Getting off the Red Carpet
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Gospel: Luke 14:1-14
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.’
Getting off the Red Carpet
In last week's gospel, we had the image of a woman who was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. The Greek text of that story contains an extended pun about being bound and set free. The message seems to be that Sabbath rest is meant to be a thing of freedom for us, not an imposition. The woman is set free on the Sabbath. Sabbath is for remembering and recollecting who we are, and remembering what life is about; keeping a Sabbath sets us free from the rat race.
In this week's gospel, the story is again set on the Sabbath day. It's a meal at the house of a leader of the Pharisees. Jesus is invited, he trolls the Pharisees and authorities on the Law. He asks them if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not. And they stay silent, which means they know they can't win the argument.
He heals the man, who has dropsy and, it says, "sent him away." It sounds so much like the last story that the lectionary leaves it out and goes on to the argy bargee about who gets to recline where at the dinner table. Which I think... means it misses the point of the whole story.
If the woman is bent over and can't straighten up, we immediately think of burdens and sorrows weighing her down. We may see a metaphor about oppression, and see that Jesus sets her free, or looses her.
So what about dropsy? Today, dropsy is usually called oedema. It's the swelling you get when your limbs, or other parts of the body, retain too much fluid.
What does dropsy suggest to us as a metaphor? If Luke tells us a story about dropsy, he wants us to find meaning— to find a symbol— in the illness. Any suggestions... ... ... ... ...?
What about swelling? What does swelling suggest about behaviour and attitudes in our culture... ... ... ...?
Anyway... at the time, philosophers thought dropsy was a sign of greed and excess wealth. So what we have in the Pharisee's house is a man whom people assume, from the state of his health, is greedy, which is to say... sinful. They would have 'fat-shamed' him, essentially.
Jesus heals him, and although the Greek word ἀπέλυσεν (apelusen) is translated, sent him away, the underlying word is to release, or set free. You could say that Jesus healed the man and said, "You are now free to leave this place." Or even, "You are free to leave this place of sickness."
We attach a religious and moral dimension to sickness. We tend to think people deserve their illnesses. We are sympathetic to cancer sufferers— if it's in the gut or the ovaries, say... but people with lung cancer, even those who've never smoked, report a noticeable lack of sympathy and a sense of "Well, you deserved it."
But the story is in the house of a Pharisee, who is meant to be a fine, upstanding and pious man, who is right before God. If the Pharisee were feeling a bit sensitive he might have wondered if Jesus was making a veiled criticism of him when he said to the man with dropsy, "You are free to leave this place of sickness." Because Jesus would be implying that it's not the man who was the problem, but the Pharisee's house; therefore, the Pharisee.
Why would his place be sick?
Well, "When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable." Jesus sees how people are jockeying for status, trying to get the seats of honour at the table, and he criticises them. To criticise the guests is about as rude as you can get at a show like this— there is one other thing that's worse, and Jesus will do that in a moment.
But the way he criticises the guests is even more insulting. I missed this when I read it. But Audrey, at our bible study, picked it up immediately: What Jesus says to them is, "Instead of seeking the place of honour, try being really devious, and sit down at the other end of the table so that the host will shift you, and show everybody how good and important you are. What Jesus is really saying here is this: "You mob who think you know how to put yourselves forward and show how good you are— you mob are just a bunch of amateurs. Let me show you the professional way to schmooze and cruise." And to make the point clear, he is saying, "This is how to be a real sinner."
So, the chairperson of the Betoota congregation has just invited me, as the new minister, around to their place for a banquet of welcome, and they've invited all the glitterati of the congregation, and the Anglican and Catholic clergy as well, and the Mayor. And I've just told them all what a bunch of poseurs they are. Could I make things worse at this point?
Well, I could— you can always dig the hole deeper! The thing to do next... is to school the host about the guest list in front of... the guests. "Next time you have a party, this is the way to choose the people to invite if you are really want to be a good and holy Christian." That should go down well...
You can see what he's doing here, can't you? He's actually criticising the choice of the current guests; that keeps them well offside, and he's suggesting that the motivations of the host are less than pure. The host is looking for payback— I've invited you, now you invite me.
Here's the thing about public events— we'll just stick to church, for the moment. We have Rites of Passage: funerals, weddings, baptisms, inductions... We understand that these things recognise a change of circumstance. They legitimise change. A wedding is a celebration, but it is also a way of saying: these two are now a couple. Rites of Passage are about introducing and signing off on a new situation.
And then we have Ceremonies, which in Jesus' day, included meals, and are not quite so obvious to us in what they do. Ceremonies are about the status quo. They are repetitions: Christmas, the Logies, Easter, the Grand Final Parade... Ceremonies rehearse, and affirm, and cement the status quo. The feast Jesus attended was a statement of who was in, and who was out; who belonged, and who didn't; who got to walk the red carpet, and who didn't get an invite.
Ceremonies could be affairs where we include everyone; that would be Jesus' attitude, or they can be places where we show the 'also-rans' who's who. And then ceremonies are actually places of greed and swollen egos; I'm better than you are. My feast is better than yours was. We've got new slate tiles from Italy all through the living area, and our TV is bigger and has higher resolution. And the barbecue is stainless steel and plumbed straight in to the street gas. And did you notice that the Mayor came to our barbecue? (See Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary in Reading Scenarios: Luke 14:1-24)
Jesus talks about this in Matthew 6: When you give charity... do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
When Jesus heals the man with dropsy— a man who was also swollen with greed and longing for status, he says, "You are free to walk away from this. You are cured of it. You can get off that treadmill we call the red carpet." The only question is if the man went or stayed... or drifted back.
And Jesus also offers healing and freedom to the leader of the Pharisees. He says, "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."
Status is deadly. Status— the social ladder— is an invitation to that thing we should properly call idolatry. It is to begin to climb to the place where we think we have achieved something of ourselves, where we are worth something; I mean, look how everyone says how good we are. And from there, it's only a rung or two before we've begun to forget that the only way we have any being or existence is because God gives us life, and loves us. And we begin to live without God. Which is really to say we don't need God because... well, actually, we can do it all ourselves. Which is idolatry.
After my first year at theological college, I was invited back to Alice Springs for the holidays to fill in for the minister while he took long leave. It was a glorious time. All I had to do was preach. I did two sermons a week; it was like giving a kid chocolate. I loved it, and they liked me. And we came back to college, just in time for the opening service of the new year— a few minutes late in from the airport, in fact. Which meant we walked into chapel during the first hymn. Someone turned around in the back row, smiled and waved to me, and then turned back to the front and ignored me!!!
I felt an instant pang of rejection, even anger, and then my whole house was shaken as I realised I had fallen in love with the glory of being up the front, and on show. I had completely lost my way. Ground your faith, and base your ministry and discipleship, in things no one can see or repay. That will keep you facing God instead of looking out to the audience for affirmation, which is not actually to be on a red carpet at all, but on a path to the spiritual wilderness. Amen.
Andrew Prior (2019)
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!