Choose wisely, your future depends on it

Pentecost 15 – 2016

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose ways are not our ways. Amen.

 

One of the most contentious issues of our time relates to that of refugees, in particular, how the should the world respond to a crisis that threatens at times to overwhelm us? At the present moment around 60 million people are displaced. That is 60 million people have left their homes as a consequence of war, oppression, persecution, drought or poverty. Sixty million people are today seeking refuge from horrors that few of us can even begin to imagine.

Last year, the war in Syria saw an unprecedented number of people flocking to Europe by any means possible – by land and by sea, by foot, by boat and by train. Thousands lost their lives at sea as unscrupulous operators, used unsafe and overcrowded boats to ferry desperate people – not for humanitarian reasons but to line their own pockets. There were so many escaping horror that receiving countries were simply unable to cope. Not only could they not process the vast numbers seeking refuge, but fears about housing, feeding and providing work to the millions who were knocking at their doors led many European countries to close their borders. Terror attacks in France further raised the general anxiety about accepting people from countries that were also home to extremist groups such as ISIS.

Increasingly, compassion and welcome has turned to disquiet and distrust, generosity and openness have turned to protectionism and exclusion. The recent Brexit vote in the UK was as much about keeping Britain British and closing the borders as it was about the economic advantages or disadvantages of being a part of the EU. In Germany, the country which has been most determined to keep its borders open, recent attacks by traumatized refugees has highlighted the difficulties of providing adequate care for those whose mental health has been seriously affected by their experiences of war, displacement and the dangerous, uncertain escape to safety.

Issues surrounding migration and refugees are central to the Presidential campaign in the United States where there is talk of building walls, limiting the intake of refugees and so on. Here in Australia the issue is no less contentious. Discussions surrounding who to let in and who to exclude can be highly volatile. The debate has become so politicized and so divisive that it can be difficult to discuss the problem rationally. Fear of the other, defense of our standard of living and way of life and anxiety related to radical Islamism all mean that it can be hard to see the majority who are genuine behind the minority who may or not intend harm.

We are rightly appalled at the unscrupulous profiteering of people smugglers distressed by the deaths at sea as desperate people risk their lives to escape violence, oppression and discrimination at home but we cannot agree on how best to respond to those who take enormous risks hoping to find a safe haven.

It is not always easy to find the balance between caring for others and caring for our own. How do we determine at what point does generosity and compassion end and fiscal irresponsibility and prejudice begin?

It is a complex issue and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but it seems to me that today’s gospel gives us something to think about in relation to these questions. To recap: Jesus has been invited to a meal at the home of a Pharisee[1]. By now Jesus has gained a reputation and people are keen to see what he will get up to next. They are not disappointed – he challenges them to provide a reason as to why he may not cure a man who has dropsy and they are silent.

Then the situation is reversed. Jesus becomes the observer. In the first instance he observes the way in which people take their places at table and then he turns to his host and makes an observation about the guest list.

Jesus makes two speeches. The first provides practical advice to the guests on how to avoid humiliation while the second challenges the host to rethink his guest list. Interestingly the speeches take the same format – Jesus’ observation, a statement regarding what not to do, a comment on what to do and finally a theological rule. In the first speech Jesus observes the guests’ tendency to take the places of honour and he makes a pragmatic suggestion: “Take the lowest place so that the host might ask you to go up higher.” The practical nature of the speech changes with the conclusion that, though it is sensible advice, also points in a theological and an eschatological direction: “all who humble themselves will be exalted and all who exalt themselves will be humbled”. The future tense and the passive mood of the verbs tell us that this is not only a consequence that will occur in the present, but that humbling and exalting are actions that God will take in the future – at the judgement.

Having addressed the guests, Jesus turns his attention to his host. He suggests a radical reversal to the social norms of the day: “Don’t invite your friends or those who can return the favour, invite those who cannot repay you then you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” This time Jesus’ conclusion points very clearly to the resurrection – those who welcome the marginalised and the outcast are those who not only will be blessed in the present, but who will be welcomed at the resurrection.

The message of the two speeches is clear – God does not see as the world sees and, our behaviour in this life will affect what happens at the resurrection. The dinner party foreshadows the heavenly banquet and the place we take will reveal our self-assurance or our dependence on God. The invitation list for the wedding banquet reveals whether our concern for our reputation and our social position outweighs our compassion for others.

The place we assume will affect the place we are given, the welcome we give will determine the welcomes we are given. Choose wisely, Jesus suggests, your future depends on it.

[1] It is important to note that not all Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees were antagonistic, but that Jesus was happy to social with Pharisees and they with him.

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