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First, Jesus is a guest at a dinner party. In the ancient middle east, the importance of the table was exponentially greater than in our world today because the gathering and preparation of food was the day's primary task. In fact, in Arabic the root word for bread and life is the same (esh). (1) Even so, even in our fast food world, important things still happen when people gather for dinner. Table talk provides a forum for friends and families to catch up on the events in the lives of one another. At the dinner table, we teach our children manners. At the table we hear the stories that bind us together as immediate family, larger community, even as a nation. We are told what is expected of us. We learn the family secrets that are to be shared with no one outside our circle. Table conversation has a long history laden with religious, social, and psychological meaning. (2) Is it any wonder that as the family of God we gather for worship around the table?
Second, notice that the meal here takes place at the home of a Pharisee. In our generation the Pharisees have gotten a terrible reputation - rigid, legalistic, and down-right mean-spirited in their confrontations with Jesus. But this was a very important religious group in Jesus' time. Phariseeism began as a religious movement among Jews living outside of Palestine. As sojourners in foreign lands the Hebrew people needed a way to maintain their religious identity. They could not regularly attend worship at the great Temple in Jerusalem. They rubbed elbows daily with those who did not know Yahweh, their God. They had to find a way to keep themselves together as the Chosen People of God. The Pharisees response to the threat of cultural dilution was to say, "We will maintain our Jewish identity by keeping Torah, the Hebrew Law. Even when we live among non-believers, we will keep our religion and ourselves pure. Even when the military powers of this world enslave us, we will remain God's people." By faithfulness to Torah, the observant Jew could say, "I know who I am, and the world knows who we are: we are the ones who keep God's Law." At a time when most other cultures were being lost to Roman ways of thinking and doing, the Pharisees offered a method for maintaining Jewish identity. (3)
Third, this dinner party at the home of a Pharisee takes place on the Sabbath. Keeping this holy day for rest and worship was central to Jewish differentiation from the surrounding Roman culture. Jewish law had developed 270 different regulations to assist the faithful in keeping the Sabbath. These rules governed the most minute details of what one was permitted and not permitted to do from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. To the Pharisees these rules were essential. Jewish identity as the chosen people of God was bound up in keeping these Sabbath rules.
Fourth, Luke tells us that the Pharisees kept a suspicious eye on Jesus at this dinner party. We should expect that. Jesus was, for the most part, an unknown quantity. There had been lots of "press" about this Nazarene, lots of word on the street, but who and what is he REALLY? "Is he one of us? Is he going to help or hurt our efforts to keep Jewish identity pure? We need to know."
"One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched." What does he do upon arrival? He heals a man and immediately creates a controversy. Healing is work, as any doctor or nurse will attest, and good Jews are not supposed to work on the Sabbath. They call Jesus on it. He responds, "If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?" They have no answer for that, so they begin to take their places in preparation for the meal. Jesus does not spend time with this crowd, but he has been invited because, as we say, he has been in the news lately. The local religious blue bloods want to check him out. And after this healing incident prior to sitting down (or reclining actually - that is the way they ate), the "careful watching" would have intensified.
Suddenly, Jesus brings up an etiquette issue - "place cards." What? With all the big issues out there like poverty and oppression, he is concerned with etiquette? Apparently. He talks about how embarrassing it is to take one of the preferred seats at the table only to have a more important person come along and "bump" you into a less prestigious location. It's as if you've been invited to State Dinner at the White House, prepare to take your place at the head table right next to Laura Bush, and are quietly told that, no, your seat is back in the back, with the hoi polloi and the reporters. So embarrassing! Jesus says, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Yeah, we buy that.
The people of Jesus' time were like people of every generation. They wanted to know, "What gives my life meaning?" The Pharisees answered by saying, "Our lives have meaning because God has a covenant with us. We are the chosen people of God. We stay faithful to God by the careful observance of the Hebrew Law. When we keep the religious law, God is pleased with us and the world knows we are the chosen people of God."
Jesus answered that "meaning" question in a different way. He understood the special relationship Jews had with God: God's "chosen people." However, Jesus insists that God has a special relationship with ALL of creation, and ALL are God's family. We keep faith with our family membership, not simply by observing the law, but by loving one another. (4)
Our lesson ends with a wonderful suggestion of how to show that love. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind to dinner. Or to move that to a more contemporary idiom, the illegal immigrant, the middle eastern student, the AIDs victim - in other words, the people we good folks would normally shy away from. Hmm. Actually, this cast of characters that Jesus identifies hardly even rates the designation of "humble" people - in many cases, they were actually outcasts and outlaws, and according to the law, such people were not even legally permitted to go into God's holy presence. (5) But Jesus, by this extended invitation, is saying that God is looking for more than just the healthy and whole and clean and beautiful. Indeed, the humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. Hmm, again.
Truth be told, what some of us hear as a grim warning, others will hear as good news. Which is it for you? Ponder that as you come to the Table.
1. Tim Condor, "Table Manners," The Christian Century, 8/21/07, p. 18
2. Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 175
3. R. Robert Cueni, "Divine Dinner Party Decorum," in Sermons On The Gospel Readings, Series I, Cycle C, (Lima, OH : CSS Publishing, 2003), pp. 303-308
5. Leviticus 21:17-23