Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A dangerous meal

Sermon on Luke 14: 1-11.

Our gospel reading contains seemingly two stories of unrelated events But according to Luke they happened on the same day, in the same place and one after another. In the opening verse Luke tells us the day of the week: a Sabbath but also where they took place: the house of a leader of the Pharisees and finally the occasion: a meal. Presumably the time, the place and the occasion have meaning in relation to the stories, otherwise Luke wouldn’t have bothered with such details and presumably the events are connected in some way – otherwise why put them together.

The first story is about Jesus healing a man of an oedema on the Sabbath and then questioning some of the guests – Pharisees and lawyers - at the meal about the law and what it says about what you should and should not do on the Sabbath. The second story is of a speech Jesus gives at that meal about where you should place yourself when you are invited to a meal: next to the host or down at the foot of the table. What he tells them is a parable.

So in this sermon I want to say some things about the importance of the context for the two stories and then finally something about the connection between them.

First some things about the occasion: the meal. I think this is really important. Well perhaps you would guess that I would say that – given that I am constantly talking about food in sermons. But I still think it is worth pointing out that the context for these stories was a meal and that we are here today to celebrate a meal. The meal that we are here to celebrate is the communion meal and Jesus himself told us how we were to celebrate it. Jesus, in the gospel accounts, has the habit of transforming all sorts of meals into special occasions. To make them more than they might at first seem: just some eating and drinking amongst people with varying degrees of relation to one another.

Of course at the communion meal we mainly remember Jesus’ last meal with his friends in the upper room but we are also invited, I think, to remember all the other meals that are recorded in the gospels: the meal at the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000, the meal that is recorded here and so forth. You can see in the way that Jesus behaved in these meals, including this meal, a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic meal.

In today’s reading Jesus yet again transforms a meal into an extraordinary event. Actually the reading breaks off halfway through the meal and there are other things that happen and are said at this meal which also important to our understanding of what’s going on. In our reading Jesus talks to the guests about being a guest. After this he goes onto talk to the host of the meal about hosting a meal – in particular who to invite to such meal as this one - and finally he talks to one of the guests and tells him the parable of the great banquet – which is of course a direct reference both to the Eucharistic meal and the great Messianic banquet at the end of time. He tells him who God invites and how people are likely to respond to the invitation.

Why Jesus had been invited to today’s meal we are not told. But there are some people there that Jesus has already crossed swords with – Pharisees and lawyers. The Pharisees were – to remind you – generally considered the good guys at that time. And ‘lawyer’ is probably better translated as ‘biblical scholar’. It is not clear that any of Jesus’ friends – the disciples - were there. Moreover the meal Jesus has been invited to is not just an ordinary meal it’s a meal to celebrate the Sabbath – a meal that would have had special foods to celebrate the occasion.

Healing a man at such a meal would have seemed a very odd thing to do. What was this man with an oedema – a sort of painful and unsightly swelling - doing there? Was he a guest? Was he someone Jesus had met on the way and brought with him? Luke doesn’t tell us. He just says the man was there.

At first glance Jesus healing the man with the oedema seems irrelevant to the setting. The man is healed, of course, as a visual representation of Jesus’ message that it’s OK to break the law at times. And he goes on to use the healing to illustrate that teaching and to challenge the Pharisees interpretation of the law. Jesus is not saying that the law is useless. He is not saying for example that the fourth of the Ten Commandments: ‘Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy’ – no longer applies. He is saying I have come to make you think about the Sabbath in a different way.

But I also think he is saying that I have come to make you think of meals in a different way. What were the guests – and indeed the host - to think when a man with an ugly swelling appeared in their midst? Perhaps their first thought would have been: you are putting me off my food, please go away. Jesus however, far from sending him away, heals the man at the meal. Meals he implies are appropriate places to heal people. And this ties in with what he goes on to say to his host about inviting people to meals immediately after today’s reading. He says to him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsman or rich neighbours…but when you give a feast invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind’.

This perhaps should remind us that the Communion meal we are about to celebrate is for everyone and we should not just be making welcome our friends and family but the poor, the disfigured, the disabled.

This context of the meal has a much more obvious bearing on the second story. It’s a useful backdrop to Jesus parable about where to sit when you are invited to a meal. I guess most people there thought about what they’d just done when they’d sat down to eat. I am guessing some would have felt guilty because they did jostle for a position near the host. Some might have also found angry that Jesus was criticising their behaviour. Some might have felt smug that they – on that occasion - had done the right thing and not tried to seat themselves near the most important person.

How many of them would have thought that Jesus was not just talking about behaviour in relation to meals but behaviour in relation to all sorts of other things besides? The ‘plot’ for this parable is what has just happened rather than a fictional tale. Jesus could have begun by saying. The kingdom of God is like this: where people are invited to a marriage feast and do not sit down in the place of honour…’ In this parable Jesus is both challenging the guests to behave differently but also announcing a new way of doing things: the new ways of the Kingdom of God that is both here now and yet to come: the Kingdom of God that is also foreshadowed by the Eucharist.

So the context of these stories is a meal. It’s also a Sabbath meal. This reminds us that it’s a meal to celebrate both the day when creation was over and the day of resurrection. The work of healing is best done on this auspicious day as Jesus demonstrates by his healing of the man with the oedema. But also it makes the meal a special meal. The importance of behaving well at such meal is thereby given extra significance. In the parable Jesus makes the meal even more special by referring to a marriage feast.

Finally the third important thing about the context for these stories is the place. The place for the meal is the house of a leader of the Pharisees. The meals Jesus takes part in in the gospels take place in many different settings: a wedding for the miracle at Cana, the upper room for the last supper, the beach of the Sea of Galilee for the meal of bread and fish after the Resurrection. Most of these meals were with friends but not all. The gospels record other meals with Pharisees. Here the host is a leader of the Pharisees but also Luke tells us that some of the guests were Pharisees and lawyers and that they were watching him to see what he would say or do. So not a cosy meal but a risky sort of meal to be present at. Meals are sometimes uncomfortable, unsettling, challenging occasions.

And note that Jesus does nothing to alleviate the palpable tension in the air. In fact he exacerbates it. He makes them all uncomfortable by healing a sick and unsightly man. He criticises the guests for their behaviour and then turns on the host for his choice of guests!

The presence of enemies – rather than friends - at the meal means that what Jesus does in healing the man with the oedema and telling his parable of where to sit when invited to a meal becomes a challenge – a challenge to the status quo. In healing the man with oedema Jesus is clearly challenging the guests – both friends and foes alike to see the law in a completely different way to that of the Pharisees and lawyers. The parable similarly is not just told to commend humility as a virtue (as the Pharisees might well have done) but something much more radical than that. In particular it is to challenge conventional ideas of status. The last shall be first - the man with oedema shall be healed – but not only that the first shall be last.

So through examining context he connection between the two stories in today’s reading becomes clearer. Jesus news of the kingdom is good news because it turns everything upside down but not just for the sake of it. Ultimately the meal at which Jesus is host – and not just important guest - the communion meal, the Messianic banquet – is and is to be a different sort of meal - a challenge to the conventional. But it is also a foretaste of heaven where everything is put right.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Free will and the Foresight Obesity Map

Dear Ron (my atheist friend)

All I think I can do is reiterate my opinion that I cannot prove that choices are freely willed rather than illusory but I do want to argue that free will is a useful concept because it leads to the idea of responsibility and without a notion of responsibility (and indeed blame) you can’t solve problems that relate to human behaviour. Some of these problems are the ‘big’ problems of our age like global warming, the Afghan War, etc. but here is an example taken from my world – the world of obesity prevention.

To elaborate on what I mean, here is that Foresight Obesity ‘map’ again (right). If I’d chosen the Afghan War as my ‘problem’ but then the relevant map would have been this.

In the Foresight Obesity map there is no box labelled ‘free will’ because it is not in itself a thing which causes things: things which cause things are shown as boxes in the map. But there are lots of ‘points of entry’ for free will even though the authors of the map have seemingly tried to write free will out of the map as much as possible. This is because they were afraid of making obesity a moral problem and think, rather vaguely, that it can be tackled solely as a scientific [deterministic] problem.

Incidentally if I had my way I would have included a box labelled ‘God‘ in the map but that’s because I am a theistic scientist. This would have been just as rational as some of the boxes they have included such as ‘ambient temperature’! How on earth does ambient temperature cause obesity!? They might as well have put ‘God’ there instead.

Whilst there is no box labelled ‘free will’ there is there is a box called ‘psychological ambivalence’ which might be summarised as something like: the type of thinking which leads to people saying ‘For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do.’ {KJV of Romans 7: 15}. This box is in the map because of one particular psychologist and it was in my view given too much weight because he had much too much say over the way the map was drawn!

Causal relationships are shown in the map by the lines connecting boxes. But the authors of the map seem to have no clear idea of what they mean by a causal relationship. For example: do they think that it is just when an event is consistently followed in time by another event (cf Hume)? Clearly not – at least in some cases - see below! Do they really think that ‘ambient temperature’ causes ‘level of thermogenesis’ in any way that is comparable to the way that the ‘social acceptability of fatness’ causes (according to the map) ’peer-pressure’? But more relevant to our discussion: do they think cause can be agency (cf Kant) at least for some of the links? E.g. do they not think anyone is responsible (has freely willed) anything that happens in the map?

I think that different types of causal relationship need a different type of line in the map. And incidentally we CAN put equations to some of the lines. My research group is doing research which quantifies the link between ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’ (an interesting causal relationship because one thing instantly causes the other without any time delay – so not a Humean type of causal relationship at all.)

Naturally most of the lines between boxes are completely independent of free will e.g. the line between ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’ or between ‘level of infections’ and ‘extent of digestion and absorption’. But some of the lines do involve free choices on the part of human agents and should be shown differently.

In the map are boxes with the implied names of agents within them e.g. ‘parental control’ [read parents]’, ‘media availability’ [read journalists, advertising executives, etc.], ‘education’ [read teachers], ‘effort to acquire energy’ [read consumers]. There are not a lot of agents mentioned in this map. Only the vaguest hint of Government ministers or CEOs of food manufacturing firms for example! Oh what a surprise. And agents – where they are mentioned - have been depersonalised as much as possible.

But the mappers can’t get away without referring to agents at all. How could they? Where we have agents we have choices. And where we have choices we have responsibility: a moral responsibility to behave in ways which reduces the problem that is under scrutiny: in this case obesity.

Just a bit of thought would indicate, surely, that you cannot make a map of causality in such a case - a complex problem involving human beings - without any reference to the (moral) choices of those human beings that are supposed to be acting as causal agents in relation to the problem.

So in the Foresight Obesity map when ‘Education [read teachers’] is supposedly a cause of ‘media availability’ [read the output of journalists and advertising executives] what do they mean here? Don’t they mean something like ‘teachers have chosen to educate advertising executives to advertise junk foods to consumers’? (A bit speculative but I can’t see what else they mean).

And when the map suggests that there is a causal relationship between ‘pressure for growth and profitability’ and obesity through e.g. ‘effort to increase consumption’ who do they imagine is responsible for this pressure. Is it like ‘ambient temperature’ and 'education' just a causeless cause of obesity? (Of course I would have the ‘God’ box linked to ambient temperature!)

The whole problem (of obesity) can surely never be explained let alone solved by reference to a model of causality which fails to take account of different types of causal relationship and in particular the difference between relationships which involve inanimate objects and those that involve animate human beings (either as cause or effect).

Relationships between human beings and other human beings (or indeed their relationship with inanimate objects such as food) necessarily involves choice and therefore moral choices. So parents have a choice about how they control their kids, journalists about what type of articles they write, advertising executives about what type of foods they advertise, teachers how they teach their pupils, consumers what they choose to eat, etc.

This is where free will comes in. I do think it is important to measure and compare this responsibility (perhaps not in the same way as you can quantify the relationship between say ‘fibre content of food and drink’ and ‘nutritional quality of food and drink’) but otherwise where do you start in tackling the problem. Rather too much of the Foresight Obesity map is – to my mind - focused on the consumer (who for example appears in the centre of the map if not by name) and therefore it implicitly makes the consumer the problem to focus on in relation to obesity. You cannot get away from apportioning responsibility whether you like it or not.

The Foresight Obesity map, lauded by some as persuading the British Government to acknowledge that obesity is not just a function of the moral choice of consumers, goes too far in trying (in vain) to remove the moral dimension to the obesity crisis. Fundamentally obesity IS a a result of greed, not just on our part (those of us who are obese) but of all those who contribute to the crisis and that’s virtually everyone.

This started as a reply in a conversation at