An Empty Chair at the Table

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full’.” (Luke 14:23)

Jesus was a master storyteller. To teach was to tell a story, and he rarely taught without a story to tell (Mark 4:34). He conveyed profound and provocative truths by talking about the most ordinary things, the most familiar experiences.

A man had two sons . . .

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed . . .

A man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho and fell among robbers . . .

And this: A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests . . . 

A Surprising Story

This parable would have been particularly surprising to those who first heard it. The surprise is in who shows up for the great banquet, and who ends up missing out. The customary practice for a party like this would have involved a two-part invitation. This first part basically said, “Please be in attendance at the banquet.” The second part was the summons that came later: “Come, for everything is now ready.”

Having prepared a feast, the host sent a servant to summon his intended guests. But on the day of the party they all seemed to have other things to do. One had just made a real estate transaction; another had invested in livestock that needed to be inspected; another had just gotten married.

All of them conveyed their regrets. Perhaps another time. “Please excuse me.”

At this the host sent his servant back to the streets and alleys of the town – not to invite more landowners and entrepreneurs. This time the invitation went to the marginal and overlooked – the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. Even at this, there was more food than guests. Still room at the table.

The host sent his servant again to the outskirts of town. This time he would invite whomever he found. And not with a weak polite invitation. He would compel them to come in, insisting on their presence at this fabulous feast.

And then we see the reason: “So that my house will be full.”

The desire of the host reveals to us the desire of God’s heart. God intends that his house be full. He relentlessly seeks those who will come and receive what grace offers. No empty seats.

A Not So Full House

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day – typically a day when your house is full, or at least a bit crowded.

Whether you host thanksgiving in your home or not, you know what it’s like to pull out an extra table and scrounge about for enough chairs to make sure everyone has a place to sit. Often people get a plate of food and migrate to the TV where they eat and watch football – no table required.    

Maybe tomorrow your house will be full again. But for so many, this year will be different. Like the host of Jesus’s parable, we want the house to be full. For this year, that can’t happen. No extra table will be needed. Familiar faces will be absent. Things will be a little quieter, a little roomier.

As you set the table for a smaller meal this year, you might be inclined to take away the empty chairs. Don’t do that. Leave the empty chair (or chairs) in place and let them guide your prayer at the table.

Here’s how to do that.

A Prayer at the Table

First, you may be at a table that’s full. If that’s the case, give thanks that you are all together.

But perhaps as you look around your table this year the empty seat speaks of a specific person who’s not with you. In that case, say their name, feel their absence, and ask God’s blessings on them wherever they may be.

Finally, allow that empty seat to remind you that there are people this year and every year who have no place to be. They are the overlooked and easily forgotten. There’s a good chance that they have never known the fullness that you are grieving this year. Pray for God to show you a way in the coming year that you might make a place at your table for someone who would not have a place otherwise.

God’s heart yearns for a house that’s full, a table with no empty seats. Maybe you know that same yearning today. God willing, things may look different next year. But we’ll never forget the year of empty seats.

And in remembering, may we be even more thankful in years to come.


God of relentless abundance, you are intent on filling your house. You seek and invite until every seat is taken. We know that same yearning, especially this year as we see empty seats and miss those with whom we typically share this day. In this year of losses, make us grateful for the many mercies you have placed in our lives. Be at work in us by your Spirit, causing us to seek those whom you are seeking, inviting them to know the grace you offer. May others find that grace in us, we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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