Pentecost 15:1 September Luke 14:1,7-14
So Jesus eats with leading Pharisees?! Not just with toll collectors and sinners. To imagine this we must assume that Jesus must have given the impression that he was an acceptable guest, ie. that he observed Torah strictly. Either Luke is making something up here or he is reflecting what was likely to have been the case: Jesus’ greatest conflicts were with those closest to him: the Pharisees. Why? Probably because they felt betrayed by his behaviour. He was observant of Torah but in a radically different way. Still, at least Luke believed his manner of observance still made him acceptable to some leading Pharisees. 14:2-6, the verses omitted from today’s reading, illustrate the conflict. It was not about whether to obey Torah, but about how to set the priorities. The argument assumes common ground.
When we move to 14:7, we are confronted by another ‘law’. It is not written law, but rather cultural law and was widely held. It belonged in that all important arena of meals. 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 (in 14:8 the word need not mean a wedding banquet in particular) or communal meals, were an important community event. Jesus is present at such a meal, according to Luke, when he makes these comments. Some groups gave their meals such significance that they became representative of their life and identity. This was obviously so in the earliest Christian communities where the eucharist had its setting in a group meal. It was also true for many other groups, religious or otherwise.
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. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. Thus the people of the Dead Sea sect conducted a kind of annual performance review for such placements. In first century Palestine, reclining on one elbow beside a very low table, or on low couches, had become the established fashion. It was common in the Hellenistic world of the time. It is reflected in most meals mentioned in the gospels. Disciples reclining beside Jesus would have a special place. John’s gospel puts the disciple whom Jesus loved into such intimate proximity with Jesus. He lay down with his head close to Jesus’ chest according to John 13:23. Jesus had a corresponding position with God before the incarnation according to John 1:18.
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.
Such is the setting for what appears at first as a bit of practical advice. Like many sages of the day, and like Proverbs 25:6, Jesus instructs the would be go-getter to avoid putting oneself in the position where a demotion might occur. It is better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the reverse. Indeed some interpreters leave it at that, so that Jesus is simply giving advice to go-getters. Perhaps Luke read it that way. Perhaps he connected 14:11 to the story. If you want to be exalted, humble yourself! It is a contradiction in terms, because such strategies usually result in a put on humility because the driver is self interest and personal success. Jesus may, by contrast, have been poking fun at the fashions of his day, holding it up to ridicule.
In Luke however the self interest continues unabated in 14:12-14. It is best to put people in your debt who cannot repay you, because then you will be repaid by God. What a nuisance if people square the ledger here! We help the poor and needy so that we can build up capital for our own future. These are disastrous developments. Where they are applied the needy are used and abused. It is spiritual capitalism at its worst.
Alternatively, Jesus’ words would be heard as totally absurd and are meant to heard that way. It was a crazy idea, designed to subvert the games being played. Try losing and see how much you win! If we hear these words like this and not as a serious strategy, which would reduce them to just a more creative way of exploiting others for your own good, then Jesus is subverting the whole enterprise which was driving his culture and its values. It has huge application for today.
Before we dismiss the literal understanding from our high moral ground, we (and those with whom we work) may benefit from re-examining the matter. People who claim to be acting in love without any self interest are frequently in a state of denial, so much so at times that they fail to recognise to control their self interest - to their own harm and that of others. The gospel is not an appeal to abandon self love, but to believe in being loved and loving and to engage in it fully in all directions, including towards ourselves. The invitation to love is an invitation to life, made from the premise that life’s greatest reward is to live in love and that to do so is to participate in God’s being and to best fulfil our own.
The lines of love - for God, for others, for oneself - need to converge. Destruction comes when any one element fails. Falsehood sells us the idea that our own best interests can only be served by denying the interests of others (and of God) or by exploiting them to our own ends, for this life or for the next. It teaches us we can win only by beating others. Whether in materialist mode or spiritual mode, it leads to exploitation and abuse. The answer is not the opposite: self hate or self neglect, because more often than not that ends in self deceit and destructive behaviour towards ourselves which also destroys others. Rather it is an inclusive love, all embracing, which is its own reward. The table at which we share celebrates a poured out life, even in brokenness, as the true source of nourishment and before which we can let go our anxieties and the hierarchies of power they create - easier said than done as our church history demonstrates.
These are potentially very dangerous texts - but full of blessing.
Epistle: Pentecost 15: 1 September Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16