Ordinary Sunday 13 Luke 14:12-14
One of the more interesting times of my life was spent in a Kings Cross Parish in Sydney which, for those who don't know, is the K Road of Sydney; much action and some of it less than legal. It's a place where the laws of the street are unambiguous and followed to the letter. The amusing point is that street law is set much as it is for many organisations; at an AGM. In Kings Cross the place on the ladder was everything, and the group set the ladder up and guarded its rungs corporately. A person's value was the value the group gave.
I want to tell you about an AGM I attended, but first let me tell you of some of the laws of the streets of Kings Cross. Transsexual and Transvestite prostitutes work the south side of the road, men work the wall and minors work the side streets. Certain corners are prime positions and not to be moved into unless you are of a certain class of street worker. Misdemeanours, such as accepting freebies and lowering the tone for others are punishable offences. The sentence is to be resigned to working the North side of the road until the lesson is learnt.
The parish I worked in ran a coffee shop in the heart of the transsexual prostitute patch. It was a home, a warm place, a haven for street kids and street workers at night. It was in the café that the AGM of the transsexual prostitutes collective was held and I was invited. The main purpose was to elect the Madam for the year. There was the chance to reaffirm the laws of the street, set standard prices and publicly rebuke certain workers for misdemeanours. Pretty much like any St Matthew's AGM no doubt. There were some questions from the floor about the performance of the Madam that upset her. She put on the most extraordinarily dramatic display of false humility I had ever seen. With her hand to her brow she declared that if she had been such a failure that she would stand down immediately, never stand for election again and she marched from the room in tears. She didn't go far, in fact just outside the door, which many of those present seemed to be ready for. They then began to chant that they wanted her back, they needed her, and as if on cue she waltzed back in. She was immediately re elected, sat in her throne and not another word was said about her.
It was this event which came to mind as I reflected on today's gospel passage. Jesus at a First Century Palestinian meal. Customs which were changeable, yet significant. People who used the customs to both impress and to display false humility. In Palestine group meals were an important community event. Among the 'rules' for common meals of this kind were correct order of seating. There was a place for the most important and the least important and everyone in between. Some groups made a special point of reviewing the pecking order of seating every year. For example the people of the Dead Sea sect conducted a kind of Annual Performance Review for such placements, an AGM if you like. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place for everyone on the ladder. For many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement. It was a community value. It was in some sense given by the group. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face could not be shrugged off as easily as for many of us who have grown up in a strongly individualistic culture. Losing face was almost like losing one's life.
Such is the setting for what appears at first as a bit of practical advice. Like many sages of the day Jesus instructs the would be go-getter to avoid getting in the position where a demotion might occur. It is better to play it safe and be shifted up a notch than the reverse. If you want to be exalted, humble yourself! Yet isn't this a contradiction in terms, because such strategies usually result in a put-on humility because the motivation is self interest and personal success. The self interest continues unabated in Luke 14:12-14. It is best to put people in your debt who cannot repay you, because then you will be repaid by God. What a pity if people square the ledger here! We help the poor and needy so that we can build up capital for our own future. These are dangerous concepts. Where applied the needy are often used and abused. It is spiritual capitalism at its worst.
Alternatively, Jesus' words may be heard as totally absurd. It was a crazy idea, designed to subvert the games being played. Try losing and see how much you win! If we hear his words like this and not as a serious strategy, which would reduce them to just a more creative way of exploiting others for your own good, then Jesus is subverting the whole enterprise which was driving his culture and its values.
This is a text fraught with danger - It raises the issue of absolutism versus cultural relativism - yet offers the interesting answer 'neither', and rather points to common sense as the key. However it is interpreted, it opens up the possibility for critiquing culture and law from within. More importantly it focuses the hearers to reflect on their own attitude to love and generosity, no matter what the cultural norm.
It makes a point about love and self interest. People who claim to be acting in love without any self interest are frequently in a state of denial, so much so at times that they fail to recognise and control their self interest - to their own harm and that of others. The gospel is not an appeal to abandon self love, but to believe in being loved and loving and to engage in it fully in all directions, including towards ourselves.
The lines of love - for God, for others, for self - need to converge. Destruction comes when any one element fails. Falsehood sells us the idea that our own best interests can only be served by denying the interests of others or by exploiting them to our own ends, for this life or for the next. It teaches us we can only win by beating others. Whether in materialist mode or spiritual mode, it leads to exploitation and abuse. The answer is not the opposite: self hate or self neglect, because more often than not that ends in self-deceit and destructive behaviour towards ourselves which also destroys others. Rather it is an inclusive love, all embracing, which is its own reward.
The table at which we share celebrates a poured out life, even in brokenness, as the true source of nourishment and before which we can let go our anxieties and the hierarchies of power they create - easier said than done as our church and history demonstrates. The church in which we worship celebrates many poured out lives, no doubt some self-interest, and a dose of common sense. The answer is neither false humility nor grandstanding, but self-assurance, common sense and a sense of love which integrates self and other and God. The question is 'where does each of us find our own focus for loving and being loved in this community?'
I leave you not with the answer but with the question!