The General’s wife told her to sit down. My grandmother had to make a split-second decision. In a traditional Chinese household, where one sits automatically reflects one’s status. General Xue’s wife was sitting at the north end of the room, as befitted a person in her position. Next to her, separated by a side table, was another chair, also facing south: this was the general’s seat. Down each side of the room was a row of chairs for people of different status. My grandmother shuffled backwards and sat on one of the chairs nearest the door, to show humility. The wife then asked her to come forward—just a little. She had to show some generosity.
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.
When Chang explained her grandmother’s dilemma is having to choose a seat in the presence of the general’s wife in Wild Swans, I thought of this childhood experience.
In Luke 14, we see Jesus in a similar situation. 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, and he tells them a parable.
After having spent the last year studying missionary effectiveness and sustainability, I’m seeing some connections to this story. 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.
The passage begins with Jesus noticing “how the guests chose the places of honor.”
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.
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”? 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. 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).
Could missionaries enter humbly?
Could we watch and learn, take advice, and adapt our plans to serve the needs of our host? And as we watch and learn, perhaps we’ll see the weaknesses and flaws in our own plans. Until we are invited to do otherwise, perhaps we should stay in that “least important place”—washing feet and dying to ourselves.
But there is another side to the story. The host has a role to play, too.
“…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. Jesus invites the host to look beyond her normal network to those who are different.
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, 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.
For this reason, I working with French partners, we have launched a multi-cultural association in France to accompany missionaries in their transition to the field. That association 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.
 Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, 1st Touchstone ed (New York: Touchstone, 2003). 24.
 “Bible Gateway Passage: Luke 14 – New English Translation,” Bible Gateway, accessed November 30, 2017, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+14&version=NET.
 “Bible Gateway Passage.”
 “Bible Gateway Passage.”