Sunday, September 02, 2007

2 September 2007

Luke 14

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

I have a rule of thumb around reading: if I see a book quoted by three or four or more authors, I read the book. The latest example is Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” a look at social trends in the United States, and in particular the state of community or “social capital.” These things are measured and studied in depth, but Putnam has assembled all the studies and surveys into a single volume. Here are a few examples on the topic of eating:

In the last two decades, the amount of entertaining at home dropped by 45 percent. The decline is so sharp, that if trends continue, the entire practice of entertaining at home will cease. The evening meal? Down by a third in the last 20 years. So, if we are eating at home less, and entertaining at home less, perhaps there has been a shift to restaurants. Not based on statistics. The number of “full-service” restaurants in America has dropped by 25 percent in 20 years, the number of bars and luncheonettes by 50 percent. People are not having picnics either: they are off by 60 percent (pp. 98-102).

After 130 pages, I have to say I’m a little depressed. The ties that bind people to each other are declining and ending, and I wish I could assure you that it is limited to south of the border, but I cannot. But I’m going to keep reading, and the subtitle of the book would indicate there is some hope coming, so stay tuned. I have joined the chorus of people quoting “Bowling Alone.”

Eating, of course, is at the centre of our experience of being human. We think about food all the time, at least three times a day. If we’re not actually eating a meal, we’re just as likely to be planning a meal, or thinking back to a meal we’ve enjoyed. Some of us have others to feed, while others feed only themselves. Alone or with others, we cannot avoid the need to eat.

Taking the long view, eating has always been a primary pre-occupation of humans, and most agree that it is the very foundation of society. Years ago I read a very convincing article that suggested that the foundational impulse of agriculture was the production of beer. The discovery of beer was the push needed to get our forebears in the Nile Delta to get it together and cooperate on farming. Now, whether you can accept the “beer theory” human development or not, it seems clear that at some point food production (and the eating that followed) became a key factor in the formation of human society.

Key enough, that the study of eating unlocks much of what we can know about a people. From a couple of anthropologists named Farb and Armelogos, we get this:

In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…Once the anthropologists finds out where, when and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members (Crossan, p. 68).

Looking back at “Bowling Alone” for a minute, I wonder what future anthropologists will make of the fact that at the same moment family meals and conventional restaurants were in sharp decline, the number of fast food places doubled. Hold that thought.

Jesus, the first and best anthropologist, said this:

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

He was describing what future scholars would call food exchanges, “a series of obligations to give, receives and repay (p. 69). As anyone who has ever planned a significant meal or event will tell you, there are layers and layers of thinking involved:

Should we invite them? We were invited to their party. Where should we seat them? Can we put the second and third cousins at the back? We can’t serve chicken; everyone serves chicken. Where should we seat the minister? Surely someone on the list must go to church…we’ll put him with them.

You get the picture. Jesus understood the politics of food and meal planning and knew that the primary motive for issuing invitations was quid pro quo. We become obligated. We seek to create obligation with certain people, and avoid it with others. We tend to share our table with people just like us. The United States was 125 years old before an African-American was invited to dine at the White House. The name White House seems no accident. 36 years after the end of slavery, Booker T. Washington, leader and former slave was invited to dine with then-president Theodore Roosevelt.

When we imagine the people with whom we want to share a meal, we naturally begin with family, and then neighbour (usually our economic equals). Jesus takes this further and adds the people better off, and more likely to repay in style. Call him cynical, but as first and best anthropologist Jesus knew that our selfish impulses usually in out. This might go some way to explain his waning popularity. Jesus knew that comfort and selfish desire win over generosity and selflessness every time.

But he was persistent. And maybe a little rude. He is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (a social promotion for a humble Nazarene) and decides that this is the moment to share a couple of parables that would condemn most of the people at the party. “Thanks for the invite” he said, “but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

Not only does he suggest we reject the principle of “inviting up,” he goes much further and suggests that we invite the least desirable people in society, the people that his hosts though were rejected by God. Remember the question “who sinned, this man or his parents that he be born blind?” There is an entire theological worldview in this one simple question. God punishes sin, according to this view, and the secret to understanding any misfortune is simply determining the source of the sin. Jesus couldn’t disagree more.

God’s kingdom, and the table in that kingdom, is long and eclectic, populated by exactly the people Jesus describes. God doesn’t enumerate sinners and bar the door; God opens the table to everyone, casting aside both the idea of desirable and undesirable and severing the link between misfortune and sin. God’s blessing is extended to those who model their table after the divine table, making invitations precisely because the people invited are in no position to repay.

Most often I leave the “so what” to you. Introduce a bunch of ideas and trust that you will make the practical application part happen. For today, however, I feel compelled to look closer and think about our church home. Clearly, we are a church that serves the poor, but are we a church for the poor? What would it look like if we made such a transition? What is a “church for the poor?” Is this political, extending food help to being food activists? Is it opening the doors in a new way, extending our fellowship? Many of the people we serve are neither Protestant nor even Christian, but some are.

The table is a primary symbol of our faith, and one that requires constant discipline and contemplation. We are continually being called to open the table, and to discern what this means. May God help us as we do this work. Amen.


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