by Joan Fanshawe
(Based on Luke 14.1-14; Prov 25:6-7)
It has been said that if Jesus came and walked the streets today, people in Christian churches might not recognise him or want to hear what he had to say.
Jesus wasn’t known for his politeness around the dinner table; or … Jesus wasn’t known for his politeness. The Gospels record him bluntly challenging the social order of the day many times.
Although it might be surprising to hear today that Jesus has been asked to a Sabbath meal by a leader of the Pharisees, Jesus was actually an acceptable guest – that is, he was very well versed in the Scriptures and Torah rules.
Bill Loader, Emeritus Professor in New Testament studies at Murdoch University, Perth, points out in his commentary on this passage that Jesus’s greatest conflicts were with those closest to him: the Pharisees.
Probably because they felt betrayed by his behaviour. He was observant of Torah but in a radically different way – more about setting priorities perhaps. They had no answer when he challenged them about his healing on the Sabbath, but they were watching him closely.
In this passage, what Jesus challenges is a customary rule of favour and status that was the social norm in that all important arena of gathering to eat together.
These days, meals are too easily obtained by most of us, for us to really appreciate their major role in the ancient world. Group meals, including wedding banquets or communal meals, were important community events, some being of such significance that they became the life and identity of a group. We know this was so in the earliest Christian communities where the Eucharist had its setting in a group meal.
Among the ‘rules’ for meals of this kind, there will be a correct order of seating. There is a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between.
In first century Palestine, reclining on one elbow beside a very low table, or on low couches, had become the established fashion and is reflected in most meals mentioned in the gospels. (Disciples reclining beside Jesus on other occasions would probably also have had places. In John’s gospel we read that the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ was seated in intimate proximity to him.)
So in the ancient world, place was guarded most jealously. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place on the ladder. For many it was a matter of economic survival to make sure they either stayed where they were, or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement, it was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place.
This is the setting for what appears at first as a bit of practical advice. Like many sages of the day, and like today’s Proverbs reading, Jesus instructs the would-be go-getters to avoid putting themselves in the position where a demotion might occur. Indeed some commentators leave it at that, so that Jesus is simply giving advice to go-getters. Perhaps Luke read it that way and connected the sentiment, ‘If you want to be exalted, humble yourself!’
But Loader points this out as a contradiction in terms, because such strategies very often result in a false humility driven by self-interest and personal advancement, thus defeating the purpose.
Because after offering this free advice on how to climb the social ladder, Jesus then dismantles it by exposing the underlying social structures which maintain these ladders of power and privilege.
“Next time you’re planning a lunch or dinner,” he says to his host, “don’t invite those who are within your circle, don’t invite those who can influence your advancement. Instead, send invitations to those who cannot return the favour in any way. Invite the unclean, the poor, the marginalised, especially those who have no access to the parties that matter. Then you will be blessed and rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Does Jesus really mean that we should put people in our social debt who cannot repay us because we will be repaid by God when we get to the pearly gates? Are we to help the poor and needy in order to build up points for our own future salvation?
Loader calls that spiritual capitalism at its worst, and he isn’t alone: others have similar reservations and we know it does happen.
Sometimes we are tempted to confuse privilege with blessing. This is especially dangerous if we name our privilege as a blessing from God. One way of understanding the Gospel is to see it as a call to transform our privilege into blessing for others – who ordinarily are denied either privilege or blessing.
The whole Gospel of Christ invites us to acknowledge God’s love for all people and to act in a whole-hearted belief in that love. Acceptance of being beloved of God oneself and then sharing love fully in all directions. Taking up this invitation to love is an invitation to life which, when lived generously, is its own reward.
The lines of love – for God, for others and, yes, for our own self, need to be closely entwined; the connection becomes frail if one element fails. Being aware of our actions, some might call it self-examination, leading to confession – can keep us from getting caught up in thoughts and actions that can deny the fullness of life to others in the pursuit of our own interests.
Always accepting and gratefully affirming that the strand of God’s love for us never falters and we need not be afraid.
How then does this passage have any connection with what happens at the banquet of life today? I found it very timely to see recently a story about New Zealanders sharing a banquet. Called The Table, this was done comic book style and as I can’t show you the cartoons I’ll read the captions in order:
Imagine you’re invited to a dinner.
There are ten guests, ten seats at the table and ten plates of food.
But when you sit down to eat, one person is served nearly six meals (5.8 to be precise). Four people get a meal each. Then five people have to share one fifth of a meal between them.
And that’s dinner in New Zealand!
That is the distribution of wealth in NZ, based on Statistics NZ’s 2020-21 Household Economic survey.
This showed the richest 10% of adults hold 58% of NZ’s wealth. That means money in the bank as well as assets like property or cars, minus debts.
At the other end of the table, the poorer half of the country holds just 2%!
Of course, in reality it didn’t get served up like this out of the blue – it’s happened over generations.
And while individual effort does matter, it’s also true that wealth leads to more wealth and poverty leads to more poverty.
Uncomfortable words jar into our consciousness: colonisation, dawn raids, child abuse, and discriminatory wage gaps are some such words.
But being conflict averse we don’t say anything about it, do we?
Max Rashbrooke, author of Too much money and inequality; a New Zealand Crisis, features in the comic strip, saying this should be a source of great embarrassment to us, because we think we’re very egalitarian, and it’s awkward to acknowledge.
Here is the link to the whole piece:
Rashbrooke has further comments – not wanting to make it an ‘us versus them’ argument, but suggesting that a fairer distribution of wealth could mean a world (or a table) that’s better for 50% of New Zealanders.
I don’t know what the answer is – but I am sure that this Jesus-inspired life of love for others that we are called to must include facing this situation openly, to find a better and fairer solution that doesn’t rely on ‘feel good’ charity.
Last week our church children were introduced to some new words: ‘Hypocrite’ (which Michal remembered meant not practising what you preach). And ‘the Pharisees’ (whom we’ve met today again today). Jesus called these religious ones out for failing to follow the important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.
Can we think boldly about ways to ‘share what we have’? Or, better, think boldly about ways the dominant economic system needs to change, so that wealth, resources, and opportunities to enjoy them are more fairly accessible to everyone.
I add these quotes in closing:
“When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor they call me a communist.” (The late Archbishop Dom Helder Câmara, of Brazil)
“Jesus did not die suggesting a more caring and sharing society. He was executed for demanding a radically transformed society in which ALL of God’s children are fed adequately and with dignity. Capitalism would have him executed today as well.” (Anonymous blogger on davidlose.net)
Dear God, draw us ever nearer in your love so that we might always have the confidence to be that love for others, as Jesus teaches us. Amen