Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/5JOB09Y0tw8.
Pentecost 15 C Luke 14:1-14
Well, here we are with Jesus and it’s the Sabbath again, and Jesus is healing someone again, and then there is a meal. This time the cast consists of a leader of the Pharisees, and presumably other Pharisees as “they were watching Jesus closely”, then we have some invited guests at the meal who presumably are friends, and relatives of the important man. This healing is not as exciting as last week- no big synagogue audience, no praising God just a man who puts himself in Jesus’ way. It’s hard to know what has caused this poor man to have dropsy- but usually the accumulation of fluid points to something serious. The Jews had a rule that you could cure someone on the Sabbath if it was a life or death matter. Jesus heals the man and then with a fairly perfunctory challenge, to which they make no answer, goes on his way to the meal. The restoration of this man’s life could be seen as a side issue in the greater tale of the meal, but in fact it is also about God’s great generosity and the wholeness that is life in the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus gets to the meal he watches to see how the guests choose where to sit. Now the Jews had a quite structured system of honour and the place where you thought you should sit said a lot about what you thought your status was. We have shed some of the formality- though it still applies at certain functions doesn’t it? Weddings, official dinners and the school playground can all reflect the pecking order that we humans still observe. Nowhere is the “in group” and the “out group” more obvious that in the playground, and most of us remember either the pain of not being accepted in the “in group” or perhaps with shame the way we kept others out of it. We all want to be honoured, and accepted, none of us want to be shamed and Jesus taps into this with what he says to the guests.
At first sight it looks more like a bit of wisdom than a parable doesn’t it? “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by the host; and the host who invited both of you may come to you 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 table with you.” This is good advice and makes worldly sense, we read the bit in Proverbs that says very much the same thing, but Luke rightly describes it as a parable because it is about so much more than where you sit at the table. It has eschatological implications- in other words, its not just about the here and now but about what will happen at the end of things. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” and in the next few verses it is clear that the meal being talked about is the heavenly banquet, God’s great act of hospitality and grace when we will all sit down together with God. If we are humble, here and now, we will be exalted with God.
But how does it look to be humble? Well, when Jesus talks to his host in the next section we have a bit more of an idea.
In the culture of the day, the meal was less about enjoying yourself with friends as cementing yourself into a social position. Don’t picture a backyard Barbie with the neighbours, but a work dinner with the boss and the other up and coming executives. There was a social hierarchy all based on patronage. So, it was about securing yourself to a patron who would help you ascend the ladder, while you are giving him honour and glory by being his protégé. So everything in this hierarchy is a, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, way of getting your needs met. This is why Jesus says to the host, don’t invite your friends, your family and your rich neighbours. Jesus wants to disrupt the system- he is a very dangerous guest. The really disruptive and counter cultural thing that Jesus is trying to say is that hospitality should not be the vehicle for meeting your own needs but instead be a way of caring for others. A little earlier in the gospel he redefined the standard for being a neighbour to include the people that you would normally despise. Here he wants the rich, and important Pharisee to include on his dinner guest list the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. These people are not the Pharisee’s social equals, feeding them does not give him any honour. They will not be able to repay- they have no way of scratching his back. In fact they are ritually unclean as well, so pushed out to the margins. Imagine if we were sitting down to a meal- let’s say Christmas dinner to really challenge me, and Jesus said to me, don’t have your precious family and your friends for this meal, don’t ask the Bishop to join you, or the wardens of your parish, but go down to the Richardson shops and find a couple of homeless people, invite a few muslim refugees and an aetheist who hates Christmas. This is disturbing and challenging- it turns my world upside down. Jesus redefines what is important- he wants honour and blessing for everyone. Jesus wants the needs of the people who are on the edges of society to be met. When he speaks of the first being last and the last being first he is turning our world upside down.
And here is the link between the two little episodes, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath and then goes off to dinner- in both cases he is talking about healing at a very deep level- In the first place he says- you might have rules, but compassion is more important because my God heart is moved by this man’s brokenness- let me make him whole. And then at the table he says, let’s use this meal to give healing to people who are dishonoured in our society- let’s bring the “out group” in and feed them at our table. You, religious leader, what about meeting people’s deepest needs with compassion and care? You, who are thinking about your own position and scrambling up the greasy pole, what about thinking about others- putting them first and meeting their needs for compassion and grace?
And that is the challenge for us. It is not so much who I invite for Christmas Dinner but whether in all of my life I strive to honour and care for the needs of those around me. I need to do the deeds and speak the words that tell of God’s love, that tell others that God accepts them no matter who they are or what they have done. It is about meeting that deepest need for love- and that perfect love which drives out fear as John says in his epistle.
Jesus wants to heal us, to make us whole and perfect in his love. God’s generosity, God’s incredible grace is offered to us all, and we need to accept that for ourselves and then let go of the things that we use to give ourselves social status. And then when we are free from the things that bind us in the world we need to make contact with all of those around us from the head of the department, to the homeless man camped on the steps and offer them the same honour and dignity, the same compassion and healing in the name of Jesus that God has offered us. Does this mean that we are to be people, like Jesus, who are brave enough to mess with the systems of oppression?
Imagine a world set free from competition and issues of social status- imagine a world where we cared for one another, and the freedom that love would bring. This is what the kingdom of God will look like.
The message of the gospel is that God loves us so much that he is prepared to die for us. The thing that we need to keep in the forefront of our minds is that we are people so precious to God, so loved by God that we can afford to be compassionate to others in return. We are loved by a God so generous to us that we can be generous to others in return. We have been set free by God’s love so that we might love God’s precious children whoever they are. We are so loved by God!