If you have ever been to a social function by yourself, you know that feeling. It’s that wondering, hoping feeling that you will find somewhere to be and someone to be with. See, people don’t like to be left out. We want to be included and feel like we matter to others. Recently, I attended a wedding for a friend from church by myself. At the reception, I was alone facing a sea of people until I saw a table of friends with one seat left. What happened next really made an impact on me. It reminded me of a story from the Bible and gave me an understanding of biblical “inclusion” that is much different from the world’s version of it.
“Is This Seat Taken?”
When I got to the reception, I saw the wedding party, families of the bride and groom, and several acquaintences. Since I’m not a big social butterfly (understatement), I knew I needed to find a place where I would feel comfortable sitting for an evening. In fact, I was starting to feel stress even standing there looking, and skipping the reception altogether crossed my mind. There were couples and families everywhere. Everyone was so busy and having a good time. Who would miss me?
Then I saw a table with friends, all members of an extended family. When I got close, I could see that there just happened to be one seat left. “Are you saving this seat?” I asked hopefully, looking around the table. A precious sister in Christ named Linda smiled and said, “You can sit there.” Gratefully, I sat down, tucking my purse under the table and my social anxiety with it. I turned to the sister next to me, Sister Deborah, whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and we talked for a minute.
Just then, Sister Deborah’s husband came to the table, and I realized that I was sitting in the seat that should have been for him. Without missing a beat and before I even really knew what was happening, Sister Linda instructed him to snag a place setting and a chair from a nearby table. In a moment, he was all squeezed in.
A Watershed Moment
Looking back on the situation, I realized that Sister Linda had decided in an instant. She could have been brutally honest with me. The seat was, in fact, being saved. I would have completely understood, of course, but I would have felt very sad and awkward. I might have even had a tear as I smiled brightly and hurried away to find somewhere else with room for me. She might have even said, “Yes, but we will get another place for you.” That would have left me feeling like I was an imposition, a burden, causing others inconvenience as I stood uncomfortably waiting for them to scootch and adjust.
But Sister Linda had seen my hopeful expression. She had felt my need for acceptance and reached out to me with the love of Christ, and Sister Deborah had too. Instead of feeling left out or like an intruder, I felt included, cared for, and loved. It was an amazing moment of biblical inclusion and one that left me examining myself. In a similar situation, would I have been so graceful? What WOULD I have done? And more than that, how could I take this lesson and apply it to my own life?
Then I Thought of Levi the Publican
In Luke 5:27-32 there is a very tiny story about how Matthew came to be one of the Twelve Apostles. Before his experience with Jesus, he was known as Levi the publican. A publican was a Jewish tax collector for the Roman government. It was a position that was looked down on by the Jews as a whole, and even the Bible mentions them negatively in Matthew 18:17 when it speaks of them in the same breath as “heathens” in the order of things.
But when Jesus saw Levi sitting in the tax office, He told him to follow Him. Without hesitation or excuses, Levi got up from his seat and left everything behind. He then gave a great feast for Jesus at his own house and invited many of his friends to eat. The scribes and Pharisees then criticized Jesus for eating with publicans and sinners. See, eating together in Bible times (and even today) is a symbol of unity. It means you share a common bond. It was scandalous for Jesus to eat with those outside the social and religious order of things.
But Jesus didn’t flinch. His response was that “…they that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick” (Luke 5:31). In fact, Jesus didn’t exactly make a habit of looking for disciples among the scribes and Pharisees. Instead, He reached for the unreachable. He touched the leper in Luke 5:12-16, He pardoned the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, and He delivered the demoniac in Luke 8:26-29. In each of these cases, He saw someone on the outside and brought him/her in.
An Important Bible Verse to Remember
“For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are that no flesh should glory in his presence.”1 Corinthians 1:26-29
Find Those Who Need a Seat
Today we live in a world full of people who are perfectly happy doing things their own way. They are strong, smart, and, like the tables full of happy wedding guests, doing just fine on their own. But among them, there are those who are searching for a place to be and someone to be with. Maybe, like the publican, they have found themselves in a position that is despised. They might feel they have fallen too far or have made too many bad choices to be accepted. Or maybe, like I was, they are just alone with a need to belong and feel loved.
This thought was further underlined to me when I reflected on an activity that my high school kids completed in my class last week before Thanksgiving break. I gave them little sheets with lines to write a note of “Thanks” to a teacher they appreciated. Several chose to write their notes to me.
As I looked through those notes, I noticed a pattern. The students who were drawn to me – or rather to Jesus in me – are not the most popular. They aren’t the smartest or the ones who are the most outgoing or all-together. In fact, they are students who struggle and seem often overlooked. They thanked me for seeing them, helping them when others wouldn’t have taken the time or given attention, and for always having a smile. One even mentioned that I had given her a hug on a day when she felt no one else noticed her or cared.
Invite Them In
As children of God, it is up to us to intentionally keep our eyes and hearts open for those who have needs. We should look for them at our workplace. We should study the eyes of the checker at the grocery store or the body language of the person in the waiting room with us at the doctor. Young and old, rich and poor, and in all races and cultures, there are those who are searching for a place to be and someone to be with. They may not even understand their own great need.
And when we find them, we should give them a seat at our table – God’s table. It might not be comfortable at first. It might take some adjusting to make room in our schedules or with our comfort zones. But with prayer and a little thinking on our feet, we can invite them in. We can show them the great love and acceptance of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It might just be a kind word or a hug and a prayer. It might be an invitation to church or a Bible study. Whatever it is, no matter who they are or what they have done in the past, they should walk away feeling valued and loved, the same way I felt at that wedding. The same way Jesus makes us feel every day in our relationship with Him.
The world says that inclusion is tolerating, accepting, and even celebrating every lifestyle choice and religious inclination. But biblically, inclusion isn’t about affirming people’s right to be apart from God. It’s about inviting them in to sit at His table. Levi might have met Jesus as a publican, but he didn’t try to bring Jesus into that life. No, he left everything else behind, and soon he was Matthew the Apostle. He had a new identity as a member of God’s table and a part of God’s kingdom.
And as for us – we who are blessed and called to that same love feast – we should always be looking for ways to bring others in. We should never forget God’s heart for the outcasts, the forgotten, the marginalized, and the broken (and such were some of us). Luke 14:13 says, “But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.” Keep inviting because God has a very big table.
Come to the Table by Sidewalk Prophets has been running through my mind for the past couple of days. Take a listen if you have a few minutes.
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