Week of Sunday September 1
Gospel: Luke 14:1,7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ 4But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ 6And they could not reply to this.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’
A long time ago in a synod far away, the newly installed lay moderator discovered his duties included a grand social occasion where all the heads of churches were to process into the gathered assembly. Entry was being delayed by a couple of the more splendidly dressed representatives manoeuvring and bickering about who would go last. "Apparently the last one in is the most important," he told me. "So I shoved the usher in the back so that the doors popped open, and we all went in leaving them to sort it out on the way down."
This Sabbath Breaker of a Messiah (6:1, 6:6, 3:10, 14:1) is at it again, disrupting the social order, shoving people in the back, and upsetting the party. "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." (6.5) The lectionary loses some of the force of the narrative by leaving out yet another Sabbath healing.
Jesus asked awkward questions. His observations were uncomfortable. Inviting Jesus to dine so that they could watch him closely, they found they were observed even more acutely, and found wanting.
We are not to follow the social order! Our Messiah is a Sabbath Breaker. He upends the social order; "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (14:11) "Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last." (13:30)
This is not some assumed style, some studied contrariness carefully quoiffed in the mirror along with the Messiah's pretend messed up hair; some assumed outré persona. This is his being. He is here to overturn what is, and to bring about what should be; he is here to remove the hollow and the oppressive, and to set people free.
It is enough that we are invited to the wedding banquet! We are an honoured guest, by definition! Bignoting ourselves, and seeking more advancement, is like us seeking to be the persons of honour at the wedding instead of the bride and groom!
Andrew Dutney, our Assembly President, once told how he was known in his family for asking awkward and disquieting questions at family gatherings. A young nephew said, "Uncle Andrew, you are a real wet sheet."
"That," Andrew said, "is called contextual theology!"
Sabbath Breaking discipleship, and the discipleship of taking the least place is contextual, and carefully deliberate. It is not bignoting disguised as piety; it is never calculated self-effacement as a strategy to be recognised for our piety. It is done only when there is a reason within its context. It is done when things are out of place; when people are being used by the Sabbath instead of the Sabbath being there for people; when status is being used as a weapon of exclusion or power, instead of being recognition of true holiness.
In all of this I take 'keeping the Sabbath' as a kind of shibboleth, or shorthand, for 'the rules of our church piety.' In the story this week, Jesus drags the social order of all life into the context of our piety. The pious were gathered, according to the law, in a manner appropriate for the Sabbath, and then, in their jockeying for places at the table, being impious, not seeing that table-place is also a matter of theology. Who sits where, and the saying of prayer, are together at the same table.
The social order is deadly.
Jesus points out the shame associated with being the social climber who is pegged back because they get above themselves... "in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place." (14:9)
The warning in case is is repeated in the next verses: "do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid!" We put ourselves at risk when we do things in order to get a return! It is not an accident that the current corruption scandals in NSW Labor seem to have a large component of 'you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.'
Of course, constantly giving meals to the poor in an attempt to insure our way into heaven (my grammar is deliberate) would be to miss the point. Life is not about ensuring anything; it is about enjoying the feast and helping others to enjoy it as well.
If we are getting well paid in social mileage by our good works, then in the real world of the kingdom, our place is at risk. The notion that we would do hidden good works, or give charity to those who cannot repay— this is what Jesus recommends— to get into heaven is ridiculous. (So is under valuing self-effacement.) He is overstating the case to make the point about the danger of being status conscious.
In reality, if we learn the lesson he is teaching, then it is not so much that we will rejoice that we are being "repaid at the resurrection of the righteous," but that we are being set free from enslavement to status and privilege. Status and privilege will fade and fall in our list of what really counts about life.
Bill Loader gives some background to Jesus' observations about seating.
Among the ‘rules’ for common meals ... [in the time of Jesus] we often find correct order of seating. There is a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. Thus the people of the Dead Sea sect conducted a kind of annual performance review for such placements. In first century Palestine, reclining on one elbow beside a very low table, or on low couches, had become the established fashion. It was common in the Hellenistic world of the time. It is reflected in most meals mentioned in the gospels. Disciples reclining beside Jesus would have a special place. John’s gospel puts the disciple whom Jesus loved into such intimate proximity with Jesus. He lay down with his head close to Jesus’ chest according to John 13:23. Jesus had a corresponding position with God before the incarnation according to John 1:18.
We may smile at those people who always insist on sitting in the same pews or seats in church. But in the ancient world, place was guarded by most even more jealously. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place on the ladder. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one’s life.
We could read Bill as suggesting that 'place at table' was different "in the ancient world" from our own. It was perhaps more obvious, or more formal, but I do not think there is any substantial difference at all! Facebook, Instagram, being in the social pages of the paper, school cliques, membership of Standing Committee, even membership of Church Council, all manifest a desire for significance and recognition. Even our best efforts at life are compromised by the need to matter, to feel wanted, to be valued, and to have some significance. Snarky putdowns of speakers on the floor of Synod are not much different than the snide catcalls of the schoolyard clique. It's all about being on top, and staying there.
We all want to be on top, and to be safe. A major aspect of 'gate keeping' and 'blocking' behaviours in church, and of resistance to change, is the fear of losing our place at the table. And so we climb, to make sure we are near the top, where we can best look after our own interests. "Truly, I tell you," says Jesus, in another place, we will receive our reward." (Matthew 6:2)
We are invited to the banquet. We are here. We have arrived! The question now is not, "Where shall I sit?" but "How can I best serve?" Then we will receive our reward.
The Lectionary cuts the whole story short, as usual.
15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18But they all alike began to make excuses....
The great danger is that we will so busy looking after our place at the table, and maintaining our place in the world, that we find we have missed the feast. Matthew's grim warning from a similar tale is that "many are called, but few are chosen." (Matt 22:14)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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