Where Shall I Sit?
Readings: Jer 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Heb 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 3 14:1, 7-14
Some party guest Jesus is! He is invited for the Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee, obviously of high standing in the community. His first act on arriving is to heal a man. Remember! It is the Sabbath! To add insult to injury, on seeing the raised eyebrows and silent looks of disapproval at his action, he puts the host’s guests on the spot. He has noticed them vying for the place of honour at the dinner party. Who is going to sit nearest the head table? Who will catch the eye of the hosts? At last everyone is seated. They are waiting for some pleasantries from the host. Instead they hear the voice of Jesus, calm but authoritative, as he reminds them of their manners.
“When you are invited to a party,” he tells them, “don’t demand the best place. Take the lowest place. Otherwise when someone really important comes along you may find that you have lost your spot. Wait to be invited to come to the head table,” he tells them. Jesus is certainly recalling his vision of God’s realm where the last will be first and the first last.
How embarrassed they must have felt as they heard the truth of Jesus’ words! How resentful! How furious! Wouldn’t you love to hear the conversation as they made their way home? “What a radical that Jesus is!” I can hear them saying. “Who gave him the right to judge us?”
And as if that isn’t enough, he then takes on the host. He contradicts the ‘me first’ attitude of his guests. “When you have a dinner party, don’t invite important people simply to get repaid. Invite the poor and the needy. Invite the ones who cannot repay you. Invite the ones who really need it.” How angry the host must have felt! Here you invite a guest into your home, you wine and dine him, and then he turns on you and calls you a hypocrite.
So what are we to make of this story? After all, it is addressed to a very different culture with very different ideas of good manners. Is Jesus touting himself as the Amy Vanderbilt of Jerusalem? Is he giving advice on how to behave in polite company? What are we with our 21st Century mores to make of this story? Does it have any bearing at all in our lives.
There is much in this story that speaks to the kind of society in which we live. Ads and marketing strategies lead us to strive for the best items. We want the latest fads. We wouldn't be caught dead in anything less than designer labels. We want our children to go to the right schools.
While Jesus is speaking to a different culture, there is still some of the same thinking even within the Christian church. Where do people in our churches seek honour? It isn't unknown for someone to actually switch churches to be amongst people who can help them get ahead in business. Within many churches there is a ‘pecking’ order. In one parish in which I was serving, an elderly parishioner came in a little late one Sunday. The procession was already forming in the narthex. She came back out and confronted me. “A family is sitting in my pew!”
“The church is rather full today,” I said to her, and then turned to one of the sidespeople and asked them to help her find a seat. The service began. As I walked up the aisle behind the choir I realized that she was sitting alone in “her” pew. An entire family new to the parish had been moved to chairs at the back of the church. That was her place of honour. She was not about to give it up to these newcomers.
We are called as Christians to hold on to the higher values that are so easily lost in time and society. It is true of all times, but most particularly, I suspect of our own. It is startling to hear that message speaking so clearly to us from scripture. There is Jesus, friend of outcasts and sinners, reminding us that love of God and love of neighbour transcend any other law.
The same concerns are voiced in the other readings. Jeremiah questions the values and standards of his society. Like Jesus, he is either very courageous or really crazy. He begins by challenging the priests for not pressing the people to follow the faith. He then challenges the lawyers for the way they handle the law. He takes on the politicians for their lack of action. Finally he goes after the other prophets of his day. He makes enemies in every sector of society. I suspect that if one is going to truly transform society then it is a necessary step in making change.
In our own society as in that of Jeremiah we see the erosion of long-held values and beliefs. Social norms concerning family and community have changed. Consider the impact of infrastructures like the web on society. We now live in a global economy where a few individuals control most of the world’s wealth. Nations are financially interdependent. We live in a society that is dependent on consumerism. We need to ask the question that Jeremiah was asking. “Are these new ‘gods’ really viable, or are they ‘no gods’?
It is a question that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews may very well have been asking. He offers a list of what it means to live the way God wants us to. He lists the essentials for living in community; mutual love, hospitality, remembering those in prison and those being tortured, holding marriage in honour, being content with what you have, remembering your leaders, and finally doing good and sharing what you have. It is a practical list, far more about our actions and behaviour as Christians than it is about our faith.
It gives us a pretty clear picture of what life in a Christian community should be like. It should be a community where there is empathy one towards another. We need to support one another in faith. We need to be a welcoming and caring community. We need to understand that while wealth is not wrong, to reduce life and love and loyalty to money considerations is. Material things can become gods for us until they are ‘no gods’.
All of this strikes home about our hypocritical society. Jeremiah is not simply speaking about the people of Israel spurning the generosity of God and pursuing worthless goals. Jesus is not just a radical voice speaking out against the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. These are contemporary voices speaking to us across the ages about the way we live. Like the Hebrews we need radical guidelines about how to live as Christians in a secular world. Are we taking the best seats in the banquet hall while the rest of humanity goes uninvited?
Well! You may say to me. That is why we pay taxes. We are caring for the sick and the poor, the crippled and the blind. How much are we willing to lift the barriers that prohibit the poor of our communities and the world from sharing all the benefits that we enjoy?
Jesus, friend of outcasts and sinners, offers justice which goes far beyond the demands of society. It is a gospel that turns the tables on the actions of the most just person in society. We see such a call displayed in the lives of modern day saints like Jean Vanier of the L'arche community where mentally challenged adults lead productive lives in an open and inclusive community. We see it in work done on our behalf in our community. The workers at the Dam are advocates for marginalized youth in our area. How privileged we are to have that kind of ministry going on at our very doorstep! There is the Eden Community Foodbank, which we support with our donations.
What about our own work in the community? What do we do to invest in relationships and causes that are not self-serving? How open is our church? Are we welcoming? Are we just as welcoming to those in need as we are to those who have much? Are we welcoming to everybody? What issues of justice should we as a faith community be tackling? Are there homeless in our midst? Are there those who go hungry? What of the refugees in our community? What are their needs? Are we welcoming of people regardless of their sexual orientation? How do we deal with the issues that our beloved Anglican Church faces? How do we become advocates of change?
The worst thing we can do is to think that we cannot be agents of change, that we cannot do anything about it. We can respond to the needs of others with the same generosity with which God deals with us. We can be the ones who volunteer time and talent on behalf of the marginalized. We can be the calm, authoritative voice of Jesus at the dinner party naming the hypocrisy of our society. As one person quite rightly pointed out, “When we are loved by a loving Creator then it really doesn’t matter where we sit, or even if we have a chair.”
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