29 August 2010Luke 14:1-14
"For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (v.11)
This is a Sunday dinner with an atmosphere you could cut with a
knife, and a fuse that seems about to blow any second (apart from
the fact that it was actually a Saturday!) Jesus is apparently
surrounded by enemies who remain eerily silent throughout the whole
meal. His observance of the rules surrounding the Jewish Sabbath
was being carefully scrutinised and often attracted
At the start of this passage Jesus takes the initiative and puts a question to those who were typically his accusers. He had been invited to a Sabbath meal at the house of a leading Pharisee, along with several others who were involved in interpreting the Jewish law. We might imagine it was a rather lavish affair. And in the midst of this party was a man with dropsy (an abnormal accumulation of fluid beneath the skin or in a bodily cavity). So was it lawful to heal the man on the 'day of rest' Jesus asked his fellow diners? His subsequent actions answered his own question with a definite yes. And then he points out that they really shouldn't have given the question a second thought: they'd help a child or an animal "immediately" if they fell into trouble.
Merciful acts are, of course, permitted by the Law, which is meant to help people. The Gospel-writer Luke doesn't dwell on the healing itself - "Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away" ... as simple as that! Instead, Luke seems to be focusing more on the rising suspicion and antagonism which is building in the overall story.
When it came to the meal itself, the Jews had seating arrangements which may seem strange and rather intimate to us today. They would recline on couches, each person resting on his left elbow, leaving the right hand free to eat with. Each couch would consist of three people and be arranged in a U-shape around the table, which would be low to the ground. The place of honour was at the centre base of the 'U', and the closer you were to this the more important you were deemed to be. In each group of three, the guests would be in close contact with each other, one person's head resting on another's bosom. Presumably, once they were set, if someone was asked to move then half of the table would be disrupted! Imagine the embarrassment from the guests when all the seats have been taken and, snuggled up to each other, Jesus points out the undignified way they've grabbed the best seats.
But Jesus doesn't stop at the seating arrangements. What about the guest list itself? They were a party of 'religious' people consisting of only the elite, despite numerous prophets from the Hebrew Scriptures outlining God's anger at how the wealth of religion has ignored the poor, the disabled, the widows and the orphans. The hosts are inviting only those who will repay their hospitality.
Jesus points out that there is actually no true generosity in giving to people who will only do the same for you. Repayment for truegenerosity comes after this life.
Was Jesus really interested in table manners, or was he pointing out something deeper about people trying to get themselves noticed by God? How were the Pharisees apparently doing this? Is this really what the gospel life is all about?
In Jesus' day, it was common to believe that those who were well trained and well off were superior to the poor and less-well-educated, even in God's eyes. How much do we see these attitudes today? Even in the Church?
Jesus points out that if we give to those who can't pay us back then we have truly given. When (at Christmas, for example) we exchange gifts of roughly the same value with our family, friends or colleagues, are we actually giving anything at all?