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.

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