Friday, August 27, 2010

Pentecost +14C

One of my favourite pastimes is people-watching.  In fact, I suspect most of us like to indulge in this from time to time.  It helps if you’re in a busy public space, so there are heaps of people around and you can be anonymous.  If also helps if you’re not too obvious about it.

One of the things you notice when you’re watching people en masse is that there is a kind of crowd etiquette.  This was also found by professional people-watcher Kate Fox, who recently published a study of the behaviour of British racegoers, specifically the fashion-conscious set who go to the races not to watch the horses but to be seen themselves.  The races themselves, Fox found, were mainly of interest because they broke the afternoon up into short segments, giving the lunchers something to talk about, and an excuse to move on when they found themselves trapped with somebody less fascinating than themselves.  Fox also found that there were powerful unwritten rules at the races that governed who you had to be polite to (anybody better dressed than you) and who you must ignore (anybody who gets too excited about winning).  My understanding of Fox’s study is that the rituals of good behaviour she uncovered worked by ensuring that everybody stayed more or less within the boundaries of their own social class, the rules keep social interactions smooth and trouble-free because they provide a mechanism for sorting people into those who matter and the rest who don’t. [1]

Today we tune in to another lunch party.  Jesus has been invited to eat the Sabbath meal at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and he is being closely watched, presumably because he is starting to get the reputation for not always following the rules.  As one commentator remarks, Christians sometimes get a bit uncomfortable about the evidence of the gospels that Jesus was on friendly terms with his favourite sparring partners, the Pharisees.  In fact, Jesus and the Pharisees have a lot in common, and the disputes between them are generally a sort of friendly debate.  Jesus approves of the holiness and moral seriousness of the Pharisees, which eventually gives rise to the rabbinical tradition.  He just likes to push them a little further, to expose some of the contradictions.  To deliberately subvert the social etiquette, in other words.

The passage begins – or rather, it doesn’t begin – with some verses the lectionary writers leave out because they sound like a re-run of last week’s story.  The polite lunch is inconveniently interrupted by a man with dropsy, a painful swelling of the legs.  After asking his lunch companions what they think he should do – and getting no answer – Jesus cures the man and sends him on his way, observing that none of the guests would have failed to rescue a child or an animal that had fallen down a well, Sabbath or no Sabbath.  More silence, which means the unwritten rules have been violated.  People with swollen legs should not appear at dinner parties, and when they do, polite guests don’t make them the centre of attention.  Of course we tend to small children or guests who choke on chicken bones at Sabbath lunches, we just do it discreetly thank you.

Then Jesus starts people-watching.  We know he is an inveterate people-watcher, because he is a story-teller.  Jesus’ stories are the product of years spent in careful observation of ordinary people doing ordinary things, loving and squabbling and cheating, trying to get ahead and trying to get along with each other in the quite extraordinary process called ordinary life.  And he notices something that in ancient society, maybe only really happened at Pharisee lunch parties where the guests operated on the assumption that they had been invited because of their place in the religious scheme of things, and so automatically went to take the place that reflected their place in the hierarchy.  Actually this isn’t so remarkable.  I was at a meeting a few weeks ago where we all came in and sat around a table as we arrived.  One of my colleagues had just sat at the end of the table nearest the window when the Archbishop walked in.  My friend immediately excused himself and went and sat at the other end.  As the Arch sat down he said, ‘thank you – but of course, this isn’t the important end, that is’.  Without even thinking, we rank ourselves so as not to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves, and at one level, Jesus advice about taking the less important seats is just good social advice.  Not religious, just practical, particularly in the ancient world which was a whole lot more hierarchical than our Aussie society.  Your social place was everything, and making sure that you managed to keep your place on the ladder and not slip backwards could even be a question of survival, of ensuring the support of powerful patrons.  Losing face couldn’t just be shrugged off like most of us generally can in our modern individualistic culture. 

So at one level, Jesus is just giving practical advice for social climbers, better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the other way around.  It gets a bit more of a bite when he connects it with his comment in verse 11: ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’ – it’s a contradiction in terms, a paradox that we recognise as related to the central paradox of Jesus’ teaching: whoever wants to be first of all should make themselves last of all, and servant of all.  And we realise Jesus is not talking about etiquette, but about a fundamentally different view of reality.

But people-watcher Jesus isn’t finished yet, in fact he is just warming up in his observations.  How much of what we do is in the expectation that ultimately we are making things easier for ourselves?  We observe the rules of politeness because ultimately there is a pay-off.  We offer hospitality to people like us, people who follow the same social rules as we do, and who keep the wheels of polite society turning by inviting us back again.  Maybe it’s not manipulative, but it is playing it safe.  It’s the way we insulate ourselves, mostly unconsciously, against those whose difference makes them confronting – not just the poor and the crippled, as in Jesus’ example, but those who – so we tell ourselves, wouldn’t feel comfortable here anyway, or those who we actually don’t even notice as we walk past them – the young person with pink hair and an array of body-piercings, the woman in the hijab, the Aboriginal family, lesbians, gays and bikies, the loud and the boorish and the ... foreign.  This is normal, it is what sociologists refer to as stratification, it means that people gravitate towards others that they intuitively feel are similar enough to be non-threatening.  It’s part of how a society most of the time manages to get along OK despite the huge inequalities and injustices that see some people with opportunity and power, other people powerless and trapped.

But it’s not how things are in the kingdom of God.  And Jesus’ insistence that we should honour and invite those who can’t honour and invite us back comes, I think, from the recognition that that is exactly what God does for us.  Time and time again, Jesus talks about God’s scheme of things as a banquet, an invitation for women and men and children that is indiscriminate, wastefully generous, over-the-top – and outrageously undeserved.  Jesus, it appears, knows and loves the Wisdom passages of the Old Testament that talk of Wisdom as God’s invitation to eat and drink, to be in touch with what sustains us and to renew our connection with the whole created order.  And in the Wisdom literature, as in Jesus’ own stories and the example of his own life, the invitation of God is fundamentally an invitation to be transformed into the likeness of God’s generosity, and to become sources of life and healing for those around us.  There is no stratification, no hierarchy, except our own willingness to sit alongside the rest of the unlikely-looking guests.

This is good news for those of us who see ourselves as the polite set, the chicken and champagne lunchgoers who thought we belonged here anyway.  Why?  Because we get a dose of reality, a view of the world as God sees it, we receive the blessing of humility, the grace of being grounded in the humus, the good earth that gives us life.  It’s where the word comes from!  Putting aside our own pretensions of entitlement, we get an opportunity to become real, more like the people God created us to be, the opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Even better news if, deep down, you think you might have been one of those not invited, down in the stands with the riff-raff, not up in the glassed enclosure with the champagne set.  If you have been one of the majority of this earth who have learned the lesson that you are invisible, that your opinions don’t count and your needs are less important because you are the wrong gender, or the wrong colour, because you were born in the wrong place or because you don’t have a fancy education or a big enough bank account – if you are the bent-over woman or the man with the swollen leg – even better news because at this table you are entitled, you get an opportunity to become real and visible, more like the person God intended you to be, the opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Either way, Jesus is saying to us: get real!


[1] Kate Fox’s paper can be found at