Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Most Unusual Dinner Party

[A story inspired by Luke 14:7-24—The Parable of the Great Dinner]

This story was originally created and presented orally as part of a class I took on storytelling.  I present slightly modified written version here…

It was the party of the year, and somehow I had scored an invitation!
I wondered if there had been a clerical error somewhere?  Was some rich debutant with whom I happened to share the same name being deprived of an invite? 
But I can rationalize with the best of them, and I soon convinced myself that “nameless rich guy” probably gets invited to a party like this every week.  Surely he won’t miss this one little invite. 
“He probably has turned down invitations to more posh parties than I’ll ever be invited to attend in my life.”
I got myself ready.
I had to admit I cleaned up well.
Better to look rich than to be rich.
I was excited!  Anybody who’s anybody in this town will be there—and for this one night I was going to be one of them
For this one night, at least, I would be somebody that matters!
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
The party was at one of the nicer homes in town.  I had always wanted to see the inside of that place, and tonight I finally got my chance.
We were ushered into an elegant entryway and I took in the scene. Wow!  What a fancy place. At first, I was a little afraid to move for fear of breaking something expensive; but after a while I loosened up.  I was rubbing elbows with the elite of society.
It was a neat experience and I tried to enjoy it, but I suddenly found that I empathized with Jack Dawson from the movie Titanic.  By virtue of a set of circumstances, I had been received what amounted to a “promotion” from third class to first class.
Like Dawson, looking the part on the outside was easy enough, but now I would have to convince them I actually belonged here.
I felt more than a little nervous as the doors to the banquet room opened, but if the appetizers were this good, I certainly intended to stick around for the main course!
Okay, Alan, this is your big moment.  Don’t screw up!  Make them think you belong…
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
I slowly made my way to the front of the room and started looking around for my place at the table.  Aided by Vaseline on my lips, I smiled broadly and tried to look like I belonged right where I was—but still I felt so self-conscious, like my ruse would be discovered at any moment.
As I approached the first table, I saw that there were name-cards at each seat. 
I started looking at the names. One said “homeless”…  another “poor,”… another “downtrodden,”… another “weak,”… another “hopeless”… another “sick.”
Thinking these names were a bit odd, I moved to the next table.  But the names on these cards still didn’t make sense:  “prostitute,”  “AIDS patient,” “mentally ill,”  “prisoner,” and so on. 
As I continued to move from table to table, I found more and more nameless names but I couldn’t find my name anywhere!  I tried to remain calm on the outside but I was a bit panicked inside.
Of course, the irony of this situation wasn’t lost on me.  Someone who felt that he didn’t belong here to begin with is now getting quite upset that he couldn’t find the place where he belonged.
I continued to work the room and smile while at the same time glancing at the place cards at each table, trying in vein to find my seat.  Eventually, I encountered a modestly dressed man whom I assumed was one of the staff.  Trying to be discrete, I informed him of my quandary.
“Sir, can you help me.  I have an invitation but I don’t seem to have a seat.”
The person acknowledged me and then disappeared into the crowd.  I presumed he was going to inquire with the host about the mix-up…
While I waited for the servant to come back, I keep looking around.  Double-checking to see if I missed my name somewhere.  But to no avail, I couldn’t find my name anywhere.  I was really getting worried now.
“You know, it’s a little arrogant to assume your seat is up front.  If the host arrived and had to move you back, that would be, well—AWKWARD!”
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
I was so engrossed in search that the booming voice coming from behind startled me.  The first thing that went through my mind was: 
Oh no!  They’ve figured me out!
My tie suddenly felt like a noose.
I figured the next thing I would feel would be the hands of a burly security guard with no neck who would proceed to unceremoniously remove me from the premises. 
But after a moment, I realized, with more than a small amount of relief, that the person speaking was addressing not just me, but the entire room. Until now I had been so caught up trying to find my own seat that I hadn’t really noticed, but as Iooked around, I realized that not a single guest was seated yet.  I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t find a seat. In fact the whole room seem confused…  The noise level increased; confusion reigned; people tried to figure out where they belonged.
“Now, on the other hand, if you sit back here, you might just find that the host will come along and say, ‘Why are you all the way back here in the back?!  Move up to the head table and join the party.’“
The man speaking was seated at a table in the back of the room that I had hardly noticed when I walked in.  It was in a dimly lit corner and was much more simply decorated than the other tables.  I think I assumed it was for the servants, not the invited guests.
Well, whoever this guy was, he definitely had my attention now—and, for that matter, everyone else in the room!  He stood up from his chair and started walking slowly up the aisle toward the head table.  All eyes were fixed on this relative stranger.
“My point is simple.  We’ve all come here tonight because we think it will benefit us in some way. This is so typical of our race: Obsessed with our quest to be the best.  
"So, we fight for the seats of honor at the table, the fanciest home in the neighborhood, the highest paying job, the best school for our kids, the nicest and newest clothes, the prettiest wife or handsomest husband. We have an incessant need for status.  And yet we never quite seem to find what we’re seeking—it’s always just ahead of us on the trail.  It’s like a treadmill we can’t escape!  We run faster, work harder, but we never get there!"  
"We spend so much of life fighting to “get ahead” that we have precious little time to live life the way it was meant to be lived.
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
Finally the man broke the uncomfortable silence—the kind that inevitably follows whenever someone names the elephant in the room.
“Well friends, I have a surprise for you, tonight is not about any of us getting further ahead….  No… tonight is about them finally finding a place at the table…”
The true "guests of honor" at the party.
Photo Credit: L'habitant
The man made a slight motion with his arms and at that instant the doors to the place flung open and, for lack of a better term, a mass of humanity began to enter the banquet room.  They certainly weren’t dressed for a posh party.  In fact, many if not most of them were wearing shabby clothing, and more than a few hadn’t bathed in some time. Reflexively, I stepped back from a few of them as they passed by—I didn’t want to get my rented clothes dirty.
*****     *****     *****     *****     *****
We all stood and watched in amazement for a good while as this legion of the least, the last, and the lost entered the ballroom and took the seats that had been prepared for them. By the time they were all in place a distinctive and potent mix of human aromatics hung over the room. Some among them couldn’t even walk and had to be carried by their friends.  But all seemed determined to take their place at the table.
After a few moments, the man approached me from behind. 
So, Alan, have you figured out where you belong?
Startled, I turned to look…  All I wanted tonight was to be the center of attention, the person in the spotlight, but now I wished I could crawl under a rock and hide.  Every eye in the place was staring at me.
Now, for the first time I got a good look at the man who had been speaking and realized that this was the same man I talked to earlier in the evening—the man I had assumed was a servant. 
“You came to this party because you wanted so desperately to belong.  You thought this was your chance to finally be seen as somebody.  You thought that meant you would sit up front and be served by people like them. “
“Not surprising really; that’s what most people think it means to “get ahead” in life.” 
“But the host of this party is a little eccentric; he sees things differently than most. In his house, the tables are turned; the “head table” is in the back where I was seated.  And if you want to dine with him this evening, then you are going to have to stoop to serve.”
“The guests of honor at this party are the ones willing to get their hands and knees dirty serving people like the ones around these tables.  You know, the ones we often ignore, push aside, or climb over on our way to “the top.”
“So all that to say that if you came looking to dine at the “head table” tonight, you’re probably a smidge overdressed.  You might want to put these on instead...” 
The man handed me a cloth bag.  Looking inside I saw it contained clothes very similar to the clothes that he himself was wearing—simple, black, with at least one or two old stains that clearly didn’t come out in the wash. 
Once you change you can join me in the back…” 

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