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Thursday, August 29, 2013

We are with whom we eat (C22O)

Sunday's gospel, set at a meal in the house of a prominent Pharisee, includes these lines:
..When you are invited (to a banquet),

go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,

‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’

Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.

For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 
Then he said to the host who invited him,

“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,

do not invite your friends or your brothers

or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,

in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.

Rather, when you hold a banquet,

invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;

blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.

For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” 

Lots of important things happen at meals in Luke. Later this month, we’ll hear all of Luke 15, the three parables of the lost things, and each of them has at its rhetorical heart a meal of celebration. The whole scene is composed around a challenge thrown against Jesus’s honor by his enemies: “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” From the placing of Jesus in a manger in the infancy narrative to the meals of Emmaus and the upper room of Luke 24, Jesus is portrayed as someone for whom mealsharing is very important. To dine with people outside one's social caste was, besides being an act of human solidarity, perceived as an act of political theater. Jesus was “acting out;” he was starting to live in a world where God ruled, and not Caesar, and not Herod, and not Caiaphas. In the empire of God, whom Jesus described as a loving father, there is enough for all, and people are equals around the table. By eating with those outside the cultic boundaries of acceptability, Jesus was rejecting the cult. By doing so, and at the same time claiming a (non-unique) filial relationship with God, he was, in the eyes of these same leaders, committing sedition or blasphemy, depending upon who your god is. When your god is the emperor, it’s the same crime. And in the Roman empire, there was one form of capital punishment reserved for seditionists of any kind: crucifixion. The more I read about the "historical Jesus," mealsharing may have been the important thing about his ministry, something that endured in the missionary strategy of St. Paul and the apostles. The Jesus meal, the open table to which all were invited, might have been their entree (ha ha) into local communities, as well as a means of establishing and communicating the core values of the Way, evolving more formally into what we know as the Eucharist.

At any rate, at this meal with the distinguished Pharisee, a party of wealthy Jews with whom Jesus would have held many similar religious views, Jesus tells him to “take the lowest place,” and makes on of his famous (and, in the eyes of the Jesus seminar, authentic) reversal statements, foreshadowed in the Magnificat: those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted. 

What struck me about this was that the divine dynamism of agape is always exactly this: taking the lowest place. As I never get tired of saying (however tired the listener may get of hearing it), Jesus did not cling to equality with God, as Paul says in Philippians, rather, he emptied himself, and became a slave. God, then, in agape, took the lowest place to show us how to find the way to life. If that weren’t clear enough, at the last meal of his life, one that certainly had enough inner weight to be remembered in all four gospels, though with different emphases, he took off his clothes, taking the position of a servant (and lower than a Jewish servant—unthinkable), and washed the feet of his disciples. We don’t really get that, because we use the word “disciples” in an almost religiously exclusive way to mean the his band of twelve inner circle members. But this word describes a relationship between a master, who is above, and others, who are below. And it is the master who becomes the servant of the rest. This act, described only in John at the last supper, mirrors the action of the Logos in the Prologue to John in chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be…And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Equal to God, dwelling with God and in God from the beginning, because of God’s agape, the Word became flesh.

But then Jesus goes on to tell the Pharisee to do as he does, that is, when he throws a party, invite the outsider, anyone who can’t pay him back. That got me wondering about us in 21st century America. We’re not much even for eating with our friends or even our family. Many of us have lost the habitual rhythm of our parents’ and grandparents’ lives that revolved around dinner time at home, and almost ritual “Sunday meals” around tables that told stories in times like the Great Depression. (Remember that great movie, Places in the Heart? Was there ever a better “secular” tale on the meaning of Eucharist, table-sharing, and reconciliation? Well, maybe Babette's Feast, but still…) In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan avers that one in three Americans eats fast food every day, from an outlet like McDonald’s or KFC. Unless the same people are eating out every day, we could extrapolate that well over half of us eat out, maybe in our cars, several times a week. It’s hard to be inviting people to dinner when we’re eating in a two-seater, or an SUV full of teenagers.

I don’t know that a campaign to get American Christians to eat dinner together at home every night has much chance of succeeding. But even if it is an impossible dream, it doesn’t free us from the gentle demands of the gospel to invite those who are “poor, crippled, lame, and blind” to our tables. I guess we could just think about this as being justice-oriented in our donations of money to charity and relief organizations, but I wonder. If the dinner table was the scene of political and religious “street theater” for Jesus, what would be the scene today? Where and how would committed American Christians make a stand against the tyranny of habitual neglect of the poor, the elderly, orphans, the homeless, and so on? I suppose if I were one of them, I’d know better. 

One possible answer that strikes me is: in our leisure time. And I don’t mean by that whatever time is left over after all our goofy activities—I mean whatever time we use to waste on all our goofy activities. You know, sports, dance, golf, reading, watching television, writing blogs. We spend a lot of time and money on ourselves, and we really could be doing other people a lot of good. Most of us try to do something for other people; we’re not completely oblivious to the suffering of others, but our activities on behalf of the poor are more a bandaid for our own guilt than anything to heal the injustice of the world. I’m as guilty as the next person. But just once, some Sunday, I’d like to hear a priest actually say that there’s a gospel boat out there, and we’re missing it, and if you want to jump on it today, meet me at the corner of such-and-such at 4:00 and we’ll see what we can do. Wouldn’t that be better than all the self-help bullsh*t we hear week after week?

Sigh. I’m trying to keep my ears open.

So, where do you think the stage of the political theater of God’s realm is to be found in the USA in the 21st century if it’s not around the dinner table (and it probably isn’t)? Who are the main players? And isn't it strange that I even have to ask this question?