Ecclesiasticus 10.12-18; Hebrews 13.1-8,15,16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14
(On the day I included a number of references to our current political situation and the turmoil our country is in. The text below is the one I prepared and broadly used, with a few changes, including the reference to my giving the wine. It was felt that with a broken wrist it might not be a good idea.)
In the 1st century world, whether you were Roman, Greek, or Jewish, meals were a significant thing. They were a time to talk, to discuss the latest philosophies or theologies, or the latest doings of wonder workers like Jesus, but they were also places to be seen. Shame and honour were vital to your social standing, to who you were. So, your position in life was seen visibly at such a meal. Just imagine if last weekend at the G7 summit that President Macron had invited the President of Mexico to attend, and at the sumptuous banquet had indicated that President Trump should go to the back of the room, and the President of Mexico should sit next to President Macron and Angela Merkel? Twitter would have been alive for days with it.
There are two themes in the passage we heard from Luke. The first is when everyone is arriving at the banquet and there are no name cards like we might have today, so you have to fight for your place. The second is around who the leader of the Pharisees invited to the meal.
Fighting for your place, for status. There are a whole range of influences here, in the Jewish bible there are references about not going above your station, and in other writings, Roman sources describe meals where you might sit in different rooms and get served different food depending on your rank. And, of course, we need to remember often these are meals for the elite. There’s even an incident where the host alone eats the choicest foods, and the guests look on, described by Martial. Or where the quality of the food is notably different, a writing from the 1st century, partly in jest, Martial writes:
“Since I am asked to dinner… why is not the same dinner served to me as to you? You take oysters fattened in the Lucrine lake, I suck a mussel through a hole in the shell; you get the mushrooms, I take hog funguses; you tackle turbot, but I brill. Golden with fat, a turtle-dove gorges you with its bloated rump, there is set before me a magpie that has died in its cage. Why do I dine without you, although Ponticus, I am dining with you?” (Strauss M (2002) Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Luke, Michigan: Zondervan. Banquets, Meals and Social Status in the section on Luke 14:12)
Interesting even though you might be ostensibly dining with someone, you are actually dining without someone.
And, of course, in the Epistles to the Corinthians we see that the early church struggled with this too. Paul criticises them for taking their own food and not sharing it with the poor members, for instance, Status, honour, and of course who would want those hog funguses instead of mushrooms?
Jesus takes a counter cultural view to this all. We heard from the book of Ecclesiasticus earlier, but in another passage from the same book it says: “The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favour in the sight of the Lord.” (3: 17-25) Or Ezekiel: “The lowly will be exalted and the exalted brought low.” (21:26) Jesus is consistently emphasising the upside-downness of the Kingdom, where the poor and the oppressed are closer to the Kingdom than the rich and the religious.
And in that second theme, when Jesus turns to his host he doesn’t mince his words. Instead of inviting you friends, your brothers, your relatives or rich neighbours, Jesus says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. For the Pharisee those would not just have been below his social status, but also were ritually unclean. Shaming and lacking purity.
Jesus clearly wasn’t the sort of guest you invited if you wanted a nice polite conversation.
And remember Jesus is speaking to the local elite. This is a leader of the Pharisees, almost certainly the other guests would have been men, and well off, significant men. The women probably wouldn’t even have the lowest seats, but would have been out of sight, and the women of the family were probably organising the slaves to bring in the food, no cooking or preparation because this was the sabbath. Might they have been cheering Jesus on over the fighting for status? And might the slaves be cheering Jesus on over who should be invited to the banquet?
Too often passages such as these have been applied without thinking, often using the concept of humility to keep people in their places. But I don’t think Jesus is inviting us to be doormats, to have unthinking obedience. Rather I think he is declaring a radical humility, which is capable of standing up to politicians and rulers who act with injustice, or the elite who ignore the poor and oppressed. For women, for those who’s cultural and racial identities are denigrated and oppressed, for all those for whom we stand as an inclusive church, amongst others, Jesus’ example is to stand up against the elite and powerful.
Now, Jesus seems to be talking on two levels here. The life they were living in the first century. His values are radical, revolutionary, they challenge the status quo. Society is challenged over its values, people are challenged over their values. But there’s also at the level of God, after all, at the end of the passage we had read it says: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” There’s a spiritual dimension too.
This seems to be very much the heart of Jesus’ message. People are valued more than principles, more than legalities, more than social standing and hierarchy. The poor, the oppressed, the refugee, the orphan, these are who God cares about.
Whilst Jesus’ message does speak to each of us, the further we are up the hierarchy the more his words bite. For those who are oppressed, who are minorities, or who are ignored by society, there his words tend to be more understanding, compassionate, loving.
So, how do we live? What are our priorities?
Firstly, I want to take an internal point of view. Who do we not allow in us? In therapy its often possible to notice that people have different aspects of themselves, there are parts of themselves which are very acceptable, maybe the polite good hard working part, but there are parts of themselves they just don’t want me to see. It’s not like different personalities, but more different aspects or configurations of themselves. And some of these are really not liked. So, the angry part of them is kept hidden away, or the scared part is ignored, or the playful part never sees the light of day. It’s a bit like the banquet, we invite those parts of ourselves to the head of the table which we find acceptable, and those parts of us we don’t find acceptable get hidden away in another room, never to be seen. I wonder what you might prefer to keep at the bottom of the table?
Then in our day-to-day living, who do we mix with? Are we more comfortable around those who are like us? More comfortable with those who agree with us? Do we invite them to our banquets, or their equivalents? This week Dave was involved in the discussions about the church hosting homeless people for a week, feeding them, caring for them, providing overnight accommodation. And, there are many members of the church involved in all sorts of groups and charities. And in our services and during the week, we can welcome a wide variety of people into the church. It’s exciting that groups like Extinction Rebellion are welcomed, all these things are part of what Jesus would have us do.
But where do we have our blind spots? Where do we ourselves behave like the people at this banquet?
And politically? On the larger local and national stage? After all Jesus challenged the religious and political elite, the establishment. Do we challenge our society with the values of Jesus? To value the poor and oppressed, the refugee and the alienated, those who society does not want to include? Standing against injustice, a lack of mercy and compassion, the lack of following Jesus’ way.
And, and you may remember I mentioned that the early church struggled with this. The Corinthians often struggled when they came together in the early Eucharist, often relegating those who were lower in the social order to the back rooms.
What does it mean for our worship to see it in the terms of this passage? Who do we welcome to the Eucharist, to the shared table, the bread and the wine? Over the years the universal church has been bitterly divided about who to share communion with, who is acceptable and who not? People have died because of it.
And, of course, it still happens. I wonder how we might make our Eucharist more welcome to all? To welcome those who are despised in our society, who are the poor and the oppressed? To people who might struggle with this central act of our worship, for all sorts of reasons. How might we welcome all to an equal table, not one like the leader of the pharisees where shame, honour, patronage all came in.
And it also seems to me, that in a short while, when I am passing the cup to you, I’m not being encouraged to do it from a position of power, or authority, but of service, of being a slave and a servant. It’s not asking us to take on a false humbleness, but to somehow find a true humility in keeping with the world that Jesus invited us into, to help build his radical world within our world which so values power, position, status and wealth.
Jesus said: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”