28 August 2016
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17C (RCL)
Psalm 81:1, 10-16
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14
This passage from Jeremiah lays out the sin of the people in vivid terms; they have exchanged the spring of living water for cisterns they have made themselves, and cracked cisterns at that. God has led them into a plentiful land, not a land of deserts and pits. The juxtaposition of life, and water, and abundance over against dryness, drought and famine runs throughout the passage. Alongside this juxtaposition is a second one: of dependence on the goodness of God over against a mistaken self-reliance. The prophet equates worshiping the Baals with an attempt to manipulate nature for one’s own ends. Throughout the prophets, this is connected with the corruption of the monarchy.
The monarchy had been founded as a protection for those without a spokesman, for the widowed and orphaned; those who didn’t have the protection of clan. Instead the monarchy had become an end in itself, leaving those without protection dispossessed as well. The rules of guarding the abundance of the land had included protections for those at the edges; not gleaning fields to the edge, the forgiveness of debt every seven years, and the return of patrimony every forty nine years. The practice of sacrifice was to include these safeguards. The monarchy had corrupted sacrifice as a display of wanton consumption, and gathered up the best of the lands and flocks for that display.
The theme of the prophets is taken up in the reading from Hebrews. The practice of hospitality (philoxenia as opposed to xenophobia) recalled when Israel had been foreigners themselves. The rules of the thanksgiving sacrifice required the inclusion of the widow, the orphan and the alien, “for you were aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” The letter to the Hebrews connects this same idea with the idea of suffering with those who are suffering: remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them.
It is this solidarity with the dispossessed that characterizes the gospel message. Jesus gives an instruction (rather than tells a parable) about not choosing the highest place at a banquet. Judith Viorst might say the very same thing in our day and age. This is nothing particularly radical. It is Jesus’ instruction to his host that turns things upside down. When you give a banquet, do not invite your friends, you brothers, your relatives or your rich neighbors, but the poor, the lame, the crippled.
The exchange of hospitality was all of a piece with the exchange of honor. An invitation to a banquet was an honor that must be repaid, either by a return invitation of by a favor granted. While there might be small discrepancies of status between host and guest, this exchange happened between those who had reasonable expectation of returning the favor. Client and benefactor were never very far apart on the social scale.
To invite the poor, the cripple, the blind and the lame signified that one identified oneself on their social plane. This would have been a great shame among one’s friends. One would have to be ready to accept whatever currency the poor and the blind and the lame could use to repay. It completely disrupts the definition of honor and shame, and the understanding of friendship and community. One will be repaid (presumably by those one has invited) at the resurrection of the just. This means that it is the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame who will be there at the resurrection of the just. What currency do we exchange in our communities? What currencies are we willing to accept?