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Gospel: Luke 14:1,7-14

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. 2Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ 4But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5Then 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?’ 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 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.’

I am going to die. We all are. I’ve decided I would like to know when death is imminent, and to have time to think about it, and review life and tidy a few things up. I’d rather not be hit by a bus without warning, or have only a few brief moments following a heart attack, even though that might less physically uncomfortable in the end.

It’s not that I will be able to set everything to rights before dying, but it would be good to have time to say goodbye, and to remember life, and be thankful. Neither do I expect to be free of regrets, but what would truly horrify me would be to decide that I had wasted it all. If there is anything I really fear, it would be to suddenly realise I had been aiming at the wrong things all my life; that what I had thought was important, and had struggled for, and to which I had given my life, was all a waste, and not worth it.

Jesus said, “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.” He means don’t do things for the wrong reasons. Don’t be focused on the wrong things. All the things we do have a bearing on what is ultimate. We may be agnostic about the reality of a “resurrection of the righteous.” We may completely disbelieve in such a thing. This does not matter. What matters is that everything we do is shaping who we are, and what we become, and what becomes important to us.

We are social beings. What and who we are depends a great amount on the people around us, and the way we relate to them. For good, and for ill.

Tannehill says in his commentary Luke (Quoted by Stoffregen)

A formal dinner was a way in which an elite family (the kind of family who could afford such a dinner) proclaimed and maintained its elite status. The guest list was important, for the invitation indicated that one was accepted as a member of the elite. Family members and important people of the community needed to be honored in this way, and they would be expected to reciprocate.

Bill Loader says

Meals are too easily obtained by most of us for us to appreciate their major role in the ancient world. Group meals, whether wedding banquets or communal meals, were an important community event…. Among the ‘rules’ for common meals of this kind we often find correct order of seating. There is a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between… We may smile at those people who always insist on sitting in the same pews or seats in church. But in the ancient world, place was guarded by most even more jealously. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place on the ladder. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. 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. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one’s life…

While we may not appreciate the major role of meals in the ancient world, we are well aware- often too well aware- of the issues of status and pride, and the fear of humiliation and embarrassment. What the rich man was doing when he said, “Go on up the stairs,” as he locked the door, was not lost on me. After the first four sumptuous marble steps, I would have to ask whether I took the staircase to the left, or the staircase to the right. When I was working with corporate clients and had to accompany the boss to schmooze parties, to say that I came from Elizabeth, would silence an eastern suburbs table with embarrassment. I may as well have farted at the table. Yet we in the north, are all too often anxious to remind our neighbours that we live in Salisbury Heights, not down on the plain, or in Mawson Lakes, not the often actually rather nicer Pooraka, on the other side of the road.

If I had any quarrel with Bill’s words above, it would be to say that losing face is still very hard to shrug off. For some of us, status is sometimes everything. God have mercy on us if we discover, in the end, that it has always been everything.

Tannehill continues…

Jesus' instructions in verses 12-14 conflict with this social function of dinners. It might be a source of honor for someone to give charity to the poor, but it is quite another thing to invite them to a social function in place of family and people of wealth, and eat with them. By doing this, the host is dishonoring family and rich neighbors and in their place is honoring the poor; or, in the eyes of the elite, the host is dishonoring himself by identifying with the poor. Therefore, verse 11 may apply to what follows as well as to what precedes. Those who invite family and people of status are exalting themselves by proclaiming their place in this group. Those who invite the poor and crippled are humbling themselves. [p. 230]

Often, I suspect, in the eyes of the elite the host is still dishonoring themselves by identifying with the poor; even in Australia.

You wonder why respectable Pharisees kept inviting Jesus to dinner. He kept lobbing bombshells of bad manners onto the table! In this party alone he has essentially told them all they are hypocrites, (14:6, cf 13:15, where he actually uses the word,) he’s observed how everyone jockey’s for position at the table (vv7,8) and then unsubtly drawn their attention to it, and finally he’s taken it upon himself to lecture the host on ethical behavior.

Loader alerted me to Proverbs 25:6

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
7 for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

Jesus is repeating a common wisdom. But as always, there is a twist, turning our attention from issues of status and temporal power to issues of the ultimate. “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.” Remember he says elsewhere, “Truly, they have received their reward.” Matt 6.5 (It occurs to me there is a distinct strand in the Jesus traditions that says to receive status and kudos is not necessarily a blessing.)

Real reward lies in this: “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.”

As I’ve already suggested, whether we interpret the resurrection of the righteous in some literal way, does not really matter. This is about what is ultimately worthwhile. At stake here is our life, and its worth, as we would ourselves would judge it, if we could see it with all the wisdom of God. A well spent life is not things and possessions. It is not status, or the power of top dog. It is love which raises up and blesses all people without regard for status or wealth or religious worth.

He tells the man to invite people who are not whole under the law. I quote Stoffregen again:

There are four groups whom the host is not to invite (v. 12) because they could reciprocate the invitation and four groups whom the host is to invite (v. 13). Besides being unable to reciprocate, "such persons were explicitly forbidden to serve as priests (Lev 21:17-23) and were barred from entry into the Qumran community:

And let no person smitten with any human impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God. And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every (person) smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let these persons not enter." [1QSa 2:3-8, quoted by Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreters Bible, p. 287)]

We know that too often as a society, and even as a church, we reflect the words of that excerpt from Qumram. We exclude people from our assemblies, even the Assembly of God. To be fair, some of them are not very nice. Yet these are the people Jesus tells us to invite.

In my evangelical roots the gospel was presented as life and death. I would, in those days, have preached that if you want to get to the resurrection of the righteous, you should do what Jesus says here. (And have been mostly unaware of my self-righteousness, and naïve about what a burden I was laying on people, and on myself!)

For all that I eschew that approach to the faith, I am not above a little enlightened spiritual self interest. (Bill Loader has some interesting things to say here.) I have suffered from periodic ennui and melancholy for as long as I can remember. There have been a few occasions when this has turned into, or combined with, utterly debilitating mental melt down. (Personally, I think “clinical depression” is more a pernicious label than a helpful description.) The boredom and disinterest of ennui easily slides into that horror with which I began; “what I had thought was important, and had struggled for, and to which I had given my life, was all a waste, and not worth it.” Sometimes, even while I am fully engrossed in life, melancholy drops out of the sky without warning, and nothing is worth anything. In the full blown illness this becomes crushing.

My observation is that as I have been able to abandon the banquet of a life based in self interest, and welcome instead the guests Jesus suggests- not that I’m very accomplished at this- the waves of wastefulness and uselessness have lessened. Living beyond status, even a little, has been profoundly healing. I’m hopeful that this experience is a hint of the future; that when the time of death comes, I will not find that what I had thought was important, and had struggled for, and to which I had given my life, was all a waste, and not worth it. I will find it was good. This is my faith and my hope.

Andrew Prior August 2010
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.

 

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