Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. (Heb. 13:1-2)
The ideas and expectations Jesus has about the Sabbath, and our understanding and insights about the Kingdom of Heaven continue in Luke’s story of the dinner at the home of a Leader of the Pharisee to which Jesus has been invited. (14:1, 7-14).
Last week we heard about Jesus’ practice of healing on the Sabbath as a positive choice and decision. We heard about a woman who had been (Luke 13:10-17) bent over for 18 years, burdened and oppressed by her physical and social exclusion. Jesus also healed a man with a withered hand (Luke 6:6-11) and such stories remind us of the gift of healing, which also offered freedom from oppression and release from the ignorant exclusion by others.
Jesus started his ministry with the promise to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lords favour’, and what better day to do this on than the Sabbath.
As Jesus comes to dinner with a leader of the Pharisees, Jesus heals again, this time a man suffering from dropsy. We’re told the guests are watching Jesus closely. Jesus asked them again: ‘is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath or not?’ And on this occasion, those watching at the dinner are silent.
These verses now open up a new opportunity for our own self-reflection and give us an invitation to examine our ideas of privilege and entitlement, our understanding of humility, shame and honour which we apply to ourselves and our world around us.
I smile a bit at Jesus’ story about seating and honour to his host and his fellow guests. My father worked for the British Foreign Office and we moved around the world a bit when I was a child. My mother regularly entertained the great and the important. Enormous amounts of time were spent on the guests’ seating at the table, the serving and the need not to give offence. To honour and not to shame. I recently attended a wedding and saw the same energy going into the seating plans. I attend functions with work and see how the important ones are honoured. In our daily lives we closely watch those who elevate themselves and who work hard to make sure we can see their importance; and, we notice those who stay at the back and do not seek the limelight.
In my preparations for Synod in October as I go through our Anglican church legislation for updating, we are clear in our churches no one has the right to a specific or reserved seat and all our services are public. A commitment that is based on this principle Jesus was highlighting.
So I can only imagine what it must have felt like for those around Jesus, guests at a dinner listening to him speaking about these issues to his host and fellow guests.
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…. (Luke 14:1)
When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. (Luke 14:7)
As we think about Jesus’ parable, we might like to focus on the times in our lives, socially, at work, in our community activities when we automatically chose our places and save a seat for someone next to us whom we like.
It might be our favourite pew; or the table at Manna and Mercy we always share with our particular circle of friends. Our automatic choices point to our deeply held notions of entitlement to which we are generally blind.
I am aware that when this happens with me, the level of defensiveness I show in my response to any questioning, demonstrates the amount of entitlement I am defending.
Part of any entitlement is thinking we are protected from criticism or challenge. Privilege, like entitlement, is usually invisible to those who have it. Those of us who have a certain amount of privilege believe we can choose the place of honour, assuming it is rightfully ours.
Where else might this emerge? It comes to light when we want arrangements to suit our particular circumstances, in the church, in our community services, in our neighbourhoods and groups. It is visible when groups take and assume rights to belong to themselves including priests. None of us are immune to this behaviour as those around us feed our self-image.
Our privilege emerges as self-interest and injured self-righteousness as we defend our behaviour and humility has just walked out the door when we weren’t looking.
I heard a story about some refugees attending an all-white, prosperous church, who were not warmly welcomed at the door, who sat at the back of the church. No-one sat with them and they were not invited up for communion and were consequently not served. The minister, watching, saw the behaviour and took the cup and wafers to the newcomers at the back and firmly offered them, saying, ‘The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ shed for you’. The minister observed a great reversal take place on that day.
I’ve heard this story told again and again about people who are gay, about women, about people who are simply poor and who make us feel uncomfortable. And we see this played out around us, by our political, economic, educational, housing and health systems, as we twist and manipulate the systems to suit us and our sense of entitlement.
The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed very profoundly, that what holds a community of faith together is not the shared commonality of social interests, we are not a social club, or shared identities from the same class, background and education, but rather it is Christ alone which holds us safe. Christ sits at all our tables, calling us into fellowship with people from beyond our immediate circle.
Jesus speaks first to the guests attending the dinner, friends of the Pharisee leader. Jesus may well have been the outsider on this occasion, invited to dinner to be questioned and hold conversation about his interpretation of the Sabbath law and his expressions and practices of faith. Instead, Jesus puts them all on the spot, asking them to question why they sit where they do as an automatic right.
Then Jesus turns his attention to the host, even more uncomfortably, asking why he bothers to invite those he knows will reciprocate, embedding a tight circle of privilege, reciprocity and entitlement, where everyone knows the rules, the expectations and pay back that will arise? Jesus asks his host: ‘why are you not inviting those who are unable to repay you.’
Jesus says: ‘And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteousness.’ (Luke 14: 14)
Jesus is advocating a communal pattern of social relations where there is no expectation of reciprocity. Overturning our expectations of payback and social dividend to our advantage, acknowledging our privilege and rights, the guest list of those we know and like, should be opened up, so that ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’ can be included in the community of God’s kingdom.
Our understanding of humility and vulnerability receives a shock, our egos are sensitive, we resist what we see and hear. I wonder about the dinner party’s discussion after the telling of that parable. The discomfort would have been very, very high.
The humility Jesus calls for is a core biblical virtue, deeply and strongly based in an interior disposition of trusting in God as the source of all human dignity. It enables us to resist the temptation and inclination to self-promotion and self-importance. Competition for honour and status is an awful game to have to be involved in, it excludes and marginalises the vulnerable, it causes envy, enmity and rivalry. It undermines co-operation, kindliness, generosity and solidarity. It undermines all that is healthy and good in our human natures.
As I watch the behaviour of many people in public life these days, I wonder what we are teaching our children and those around us. As I watch and reflect on my own behaviour, I am aware I have a great deal still to learn, practice and hear with open hands, heart and mind from Jesus.
The Lord be with you.