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Gospel: Luke 14:1,7-14
On one occasion when he 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 [ἰδοὺ], in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3And Jesus asked [ἀποκριθεὶς: answer, reply, take up the conversation.] the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?’ 4But they were silent. So he took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child [υἱὸς - son] 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 [γάμους] 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.’
Following on from a lection about a woman who "was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight," we see men who are already upstanding, and who face a similar confrontation by Jesus; he heals on the Sabbath. Except the lectionary leaves that bit out!
The NRSV English translation obscured the fact, last week, that the woman was made to stand up straight. (ἀνωρθώθη1) She did not stand up on her own, but as a result of Jesus' laying hands upon her. It does not escape Jesus' notice that these men, already honoured by the invitation to a meal, yet busy jockeying for further "places of honour," are seeking to stand tall on their own. There is a sermon right here.
Our congregational prayer last week said:
Straighten me O God
for I am quite unable to stand on my own.
Let me stand tall and see more than the dust of the earth.
Increase my vision.
Free me from my infirmity.
Set me loose from that which binds me.
May I praise your name,
rest and rejoice in your Sabbath,
and glimpse again the endless horizons of your kingdom.
Yet here, this week, are men whose horizons are limited to the end of the table. One might ask them, "Does life consist only in the place of honour at a Sabbath meal, that is proto-klisias, the first reclining place. Is not the Sabbath rest to which you have been invited and by which you are already honoured something far greater?
Since Jesus has already established for us that the Sabbath is for loosing and healing, for it remembers the Exodus, might the wedding banquet parable, and the instruction to his host, be another warning about freedom and bondage?
At the table, one man is swollen with retained fluid, the other men are swollen with their own importance.
Dropsy is often accompanied by deep thirst. If this were John's gospel our mind would go to Chapter 4 and the woman who asked for the water which means "I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." John 4:15.
Stories are never innocent; things never "just happen" despite the NRSV use of that phrase for the Greek word behold. The Greek says pay attention to this man... and his disease. He is not merely sick; the actual disease is specified, which means it is significant; it is 'part of the behold.' We begin to see the metaphorical import of illnesses which cripple, or of blindness, or being deaf, quite quickly. We understand a withered hand says something about a loss of agency and power, but dropsy?
Dropsy was common. Galen described Rome as, "This populous city, where daily ten thousand people can be discovered suffering from jaundice, and ten thousand from dropsy.
"Dropsy is used widely in the ancient Greek world, particularly in the writings of philosphers, and it is frequently a metaphor for greed and wealth." (Chad Hartsock: Biblical Interpretation, Volume 21 (3): 341 – Jan 1, 2013. And see also here.) In other words, dropsy was a well-known and proverbial disease. We are meant to find meaning in this particular form of illness.
In all the jockeying for honour, Jesus sees in front of him, a man swollen with his own honour. I've emphasised in front of him because when I look at the Greek word emprosthen in a concordance, it seems that although it could be 'happened to be in front in the queue, ' the usage appears to be much more about being before or in front 'in order to be seen.' (See what you think: ἔμπροσθεν.) Luke places the man there— it is 'part of his 'behold'— to make a point about swelling, thirsting, and greed.
At the Table
In their Textual Notes on Luke 14, Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) say,
Who sat where at a meal was a critical statement of social relations.... Dinners were important social occasions that were used to cement social relations.
I think it's important to understand they don't mean cementing friendships, but settling who's who in the pecking order. And in the Reading Scenarios for Chapter 14, they say
By inviting Jesus to dine at his house, the ruler of the Pharisees was accepting Jesus as a social equal. Luke, however, reports that guests at the dinner table were watching Jesus closely-a not unlikely situation, given the social coding that was embedded in all actions at a meal.
There is also a Sabbath question involved here. I think he was likely invited for the sake of being observed and tested, of being sounded out. It is not merely that people observed him to see where he would sit for, it says, he answers the observers. NRSV has it that Jesus asked... but ἀποκριθεὶς means answer, reply, take up the conversation. He takes on—answers— their challenge which is the presence of illness in a Sabbath setting. Will he do it again?— that's the question he is answering. And he answers them by healing the man and he "sent him away," but the Greek root is the same luo (loose, or set free) that was repeated in the text last week. (ἀπέλυσεν). He frees the man so he can leave.
The Meaning of Life
Jesus is answering the meal guests' questions about the meaning of life. How do I get here? For Jewish people of Jesus' time, life is centred around Sabbath and food. Nathan Nettleton sums this up really succinctly.
The Jewish people survived, and the two main identity markers that helped them to maintain their distinctive identity were Sabbath-keeping and Kosher food. Some people add circumcision to that list, but since it is a lot less visible and only includes half the population, I’d suggest that its third place is a long way back. But without being so careful about what they do on the Sabbath and about what they eat, the Jewish community would have long since ceased to exist. So when Jesus starts playing fast and loose with the accepted rules about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath and what you can and can’t eat, the stakes could not have been higher. The very identity of the people of God was at stake.
Jesus is not attacking Sabbath. I quoted Rob Myalis last week: He says, "if Jesus were around today, he would seek to free us from the chains that our lack of Sabbath structure imposes on us." Sabbath is for letting loose, for freeing and unbinding, not for restricting what we do.
Jesus is not attacking Sabbath. He is attacking status as a form of finding meaning and structure. I noted the proverbial linking of dropsy with greed. Greed is often not so much about the desire to accumulate as it is about longing for a way to stand, or for a way to have meaning. As a younger person I was always hungry; I knew it had to do with being hungry for meaning. It was a longing to be filled which found bodily expression in hunger. Dropsy, in this text, is about being filled with the wrong thing. The men are subverting Sabbath by seeking to fill their emptiness by climbing above others (which, note, is a form of exclusion.) And in healing the man Jesus is loosing him to leave this gathering which is about longing for status to gain meaning, rather than finding meaning in the Sabbath rest. At this meal "everybody has dropsy." As Nathan Nettleton said, "the stakes could not have been higher. The very identity of the people of God was at stake."
The Wedding Banquet
The parable of the wedding banquet could stand on its own, but Jesus will add even more emphasis. Firstly, "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is not about socially crass boasting and personal 'boosterism.' It is about much less obvious and yet much more fundamental behaviour.
He is talking about the more subtle self-exaltation which begins with seeking to stand up on our own. It begins with imagining that we can be a self-made person, who imagines that 'success' is down to us, rather than privilege, circumstance, and... just luck. And may never question the values which underlie 'success,' so called. It is an exaltation largely blind to how much we are formed by the place and by the people among whom we were born.
That's where self-exaltation begins, but it goes much further. To create our identity in our own power and success is a form of idolatry. But as every celebrity who has socially mis-stepped or mis-spoken discovers, our substance and exaltation is not of our own making. It comes from God, or from the crowd.
To humble oneself is to stand in the right place in relation to God, and to neighbour. It is God who exalts, and who can say we are in the right place, not society, and not us. (cf Psalm 75)
After telling this parable, which is socially quite rude, Jesus then turns to the one who has invited him to the meal and makes an equally rude assessment of his host's motivations. The leader of the Pharisees is found as wanting as the leader of the synagogue last week. Jesus does not appease our status quo, and build up our self-serving banquets; he disrupts them. .
"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.
What made a man in this environment was that people came, and that people returned the invite. Indeed, "accepting a dinner invitation normally obligated the guest to return the favor." (Malina's Textual Notes on 14:12-14)
Meals in antiquity were what anthropologists call "ceremonies." Unlike "rituals," which confirm and effect a change of status, ceremonies are regular, predictable events in which roles and statuses in a community are affirmed or legitimated. In other words, the microcosm of the meal is parallel to the macrocosm of everyday social relations. (Malina Reading Scenarios for Chapter 14:7-11)
Meals cement the status quo. As so often when reading Malia and Rohrbaugh, I wonder if anything has changed!
My boss decided to throw a party for some of our key clients. We had a client set who were good folk to work with. During the night, someone asked me where I lived. (I live in a suburb which measures bottom, or one or two up, in just about every social index you can think of.) I uttered the fateful name.
The buzz around the table stopped abruptly in a moment of acute social embarrassment. I remember the person speaking to me averting their eyes, and then changing the subject. It occurred to me later, that the question was itself loaded; who is this employee that she is inviting to the banquet; this outsider to the leafy green of the eastern suburbs? They were watching me closely.
The sad thing about this meal was that the guest list was carefully curated, I think. Certain of our less pleasant clients were apparently not invited, regardless of their monetary value to the business. But because the guests were only able to think in quid pro quo2 terms, they were not able to imagine that perhaps the employee who would crawl about under their desks chasing computer cables and phone lines, had been invited mostly because... the boss liked him. Much less that they, too, were invited because she liked them! They did not see the honour with which she had gifted— graced— them.
To be invited in return, by a friend, is surely part of the neighbourliness that will constitute the Kingdom of God. But neighbourliness is so easily subverted by status. It is so easy to become comfortable with those like ourselves, instead of being neighbour and "invit[ing] the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind."
This is so critical that Jesus in Luke sees here a behaviour, and a way of living, which will mean we will be "repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." If we go to the Jesus of Matthew 25:31-46— the sheep and the goats, we find him talking about the same issue in terms of exclusion. In Luke, he goes on to talk about those who will be invited to the great banquet, and those who will refuse to come. (Luke 14:15ff where... they all alike began to make excuses )Malina and Rohrbaugh's Textual Notes say, "The excuses, much beside the point, are an indirect but traditional Middle Eastern way of signaling disapproval of the dinner arrangements." This is what self-exaltation will do to us. Our dropsy may become so bad we can't make it to the meal.
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!
1 See Bible Hub:
GRK: καὶ παραχρῆμα ἀνωρθώθη καὶ ἐδόξαζεν
NAS: on her; and immediately she was made erect again and [began] glorifying
KJV: immediately she was made straight, and
INT: and immediately she was made straight and glorified
The problem with a quid pro quo mentality is quantification. How do you measure or calculate repayment of love, of mercy? And the fact that we think we can is a rather striking theological problem. We tend to forget that our beliefs about faith and discipleship are also claims about who we think God is. If we insist that our faith, our salvation, is dependent upon an equal rate of exchange between God and us, then we need to ask ourselves, in what kind of God do we believe? What happens if we don’t measure up? And what makes us think we can assume certain systems to quantify the grace of God?
I think this is one of the most poignant and perilous aspects of ministry -- that a quantification of our work might actually be the result of some sort of equivalency of effort: higher attendance, thriving programs, more money in the offering plates... But even worse? We then run the risk of preaching and teaching that faith is contractual. That relationship with God is dependent on a nearsighted notion that God works within the world’s insistence on agreements and bargains; transferences and contingencies; a quid pro quo relationship rather than a relationship made possible by the unmerited, unearned, unwarranted, undeserved love of God.
When we dare to gather at Jesus's table, we are activitely protesting the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us. There's nothing easy or straightforward about this; it requires hard work over a long period of time. To eat and drink with God is to live in tension with the pecking orders that define our boardrooms, our college admissions committees, our church politics, and our Presidential elections, and that can be tiring. But it's what we're called to do — to humble ourselves and place our hope in a radically different kingdom.
Humility is a gateway to love, to communion, to ecstasy. For to be in ecstasy is literally to be “ex-static”—to stand outside one’s self, fully enthralled by what one beholds. In this sense, true ecstasy is the opposite of the lust for honor about which Jesus speaks. After all, ecstasy is impossible when one’s focus remains on one’s self, and to that extent, true love is impossible as well.
We speak of “losing one’s self” in the presence of something eminently lovable. Such moments are a foretaste of the love to which God calls us in the beatific vision. They are decidedly antithetical to the moments in which we find ourselves obsessing about whether we have been given the honor and recognition that is our due. Such obsession slowly teaches us to regard others purely in relation to ourselves, as those which either are or are not “in their proper place” in relation to us. Again, the tragedy of this way of living is that it leads to profound loneliness. The honor-seeker befriends himself at the cost of all other possible friendships, even and especially with the person of Jesus.
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.
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