Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- The ancient world was a society of ‘honour’ and ‘precedent’, one in which everyone knew their place in the pecking order, and woe betide the upstart who stepped out of line and pushed his way into prominence over and above his ‘betters’. Indeed so divided was society, that even seating in the amphitheatres, theatres, or at the Games, were carefully delineated. The seating for the elite in such venues would have been carefully marked off by decorative seat ends, and those sitting in the best seats would have had their slaves bring cushions and throws as well as food and drink. We know that this segregation extended to dinner engagements in the houses of the elite. Their real friends might well be entertained in small rooms and served much superior food and drink to those clients of varying degrees for whom such events could be an exercise in humiliation – as we see in the excoriating Satire V of Juvenal. Such events served many purposes, and one at least was precisely to emphasise the power of the rich and powerful over their dependents and others. Far from being simply events of communality, of coming together, all of these minglings of different classes also highlighted in excruciating clarity their differences, and maintained the status quo.
In Luke’s Gospel we meet Jesus at two dinners with wealthy Pharisees, ours today is the second (14:1.7-14). In both, Jesus quite deliberately takes the Pharisee to task. The earlier one (7:36) is where the woman anoints Jesus with costly ointment and her tears, in contrast to the host who deliberately snubs him. In today’s example, Jesus uses the issue of seating precedence as a parable of the kingdom. Our Reading has omitted the related healing of the man with dropsy in the house of the Pharisee and on the Sabbath. This juxtaposition brings a stark clarity to the situation. Jesus has just healed a man with a serious and debilitating disorder – a true sign of the Kingdom of God – and there people are jealously sizing up their personal clout in the dash for the most important seats for a meal, with someone who saw himself as highly influential in the local community of the Jewish devout. Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisee is truly ground breaking in its radical rejection of the social conventions encapsulated in power and place in society. True to his mission, he suggests that real greatness, even God-like generosity, would better be demonstrated by the negation of convention in favour of giving dinners which were offered to the socially outcast, the unclean crippled, lame and blind. In short, as Jesus remarks, it is precisely because these people can never compete on the social scale, or ever pass as real ‘friends’ that they are the very means by which a truly virtuous man can get into heaven. Giving to them would be truly altruistic.
Today we view such passages solely in terms of do-gooding, and fail to perceive their truly radical and ground breaking nature, and hence their power as Parables of the Kingdom in which we can see and measure our total dissimilarity from our Creator and Redeemer God, who has thrown away everything for love of us. Those of us familiar with the way in which the account progresses will be aware of just how precisely Jesus puts the boot-in, relentlessly refusing to let the matter drop, and shaking social convention to its very roots. We ought to be made acutely uncomfortable by this Gospel, for it is rare, I suspect, for most of us to open our homes to social outcasts.
The Letter to the Hebrews (12:18-19.22-24) continues this theme of radical difference, in this case that between the Jewish faith and that of those who were converting to Christianity from Judaism. It begins by taking the believers right back to their earliest origins in Judaism, to moments when Israel first encountered God. Some of those occasions would not have been very dissimilar from those of their pagan fellow countrymen, who met their gods in storm and earthquake, and worshipped them in the mountains of Syria and the Lebanon. We all recall the stories of similar encounters with God by people on the Exodus, or the great meeting of the prophet Elijah with God in 1 Kings. The writer of Hebrews is at pains to emphasise that faith in Christ guarantees something of an entirely different order, one in which everyone is now “A first-born son.. and a citizen of heaven.” This vision is light years away from the earlier understanding of God, met in fear, in a “Blazing fire, or a gloom turning to total darkness, or a storm.” Instead, the believers are invited to God’s great banquet, the place in which they truly belong, and are accorded full rights and an honoured place in society. At this great festival there will be no second or third class citizens, and no one can expect to be humiliated, or have to cow-tow to others of superior rank; for every one of us will be treated like a “First born son”, someone to be cherished, adored and gloried in by God himself.
It is then, all the more interesting that Ben Sirach or Ecclesiasticus (3:17-18.20.28-29) whose words of wisdom were published by his grandson in the 2nd century BC should write as he does. The work come from a period of his residence in Egypt, significantly also a place of great social discrimination between the classes, by then ruled by the Ptolemy’s – heirs of Alexander the Great. Egypt was deemed to be a place of great culture and learning, with famous libraries in Alexandria, yet Ben Sirach advises that the path to true wisdom and greatness lies in humility, gentleness and the willingness to learn from others, rather than overbearing attitudes or the pursuit of power. Significantly this book was not included in the Jewish Canon, though it has found its way into the Christian one which insistently teaches and worships one who ‘emptied himself’ of his divinity to become like a slave and suffer and die for our salvation. This surely means that the God of ultimate power, who shares his own nature with us, has no other desire than that we too take on his form, that of the total self-gift to others of all that he is.