Places of honor

1 September 2013
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17C (RCL)
Jeremiah 2:4-13
Psalm 81:1 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Much of the teaching in Luke’s Gospel takes place at a meal. This reflects Luke’s awareness of and participation in the culture of his day. Most of Plato’s dialogs take place at meals. It was a standard cultural form: banquet and symposium. Those who could afford it went to dinner parties, and then after all the food and entertainment were out of the way, the conversation would begin, lubricated by judicious application of wine. Topics of conversation included love, manners, philosophy, poetry — any number of things. The task of the leader of the symposium was to keep the conversation flowing.

In the Gospel reading for today, we have a standard trope of table conversation: how to avoid being shamed at a dinner party. There is nothing particularly remarkable in the first half of Jesus’ advice. Don’t take the highest seat, in case it is reserved for someone else. Sit in the lowest place, and then when your host invites you up higher, you will be honored in the sight of all. Proverbs 25:6-7 says essentially the same thing. This is just good common sense.

Interestingly, Luke calls this teaching a parable. It is instead an aphorism or wisdom teaching. Luke probably knew the difference. Perhaps, because Jesus uses the example of a wedding banquet, instead of speaking directly to the situation, Luke uses “parable” to give a bit of ironic distance.

Where the teaching gets troubling, however, is in Jesus’ advice to his host (and through him to the reader of the Gospel). When you give a banquet, do not invite family, friends, rich neighbors, who can pay you back, but invite instead the beggars, crippled, lame and blind. Our translation makes it seem a little self-interested, “because then you will be blessed, because they can not repay you, and you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Sounds like we’re storing up brownie points. But the word translated “blessed” means instead “honored” or “honorable.” It’s the same word Jesus uses in the Beatitudes: “How honorable are you beggars.”

Eating with beggars, the crippled, the lame and the blind would bring exactly the opposite of honor in a culture in which banquets played such a big role. Your banqueting circle would not want to have anything further to do with you. You might be honored among the beggars, but not among the circles whose honor mattered in maintaining status.

Jesus is turning the honor/shame system on its head, just as he does in the beatitudes, asking us to throw in our lot with the wrong sorts of folks. And the instruction works slowly. If you think about giving a banquet for the beggars, the lame and the blind, you eventually begin to think about the conversation. If you give a banquet for these people, you are going to have to listen to them. What they have to say will have to count as wisdom. That is a frightening prospect.

The Letter to the Hebrews says something similar. Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, because some have entertained angels unawares. The reference is to Abraham and Sarah at the oaks of Mamre. At first it appears that Abraham has what they need, but it turns out they have what Abraham and Sarah need. And the promise to Abraham is for the blessing of all the nations. By listening to those whom we entertain, we may discover God’s blessing for all.

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