The world is full of people shouting at the moment. It seems strident, loud and noisy. In the famous words of Kath and Kim, everyone seems to be saying: ‘look at moi, look at moi!’ We find ourselves constantly in conversations about who you know, who owes somebody a favour and what might it be. We look at tyrants and pathological bullies as leaders carving up the world in this manner and wonder how have we ended up, like this?
In ancient times, society, politics and economics were structured around protecting the family and the need for patronage from someone more influential, someone with money and in a position able to protect you. Someone who would support you but, who would expect something in return. The image of the meal and who’s invited is a great way to understand the system. The patron achieved honour through the gift, but the gift always came with strings attached.
It seems not much has changed despite our democratic credentials. In the end, corruption finds the darker nooks and crannies of our lives. Like water it always finds its level in the deepest recesses of our lives and, it makes for uncomfortable accounting when the price tag for the favour becomes public.
We see this corruption and patronage daily revealed in politics, business, and sadly, in the church too. In fact, all our humanmade social and economic power structures and systems show this inevitable desire to be the beneficiary, holding tightly onto our entitlements, while remaining wilfully blind to the awkward aspects of having manipulated the system in our favour. The number of current scandals rocking our country make me weary just listening to them. Sometimes families and friends can be no different.
So here we come to Luke’s story of Jesus (14:1,7-14), who had accepted an invitation to a dinner party hosted by a leader of the pharisees and those present, we are told, were watching him closely. It was always going to be a meal fraught with complications.
The Gospels tell us repeatedly, Jesus used table fellowship as his way of helping people to understand the radical nature of his message of God’s love. His stories of how food came to the table, who was at the table, who refused to come to the table and those who made assumptions about the reasons for the meals or misunderstood its grace, give us rich insights into Jesus’ thinking about shame, honour and obligation which makes the world work.
The table is a place where Jesus redefines the social order by doing things differently, usually upsetting those who are in control: the rich, wealthy and the elders, the male heads of households who held power. In these places and in all circumstances, Jesus is rejecting our strong desire for social esteem, our reasons for it, and he rejects our sense of privileged entitlement.
With this story we might choose to read Jesus’ instructions as a simple list of social do’s and don’ts, a commentary on how to manage a meal and who to invite. Jesus says to the host: ‘Do not invite only your friends and family or rich neighbours who can repay you.’
‘No, when you have a party, invite those who are struggling financially, the disabled people, and the blind.’ In God’s new universal order, we must forget and ignore the world’s status symbols. Human hierarchies mean nothing to God. What matters is simply our common God-given humanity and the desire to be in community with one another.
Our Manna and Mercy meal each Tuesday night is an example of this. All are welcome, whoever they are. Its an extraordinary gathering and much loved by the Dunsborough community. We might also think we no longer need to worry about who’s invited or whether the right people are attending in Manna and Mercy, but in our own ways and in our own table fellowship we still have exclusions.
Many may still remember when people of other faiths in our churches were rejected at God’s table, or people of colour made to sit at the back of the church, unmarried mothers and women who were frequently seated separately, like the divorced, the poor or homeless, gay and straight, fit and disabled people, Christian and non-Christian, our exclusions are legion.
In older churches, the wealthy used to have their own reserved seats at the front with padded cushions, the rest were on hard pews. The reality is we all love privilege, especially when we’re the beneficiaries. It does make us feel good.
Clergy are the same; we used to have a rail between us and the rest of the church and we like to wear different clothes. We perpetuate separation wherever we can, to accentuate our own distinctiveness in the eyes of others. It’s a deeply ingrained habit. Understanding this and trying to break this habit of differentiation used as a weapon of discrimination against ‘others’ is what Jesus is inviting in our response.
Let’s be clear, Jesus demands a preferential option to the outsider in all his stories of table fellowship.
In Christ, there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, male and female, between slave and free, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:28).
As we come then to understand Jesus’ loving invitation, we can let go the burden of having always to calculate the cost of the world’s invitation and the benefit which will have to be repaid in the future. In inviting and welcoming everyone, God is releasing us and says:
You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:14)
Jesus reminds us it is God as the meal’s host who will determine the seating plan, not us with our egos and inflated sense of importance. None of us, says Jesus, deserves to sit at the table in God’s kingdom, because all of us are unworthy guests. Those who follow Christ will be exalted only because of God’s free gift of salvation.
The humility we experience arising from our growing awareness of our own unworthiness means we know we have no right to claim the place of honour.
Instead, we find we can simply trust God as the source of our dignity and it isn’t in someone else’s power and patronage. We can trust God to place us where we are most needed and where God’s people will be best served.
I know competing for honour, patronage and benefits always excludes those who are more vulnerable. It feeds envy and competition and it undermines cooperation and solidarity in our witness for God. Jesus was completely and absolutely subverting the Greco-Roman world system of patronage and its ethic of rigid reciprocity just as he continues to do so today. The patron-client relationship always involves power over others and oppression of the less powerful, just as it does today, but now we can look to God without fussing about our place in the world and in human society.
Let me finish by acknowledging in our world, we can be sure the more we try to exalt ourselves, the more likely we will be humbled. I have to say, as I think about Kath and Kim and their cry of ‘look at moi’, perhaps our shared invitation from Christ helps us realise our party will be far more interesting than partying with the same old crowd. Let the wine and laughter and passion and generosity flow freely in God’s name. You are all invited, please spread the word!
The Lord be with you
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Ed’s]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Luke Vol. 2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.
Johnson, L.T. [Harrington, D.J., S.J., Ed.] 1991. Sacra Pagina Series Vol.3. The Gospel of Luke. A Michael Glazier Book. The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Rohr, R. 1997. The Good News According to Luke. A Crossroad Book, The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York.