Materials for Worship on the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Nerys writes: As many of you are aware, I’m just back from another visit to Wales. On my long journeys by train, there’s nothing I like better to pass the time that to watch the people around me and notice their behaviour. Jesus was a great people-watcher as we see from today’s Gospel passage, Luke 14.1, 7-14. Jesus had probably been invited to that Sabbath meal so that his actions and his thinking could be scrutinised by the religious leaders of that particular village. But as Luke’s narrative unfolds, the watchers become the watched and the occasion is used by Jesus for some many-layered teaching which is just as challenging to us today as it was over two thousand years ago.

As Jesus had been brought up in the same culture and tradition as his fellow-guests, they would naturally have expected him to think and reason in the same way as they did. But, even before the first course is served, Jesus deliberately provokes them by healing a sick man, having first challenged them to say whether this was permitted on the Sabbath or not. In response to their stony silence, Jesus turns the tables on them with the fruits of his people-watching. He had noticed how they had been jostling for the best positions at the table so he gives them what seems on the surface to be some practical advice, the kind of advice found in traditional Jewish wisdom, on how to avoid social embarrassment.

In Jesus’ day, the giving and receiving of invitations to formal meals was an important way of advancing or protecting your position in society. If the dining room was ordered according to the classic Roman style, as many of the fine houses in Galilee and Judea were at this time, there would have been a strict protocol about who sat where. The most honoured guest, chosen according to their wealth, power or office, would be invited to recline to the right of the host, the next to the left and so on down to the last place at the far end of the table. As it was the custom for the more important guests to arrive at the last minute, there would have been a very real chance of someone more worthy than you arriving after you. Then you would be asked to move down to an empty space at the other end of the table to sit among the least honourable of the guests.

Jesus’ advice to his companions at the table is to choose to take that lowest place and see what happens rather than hustle for the highest position and risk being shamed. He then turns to the host with another, even more radical proposition. Instead of inviting those who can repay you with a similar banquet, he suggests, welcome in those who can’t give you anything in return, those who would usually be excluded from your social circle.

We are not told how his host and fellow-guests responded to these words but they appear to have been calculated to cause as much embarrassment as possible. It is obvious, though, that what Jesus says isn’t just about etiquette but that he is speaking in parables. I wonder to what extent the religious people among whom he was sitting at the meal understood the much harsher criticism of them that lay behind this teaching on table manners?

Just as they scrambled to achieve a place of honour at the feast, these Scribes and Pharisees also sought to gain status before God through their own efforts, imagining that they were superior in God’s sight to those, like the poor man who’d just been healed, who weren’t able to learn or keep God’s law. The irony is that these men through their learning, would have been familiar with the idea of the great banquet at the end of time where God will invite people from all the nations of the world to dine with him. Down the centuries their teachers had reframed the Prophet Isaiah’s beautiful vision of salvation into a meal where only pious Jews who meticulously observed God’s law would be allowed to attend. As a result, they spent their lives seeking to secure for themselves a place of honour at that feast by maintaining their own religious purity and condemning those who were forced to live differently because of poverty or disability.

They would have expected Jesus who was from the same tradition as them, to agree with their reinterpretation of Isaiah’s dream. Imagine their reaction as Jesus presents to them through his words and actions a very different view of God’s kingdom which will include not only foreigners of all kinds but also the untouchables of their own communities! It is no wonder that they were watching him so closely.

Some of Luke’s first readers would also have been challenged by this teaching of Jesus. In the Early Church, many Christians from a Jewish background found it difficult to welcome non-Jewish believers as equals before God. There were also wealthy Christians like those in Corinth who had to be reminded by Paul to put aside their social superiority when they came for communion because one day the tables will be turned. One day, the first will be last and the last will be first. This warning rings clear throughout the Gospels. From Mary’s words in the Magnificat to Jesus’ words to the penitent thief on the cross, there are repeated promises to those who are poor, downtrodden, excluded and exploited and threats to those who are powerful, rich and smugly religious.

Today’s passage from the Letter to the Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, spells out what life in a community of believers should be like. It is to be marked by mutual self-giving love which extends to the offering of a warm welcome and generous hospitality to all those who come to us in need. This was not an easy or even a natural thing to do for those early Christians. It certainly goes against the culture of the society we live in today. But as the author of the letter has reminded us, Jesus the Messiah is the same, yesterday, today and for ever. He is not just a memory, but a living presence in our life and he will support us as we are called to imitate him in his humility and his inclusivity.

As you pray today for eyes to see others as Jesus did, to recognise each person in need as God’s beloved child and to respond to them with generosity and love, you may wish to reflect on this joyful painting above of the poor being welcomed to the feast from the Jesus Mafa project.