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We’ve reached our final passages in our consideration of texts mutually found in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. They read:
Matthew 19:28: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”
Luke 22:28-30: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Something worth considering is that within a Jewish context, in the book of Judges, judges were liberating revolutionaries.
In our passages, the “judging” indicates governance. The ancient Hebrew hope was not the same as the hope of many sectors of Christianity today. Many Christians today have their hearts fixed on one day becoming a disembodied soul in some distant realm of heavenly bliss. The ancient Hebrews were much more concerned with this life than with an afterlife. They hoped that someday Messiah would come and all oppression, all injustice, all violence, and the earth would be put right. Our saying this week reflects this earthly hope.
What also strikes me within our passages is the use of the word “thrones.” Few other words would seem more out of harmony with the ethical teachings we have looked at in the gospels so far. But just two verses earlier we find these words:
Luke 22:25-26: “Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.’”
I, like some of you, am not interested in thrones, in having another person on a throne over me or being on one myself over others. What I do resonate with are more equitable and democratic forms of organizing human communities. As I’ve often remarked in this series, one of Jesus’ most foundational solutions to the individualism we face in our society today is community. His vision for community was not one where someone sits on a throne and others bow. It’s a community where we each take responsibility for taking care of each other.
As I contemplated our passages a bit further, however, it hit me. Jesus doesn’t use the singular word “throne.” He uses the plural word “thrones.” Now the idea behind this saying could have been akin to the model in Deuteronomy where the Hebrew men were to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men [sic] from each of your tribes, and I [Moses] will set them over you.” So the men did just that. The men they chose were appointed to have authority over the people at large “as commanders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens and as tribal officials” (see Deuteronomy 1:13-15). The gospel of Matthew seems to agree with this model in that it mentions twelve specific thrones, sat on by twelve male disciples, over twelve Jewish tribes.
But in Luke, we get a different image for this word “thrones,” one not limited to a hierarchal twelve. In Luke, these thrones are associated with eating and drinking and having a seat at Jesus’ table. This calls us to consider Jesus’ table fellowship in Luke’s gospel.
Luke 5:29-30: “Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’”
Luke 14:12-14: “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.’”
Luke 15:2: “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus shares a table with people who faced religious, political and economic exclusion every day and were pushed to the margins and undersides of their society. Jon Sobrino, referring to how religion is used to do the same today, writes:
“The name of God is used as religious justification for oppressing others, and this is what must be unmasked . . . It is not difficult, then, to understand Jesus’ anger at the way religious people manipulate his God. (And maybe here is the place to think about the manipulation of theology, its ideologizing role, in tolerating—not to mention encouraging—the oppression of others in the name of God.) . . . When piety is used to go against creatureliness, religion becomes an oppressive mechanism. The creator who comes in conflict with creatures is a false God and false gods make even the pious inhuman.” (Jesus the Liberator, p. 168-170)
Jesus welcomed to the table those who were being denied a place there. Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first black woman in the U.S. Congress, often chided, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” She, being “unbought and unbossed,” was a force to be reckoned with in New York City as she advocated for the disenfranchised people in her district during her 14 years in Congress. We see that same solidarity with people who face various forms of oppression in the Jesus of the gospels.
Jesus associates with the marginalized and seats them at a table where they were welcomed to “eat and drink,” and also gives them thrones. Luke describes many thrones, an image that would make much more sense if we are called to care for each other. Each of us, in our own way, sits on a throne from which we set in motion the kind of world we will all experience together. Today we might use the word democracy. In Luke, we don’t find a king on a throne, but a people on many thrones, together determining a world where the meek are not walked over and where the poor are given the kingdom, the hungry are fed, and poverty is eliminated (see Acts 4:34).
This is a world described from the bottom up. Every person welcome at the table. Every person on a throne. Every person’s voice heard. Every person’s story valued. Every person experiencing worth.
Our society still associates the seat at the table with power today. One of the reasons people are excluded from the table in our society is to limit their say in the kind of world that those in power are shaping. Take the history of voting in the U.S. as an example. Originally only men who owned property were allowed to vote. Thomas Paine was one of the earliest voices stating that this was not right, and that the vote should also include those who did not own property, too. Eventually, White women won the ability to vote. We still see efforts to exclude people of color from voting today.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that those whom we exclude today are those we will seek to exterminate tomorrow. Whatever world we create out of that exclusive table will invariably be unsafe, unjust, and heartless for those not allowed to sit at the table from the start. Consider the vote again. The U.S. out of all many-throned (democratic) nations has the lowest voter turnout. We don’t have a holiday so that working people can vote. And there are numerous other efforts made to “intrinsically” limit who gets a say. Noam Chomsky has repeatedly stated over the last few years that the poorest 70% of society is “literally disenfranchised.”
“Their political representatives simply pay no attention to them, so it doesn’t matter what they think…This is a plutocracy, not a democracy . . . As you move up the [income] scale, you get a little bit more influence. When you get to the very top, [that’s where] policy’s made.”
This helps explain why most of the economic gains made over the past four decades have gone to the top 1%. The number of those who get a “throne” or seat at the table, a say in how things operate, is very limited. The top 1% are making the decisions.
Our passages tell us that another world is possible. Our challenge is to shape a society that reflects a set of values that shape our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for us all—a world where each of us has a seat at the table, regardless of our ability, age, race, gender, orientation, gender identity or expression; each of us seated at the table, each person having a say in the world we are creating, all with a preferential option for the most vulnerable among us. In this world, there are self-determining “thrones” for everyone.