Sunday, 28 August 2016

Trinity 14 - There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch?

Luke 14.1.7-14 & Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16

In our gospel reading today we heard that Jesus went to lunch with a Pharisee. The Pharisees were very particular in observing Jewish law especially those around washing and eating, their preference was to share with other Pharisees who understood and observed their customs so we immediately question why Jesus was allowed to join one of their leading people for a meal. It doesn’t seem likely that they thought Jesus would be good company as a friend, after all they have criticised him and questioned his authority before this event so perhaps they want to get Jesus into their private space, on their turf, where things are done their way and the ‘pecking order’ is well understood by all in attendance. When you think about it we too have all sorts of rituals and expectations about dining in certain settings. Perhaps some business lunches are motivated by similar intentions to the Pharisees, aimed at finding out more about someone or their organisation, whether there are shared commercial interests or opportunities for collaboration, whether we even like the people and their ethics enough to work with them. Then there are wedding receptions, it’s often a nightmare when you are limited on numbers and have to not invite someone you know expects and invitation, I’m sure some people are mischievous with the seating arrangements, sitting someone opposite their 'Ex' or putting all the small children with a grumpy uncle. As host this is in your control, and when it comes to the top table that’s for the bride, groom and their important people only. In the ‘Journey with Jesus’ online article this week we are told how in India, some decades ago, rules of hospitality dictated that ‘men of God’ ate first, much to the frustration of a young boy eager for his lunch. Elders and preachers from his church often showed up for dinner at his home without warning, and after waiting for curry and rice to be cooked over a wood stove the 4 year old boy found it too much to bear as he watched these self-important people eat their fill while he waited. After visiting the kitchen on numerous occasions to see if it was his turn yet he finally lost it shouting ‘Get out, hurry up and leave so that I can eat.’ You can imagine that his parents would have been highly embarrassed but there’s a hint of Jesus teaching in this as the little, apparently unimportant person now cannot be ignored. Luke tells us that the Pharisees were watching Jesus closely when he came to eat with them. It seems that they also were being mischievous with the seating arrangements and keen to see where he would chose to sit or at least which couch he would gravitate towards as this would give clues as to how importantly he ranked himself in the order of guests. You can just imagine his host eagerly waiting for him to join the other guests jostling for position. It helps to consider that even to enter the dining area of a socially important man was quite something. Before getting here potential guests would need to pass through other spaces in the building which separated the room from the street, a sort of screening process to avoid unwanted guests. Diners would recline on couches with cushions to support them in a slightly upright position. The formal dining area was called the Triclinium (meaning three couches), the term was used to describe both the separate banquet room and the arrangement therein. The 3 couches were arranged to form a ‘U’ shape around an open area often decorated with elaborate mosaics upon which sat a table to which food was served. The 3 couches had strict designations as to who would sit where, the host and guest of honour always at the adjoining end of two of the couches with other spaces allocated according to the importance of the guest. Slaves or servants would never use the couches, never recline to eat, but usually stand or sit on the floor. With this knowledge we start to see that this is unlikely to be a generous invitation to share a meal and much more a reinforcement of the status of the elite and an opportunity to work out where Jesus saw himself fitting into all this. Over and again in the bible people come to Jesus with questions about importance and hierarchy and he refuses to even answer on their terms. This occasion was no different as Jesus refuses to play to the script that the Pharisees hoped for and turns the situation on its head. Jesus is not interested in their, or our, hierarchies, he’s wants them to think again, put aside their small minded ways and see things afresh. He begins by telling the guests to choose the place ranked lowest in the social order as it’s better to get upgraded than face the humiliation of being asked to move for a more important guest. As one commentator put it… The proud are headed for a fall… whether it’s a momentary embarrassment over seating arrangements… or a lifetime wasted feeding an insatiable ego. Through proud eyes, there are no lies… if I am the arbiter of truth. There is no greed… if I think I deserve something more than you do. There is no lust… if other people exist for my pleasure. In the terminal stages of pride, the only God I ever need smirks right back at me from the mirror. And he is such a handsome devil. Jesus then extends the challenge to those who host such banquets themselves. Don’t invite your friends, relatives or rich neighbours who will reciprocate with invitations to their parties or consider you favourably when opportunities arise but invite the poor and those who cannot repay you. I thought ‘oh no’I’m going for lunch at my sister-in-law’s after this service should I give her a call to make it clear that whilst I’m still coming there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever invite her to our house? What Jesus speaks of seems to be the exact opposite to a business lunch where at least all parties avoid the pretence that the host is doing this out of the kindness of his or her heart. I thought about the saying ‘ There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ which is first traced to 1940’s America where free lunch was often advertised to entice drinkers into bars but became a topic of debate especially among politicians and lawyers and was used as the title of the economist Milton Friedman’s book. In the various contexts of providing goods and services the kindness, generosity or help, be it from individuals, private companies or the state always has to be paid for by somebody however sincere the donors intention. Henry Wallace, a US vice-president said ‘Until man acquires the power of creation, someone will always have to pay for a free lunch.’ He’s my sort of theologian, it follows that only God can offer a free lunch, truly an invitation that has no conditionality, no qualification and regardless of how many people accept there is no opportunity cost. In other words Jesus is telling us when you do something don’t be motivated by what’s in it for me but by what can I do to share God’s love. If we accept God’s generous offer to be part of his kingdom then we also become hosts to others and this has to be reflected in the way we behave. You may be thinking, I don’t know many poor or disadvantaged people and even if I asked them they might not want to come to my house for lunch. Well this is only one tiny aspect of Jesus message, it’s not about dinner parties it’s about what God’s kingdom is like. If we want to be part of it we’ll need to be able to celebrate the fact that there’s none of the nonsense the marketing agencies use, no exclusive invitations, no limited number of places available, no rewards for your previous custom or spending. We should feel like were in God’s kingdom when the invitation is for all, we’ll find ourselves among rich and poor, every ethnicity, and even among some strange people we hadn’t thought God would invite. The thing we should all keep in mind, which unsurprisingly goes against many of our conventions, is that the fact the invitation is not exclusive does not make it any less valuable. In fact the opposite is true, when we understand the true value of what God offers us, how could we not want this to be available to every person possible. Amen Kevin Bright 28 August 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment