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. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, "Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?" But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then 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?" And they could not reply to this.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. "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; 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. But 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Throughout the ages, meals are a way of demonstrating social status. We've all participated. Family meals at holidays, for instance: Adult tables and children's tables. Sometimes the kiddie tables don't even get the same food. In some cultures men and women eat at separate tables. Medieval feasts were held with the head table often perpendicular to the other tables, raised so that those at the head tables could see--and be seen by the guests. The Arthur legends tell us that there was brief movement toward a more egalitarian table--around one--but it didn't seem to outlive its innovator.
At wedding banquets, the bride and her mother pour over guest lists to assure that status and position are taken into consideration. You know you probably don't have to question your own popularity if at your nieces' wedding you are seated with the paper-boy's parents while your siblings are sitting with the brides maids and groomsmen!
And then there are church dinners. These are occasions, I have been told, where seating is not assigned--exactly. We haven't eaten together very often here, but you may have been to church dinners earlier in your life here at Sunnyhills, or at other churches: Once the tables are set, some chairs are tipped forward, reserving seats at particular tables. (It doesn't matter that the practice completely blocks passage between tables, and makes newcomers completely baffled as to where they are welcomed to sit.) As a child growing up in a church that had frequent covered-dish dinners, the unwritten rule was that children were last in line (we couldn't possibly be responsible enough to only take what we could eat, so we should only have what was left when the adults were finished), and then our eating was supervised by whoever thought they should tell us what we should eat--even though our own parents were in attendance. As a pastor I've had amazing discussions with colleagues who try hard not to sit down at all, because no matter where they sit, it comes back to them later in the week that someone in the congregation has been offended that the pastor didn't sit with THEM.
Until you stop to think about it, you may not have realized how many of Jesus teaching moments occur over meals. We know that Jesus ate with the outcasts and marginalized peoples of his day. We know that he got in trouble with the "proper folks" for that. But Luke tells of several meals when Jesus sat down with the wealthy and respected members of the community--the Pharisees. In fact, the meal that today's Gospel lesson deals with is the third such meal reported by the writer of Luke.1 The gospel writer describes it as a common occurrence "on one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath" Through the years, I've thought of these dinners as a way to trap Jesus--and that may be. But, also consider another possibility. These Pharisees, for whom ritual table fellowship is a high priority, wouldn't invite just anyone to dinner, or frankly involve themselves with just another crackpot preacher off the street. The author of Luke is either casting an improbable scene, or reflecting a possible truth--that Jesus' greatest conflicts were with those closest to him--the Pharisees--other Torah-observant Jews. Why? They felt betrayed by his behavior--healing on the sabbath, not washing as they did, gathering grain, observing the Torah in radically different ways. And that was a crux of the matter--What did it mean to be Torah observant in the Kingdom of God?
Jesus had already stepped on one interpretation in which he and the Pharisees differ. Healing on the Sabbath. A day set aside as holy, Jesus healed a man with a withered arm, and a man with dropsy. Was healing any less life-giving than pulling a child or ox from a well, Jesus asked? You see, life giving procedures were not only allowed, but required on the sabbath. And this scene sets us up for sitting down to dinner and the ever present table pecking order. And, of course, Jesus messes with the carefully orchestrated seating ritual of the Pharisee church dinner. How does the social order fit Torah observance? How does table pecking order fit loving God with all one's mind, soul, heart and strength, and one's neighbor as oneself? Jesus is pretty clear--it doesn't. Being self-serving isn't part of the plan. Putting yourself up before others isn't in the picture. Using the love of God and observance of God's Law as an excuse to be rude, arrogant, mean, unjust, or selfish is a perversion of Jesus interpretation of Torah observance.
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
In Jamaica we had amazing hospitality from our hosts, and gracious acceptance from those of us on the tour. In our sardine-can tour bus, almost everyone graciously moved around so that no one got the most uncomfortable seats very often--well, almost everyone. On the last leg of our homebound flights, the flight attendant had been successful in swapping a couple of passengers so that two members of a family of three could sit together. The third puzzle piece was about to fall into place if the person in the aisle seat would trade his back-of-the plane aisle for a bulkhead middle seat. This would let both parents sit with their infant son. The flight attendant got to the man before he got settled--and got an earful of how little sleep he had gotten, how he intended to sleep the entire flight, he couldn't do that from a middle seat, and some other things I won't repeat. A member of our mission, who happened to be a couple of rows away and still standing at the time, without missing a beat, offered up his aisle seat. A three way trade occurred. Our guy truthfully didn't care where he sat, and the family took turns calming a crying child during the flight.
But the monologue of the annoyed flyer struck me. He wasn't even asking for a seat at the head table--just the seat he had previously requested. But it so quickly becomes an issue of us vs them, me vs you, a "me first" attitude that is prevalent in our culture and in our nation--and is counter to everything that Jesus teaches.
Two quotes that I read this week that have stuck with me during a week I've had trouble remembering my own name.
"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." [Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird]
I've been unable to re-find the exact quote, but the gist of Tolstoy's quote is that "Somehow those who believe and those who do not both see Christianity as a religion one can experience and remain unchanged." Tolstoy
The world tells us that our own best interests are served only by denying the interests of others, or by exploiting others--and their interests--to our own end best interests. The world--including political and public religious leaders who claim to speak for God -tell us that we ought serve God by serving our own best interests first, even when that service exploits others. These seem to be folks who Tolstoy described who experience Christianity without experiencing change.
But Jesus brings us a paradox to the dinner table. The people with whom Jesus identifies himself are those that society and the "proper" folks judged to be misfits. But remember that Jesus also tells us that "Whosoever welcomes one of these little ones in my name, welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me." When we deny the interests of these, we have failed to welcome Jesus. We have failed to be changed by our beliefs.
The Gospel lesson this morning is a wake up call that reminds us when the world--through advertising, public figures, partisan politics, or even (heaven forbid) church leaders--tries to use God-language to sell us worldly schemes--ignoring the needs of others, putting the wants of the rich and powerful above the needs of the poor and marginalized, failing to protect creation as a precious resource for all humanity, that we can know that these are not biblical teachings and not the teachings of Jesus. We do not need to be fooled into thinking they are.
The gospel is not an appeal to abandon self interest or self-love, but to believe that being loved and loving and engaging in fully in God's love: loving God, loving neighbor, loving self is life changing and world changing.