Come up higher

September 1, 2019; Twelfth 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.

One of the real potentials for embarrassment when visiting another culture is transgressing the rules of precedence. Several times on my visits to Lui in South Sudan, I found myself having made a faux pas. On one occasion, we were dining with Archbishop Daniel at the Mundri Cathedral, in the payat outside. We had entered the payat and taken our places. The archbishop came in and sat opposite the doorway, and then invited one of our party, literally, to come up higher. We all had to rearrange the seating pattern to make this happen.

It was clear that we, in the payat, were the most important people present, as we received the first food (and the best). Another time, at Lozoh, we were sitting in the payat (and I had taken the position closest to the door – the lowest position), and a young woman entered on her knees, and (I thought) offered us water. I already had a water bottle so I declined (how do you accept water from a woman on her knees?). She moved to the next person, who proceeded to wash his hands in the water she poured over. Knowing that hand washing before meals is absolutely essential, I had to have her come back and wash my hands.

Jesus, of course, knows the rules of precedence for a meal in his own culture, but he invites his listeners to break them intentionally, by taking a place lower than they could assume they deserved. This could potentially be humiliating, if the host did not invite them up higher. But better to have assumed humiliation for yourself than to have it thrust on you by your host.

And then he suggests that when we give a dinner party, we should not invite those who can pay us back — breaking all the rules. The world runs on the gift economy, the economy of honor and shame. The reason we invite people to dinner is we owe them something, or hope to obligate them somehow. That’s how friendship works. A good friendship is a lifetime of building up “I’ll catch you next time” and “Don’t worry about it” with favors. What favor can the poor possibly do for us? Jesus wants us to answer that question in ways we never considered.

God is upset with Israel, because they have forgotten what God did for them. They have assumed, in the long course of prosperity, that they did all this for themselves, that they are self-made. That is always our temptation – to think we are self-made. Another thing my travels to South Sudan have showed me is that we simply won the birth lottery. Our climate, our soil, and the resources of this land have made it possible for us to enjoy a standard of living not known elsewhere, and then to impose our desires on others, so that resources flow here. We didn’t do any of this for ourselves – we got lucky.

Jesus tells us we will be repaid in the resurrection of the just. That raises the question, “What is the currency in the resurrection of the just? How will we be repaid? What counts as valuable in the resurrection?” We should be looking for that now. Inviting the poor, the blind, the lame means accepting what they have to offer as payment. That’s an entirely different economy.

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