking, kept caring and so, bore witness to ‘The Nazarene’ as one Caesar, Julian, dismissively named Jesus.
I have read several authors who would say that we need to learn again how to be ‘good losers’ in our times so that the gospel finds voice and place in our place. Not ‘losers’ as a put-down term, but a term used to describe us as a people who do not need to win or even expect to win, because we gladly lose our life for the sake of the gospel and the Saviour who has found us and loves us.
It is challenging, I know. Life is good for most of us. We have been used to the power and privilege we have enjoyed. But, as we can now see, the power is diminishing and we are not on the side of privilege as much as we have been and this is set to continue. We will continue to be pushed to the cheap seats.
The incredible thing is that in those first three hundred years before we Christians became the power and the status of the Western world, the gospel flourished. No matter how hard various opponents and rulers tried to squash the gospel community, it just spread and grew and remained a force – not or status and power but of service and hope in people’s lives.
I pray we become ‘good losers’ – people who lose with grace as we keep on serving and caring and staying and living with the people in the cheap seats, whoever they are and why-ever they are there.
One day the Master will take us, and hopefully plenty of them, by the hand, and in full view of all the honoured front row sceptical, unbelieving, and self-assured, we will be moved to his high place.
Until then, we head for the back of the bus, the bottom of the heap, the lonely in the crowd, the stranger in our midst and we sit, and we talk and we serve. It is Jesus’ way.