Sometimes it seems like Jesus is speaking another language. He can be so obtuse as to be incomprehensible, as when he says, “Let the dead bury the dead,” or when he talks about the eye of a needle… It’s hard. In today’s reading, though, Jesus gave some straightforward advice which seems pretty applicable today:
When you go to a party, don’t take the best seat. If you do then the host might embarrass you by asking you to move. Take a seat for a person of lower status and wait for the host to move you up, that way you will look good in front of all the others. (Author’s paraphrase)
That is very good advice. Anybody with any sense at all will follow that advice. It was particularly good advice in the honour/shame culture of the ancient near-east in which Jesus was speaking.
To be clear, we can’t speak of the honour/shame culture of the ancient near-east as if it is some foreign anthropological construction. The truth is that our own society, and every society that I know of, has elements of honour and shame. These are used to maintain order, to help us navigate socially, and there’s nothing wrong with being part of that kind of culture. Jesus was very adept at it! So, he really knew what he was talking about when he gave this advice.
It’s nice to have a Sunday when it’s all so straightforward. When it seems easy, though, that’s a clue that we should take a closer look; and a good place to look is in the verses that were omitted from today’s reading. Just look at the citation: Luke 14:1, 7-14. There are five verses left out! Here they are:
2 There in front of him [Jesus] was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body.
3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”
4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?”
6 And they had nothing to say.
This is quite a lot of additional information. It comes on the heels of last week’s reading in which Jesus also healed on a Sabbath. He’s not a law-breaker, though. Jesus asked the experts in the law, who were right there at the party, whether or not he could heal on the Sabbath. It’s a trick question. If they say yes, they violate their own interpretation of the law. If they say no, they reveal that they don’t really care about the man. Nobody said anything. Jesus healed the man..
The text tells us that the man had an “abnormal swelling.” This abnormal swelling, sometimes called dropsy, maybe it was edema, was a condition that caused the man to always be thirsty even though his body was retaining way too much water. What a crazy disease. Even though he already had too much water, he craved more.
Even though he had this disease, which probably placed him on the bottom rung of the social ladder, or at least near the bottom, he was invited to the party. Every ladder needs a bottom rung, after all. The others depended on the man with an abnormal swelling to be the bottom rung. Because of him, they existed on the higher rungs. He protected them from being in last place. If he were not there… Well, someone else would have to be the bottom rung.
There might have really been a man with edema or another disease at a party Jesus attended on a Sabbath. It might all be historically true. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But, what I do know is that this man’s illness makes a good stand-in disease for the disease that afflicted many who were said to have been in the room that day. They all had too much, yet craved more. They had too much money, too much power, and too much honour. It all had to be protected, and all the better if they could add more to it..
After Jesus healed the man, everybody was silent. Imagine it! Their very organised social milieu crumbled as Jesus sent the man away, healed and released from the bondage of more, more, more. In this silence, Jesus gave his very practical advice. Then he added a kicker, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” So, there’s going to be humility involved. And, you know Jesus, he couldn’t leave it there. He went on, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives of your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed…” This turns a transactional society on its head. The thing about those kinds of people is that they have given up on besting anybody else. They are broken, wounded, outside any kind of dinner party. They are not worried about their status. They are just having a good time at the party.
Jesus’ initial advice to the fat-cats in attendance was good advice. This is the kind of advice that will save your face, make you look good, even holy. It’s very practical. it only applies, though, if you are willing to submit to the entanglements of an honour/shame based society in which honour is derived from the others. It’s a sorry way to live. Take it from one who knows, it’s exhausting. But, that is how most of the world lives, constantly on alert for how to preserve their reputation, their good name.
At no time in this episode did Jesus decry honour, or seeking honour. The Bible itself says that having a good name is better than being rich. Jesus seemed to know that we deeply need to be seen and acknowledged, that our identity is caught up in something outside ourselves. The question for today is who?
If you derive your esteem, or honour, from others in your social group then please take Jesus’ advice about where to sit at a party and be on your way. But, if your sense of self comes from the one who made you, the one who really does see and know you, then read on.
Jesus didn’t get his honour from those around him, and a good thing too as he wound up shamefully crucified by those guys. And, if you follow Jesus, it is pretty likely that you will meet a similar fate. Oh, I am not talking about dying on a cross. It’s not very likely that any of us will die on an actual cross. I am talking about dying to the constant desire for more, more, more status, more esteem, more attention, more holiness, more piety, more of anything except God, and only God.
God chose what is weak in this world to put to shame what is strong.
Later in Luke Jesus will say, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” Do you know what the verse right before that one says? It says, “Remember Lot’s wife!” She is famous for fleeing Sodom with her family when God destroyed it for its insane inhospitality to strangers. All of Lot’s family made it out alive except Lot’s wife, Edith. She looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt.
You’ll note that after Jesus healed the man he sent him on his way. That is because when we finally get free of the social entanglements of this world we have no place in our former lives. There is no more need to curry favour, to manipulate situations, to gain more and more power and honour. Don’t look back at that! At Jesus’ table everyone belongs, all are honoured simply by having no other honour than God’s own self.
Let mutual love continue. Show hospitality to strangers. If you see someone imprisoned by the entanglements of society, help them out. Show them a society where there is such enormous glory and honour that we have to keep inviting more and more people to contain it all. Don’t love money or the worthless esteem of big-shots. Stick with God, be weak, look foolish to the so-called smarty pants of the world. In fact, lose all that, lose your very life. Then you will find it.
Ah! Finally some good news. You can find your life in God and be free.
Linda McMillan is still in Texas where she blessedly gets no honour.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Luke 9:60… Let the dead bury their own dead
You can read my essay that includes Luke 9:60 here.
Matthew 19:24… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
You can read about the man’s illness here.
John 5:41… I [Jesus] receive not glory from men…
I Corinthians 1:27… God chose what is weak in this world to put to shame what is strong…
Luke 17:33… Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it….
Proverbs 22:1… A good name is more desirable than great riches…