The upside down God

Pentecost 14

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Marian Free

In the name of God, who turns everything upside down and invites us to see the world in the ways and with new eyes and to live accordingly. Amen.

“Praise the God who changes places.”   The words of the hymn might be simplistic, but behind them likes a profound truth – that Jesus is the image of the upside down God. From beginning to end, Jesus challenges and subverts the accepted wisdom, social conventions and religious traditions of his time. As the upside down God, he enters the world, not as the child of someone rich and powerful, but of someone obscure and unimportant and he leaves his earthly life not in a blaze of glory, but hanging on a cross. He refuses to give his disciples positions of privilege, and rather than exercise authority over them he “stoops to wash their feet”!

Luke understands the nature of this upside down God. From the beginning of the gospel where Mary declares: “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”, through Jesus’ declaration that he has come to preach good news to the poor, to Jesus’ choice of the most unlikely disciples, his preaching: “blessed are the poor” and “love your enemies”, and his acceptance of the despised and the outcast, Luke paints a picture of a Jesus who shows no regard for the social conventions of his time, and who in fact does everything possible to shatter and destroy them. Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus challenges and disturbs. He confronts the way things are and demonstrates how they could be.

Living in a different time, we don’t always see how confronting Jesus’ teaching and actions were to the people of his age. It has lost much of its sting. Our world view is quite different from that of first century Palestine and, after 2,000 years of repetition, Jesus’ teaching is so familiar to us that it often fails to make its mark.

Today’s gospel is a case in point. To us, it makes perfect sense that a person would wait to be seated rather than making an assumption about their degree of importance. The second lesson has lost its power to shock. Todays Christians might not go out of their way to invite the poor and the lame into their homes, but we understand that we should not exclude those who are different from ourselves and I imagine that most of us would be happy to entertain those from whom we expected nothing in return.

Luke tells us that Jesus is at a dinner party. The host is a leader of the Pharisees and the guests are Pharisees and lawyers – their social status is that of equals. Jesus does two things. He makes an observation about the behaviour of the guests and then he directs his attention to his host and to those invited. That the two stories belong together is demonstrated by the structure and common language which they share.

In the Mediterranean world of the first century, society was clearly stratified. From the lowest slave to Caesar himself, every person had a place in the world and knew how to behave appropriately within that place. Within that context shared meals played an important role both in revealing and determining a person’s social status. An invitation received and where one sat in relation to the host were a public acknowledgement of one’s position in society. In such a situation it was not out of the question that some guests would try to preempt the seating arrangement – choosing a good seat in the hope that they would receive the honour that went with it. The guest list would include only those who would enhance the host’s status. Those who were guests would in turn receive the honour of being associated with the host.

This notion of reciprocity went further than the mutual honour it bestowed. A code of reciprocity served to ensure the stability of the whole Empire. Gift and obligation tied every person in the Empire into an intricate web of social relations. With few exceptions everything given or received implied an obligation on one side or another. Nothing was free. This was equally true of an invitation to a meal. Acceptance of an invitation implied a willingness to reciprocate. For this reason, invitations would not be given to the poor – not only would it reflect badly on one’s own status, there would be little hope of a return invitation and the invitee would be embarrassed by being forced to decline the invitation because of the impossibility of returning the favour.

In today’s gospel, Jesus begins by observing the guests choose their seats, in particular the way in which they choose positions of honour. At first he appears to simply be giving sound advice within the context of the social mores of the time – avoid embarrassment and shame by waiting to be seated instead of presuming to know one’s place. Verse 11 however, makes it clear that rather than supporting the social conventions, Jesus is turning them upside down – “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The values Jesus preaches and lives are the exact reverse of the values of the Roman world. Seeking honour and prestige do not belong in the world that Jesus is revealing.

Having inverted the accepted behaviour of guests at a meal, Jesus’ attention then turns to his host who, in accordance with the societal values of his time, has invited only those guests who can reciprocate the invitation and those who by their own status, will reinforce his social prestige. Again Jesus undermines the status quo and makes a suggestion which, if observed, would destroy the finely tuned social fabric not only of Judaism, but of the Empire as a whole – invite the poor, the lame, the crippled and the blind. The inclusion of these outsiders would break down the carefully constructed social stratification, destroy the conventions of reciprocity and unravel the intricate ties which held together in an orderly fashion the social relationships of the Empire. The reward for such behaviour is not even immediate or visible, but an unseen, indeterminate blessedness.

In seven short verses, Jesus makes it clear that the new order which he preaches requires nothing less than a complete rearrangement of the way in which the world is structured.  The reward for such radically different behaviour lies not in earthly power, prestige or recognition, but in the blessedness which only God can bestow and which transcends both time and place. “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” “And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

An upside down God, preaching upside down values in the hope that by turning the world upside down, it will end right side up.

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