Sunday 22 • 28 Aug 2016

Jeremiah 4:4-13
Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16
Luke: 14:1-14

Rev. Chris Udy

Over the last 30 years or so
there’s been an explosion of research
into the life of Jesus
and what his ministry and mission meant
to those who heard him and followed him.
One thing that’s becoming more and more clear
is that Jesus did his best work -
he was at his most radically transforming -
most liberating and most threatening -
when he was sharing meals -
when he was at table.
What we’ve learned
is that these meals weren’t just social occasions -
they weren’t just the narrative background -
they were the focus and foreground of his work.
When Jesus sat down for a meal
with fishermen, tax collectors, farmers,
prostitutes, Samaritans and foreigners -
people that society said were trouble,
he was striking at the heart
of the culture of his day.
The people you ate with defined you.
If you were invited
to eat with significant people,
you also became significant.
If you sat down with sinners,
their sinfulness infected you.
Society was controlled and ordered
by what we’ve now come to call ‘the Purity Code’.

The purity codes began in a set of laws and rules
that look like they’re about food.
They talk about certain foods -
especially certain kinds of meat -
as being “clean” or “unclean”.
Pork and prawns were unclean.
Animals that both chew the cud
and have a divided hoof - like cows and sheep -
are clean.
Fish that have both scales and fins are also clean,
but shellfish and shark and lobster are unclean.
No-one really knows either when or why
those laws and lists of animals appeared.
40 years ago, when I began my training
the suggestion was
that pigs were considered unclean
perhaps because they harboured diseases
like cirrhosis -
but that was more a guess than a conclusion.
What we now know,
and what has become more and more clear
is that the idea of food being clean or unclean
was very quickly extended.

First it spread to what was done
to prepare food for eating -
so the way an animal was killed,
and the way it was cooked,
became important.
Even today, in orthodox Jewish homes
there are two separate kitchens.
One is for cooking meat,
the other for cooking with milk.
Each has its own containers and utensils,
and the two are never mixed,
because of a commandment in Exodus (23:19)
that says “You shall not boil a kid
in its mother’s milk”.
From that one commandment
came generations of duplicated kitchens,
apparently to avoid the possibility
that meat from a young goat
and milk from its mother might come together -
but clearly something else
was coming into play.
From clean and unclean animals,
to clean and unclean kitchens
and ways of preparing food,
then came another extension,
into laws and rules whose purpose
was to order and control and categorise people.
Those who could afford clean meat;
those who could afford a kosher kitchen;
those who could pay for the basins and bowls
and pitchers and sinks and litres of water
that it took to wash in exactly the right way;
those who could afford to do
all that the purity codes required -
including maintaining their offerings to the Temple
and the sacrifices that purchased their forgiveness
when they broke or ignored the codes;
those who could afford it -
the rich and powerful and great - were clean.
Those who were poor and ill and marginal - were not.

And so communities divided.
Those who were clean shunned those who were not,
and because the great and the good
were also the rich and powerful,
the good things in life came to them -
the tastiest food, the cleanest water,
the most lucrative opportunities,
the most strategic marriages,
the offices of authority in Synagogue and community,
the seats of honour at a banquet or a dinner.

Today we read about a day
when Jesus was invited for the Sabbath meal
to the house of a leader of the Pharisees.
It was the Pharisees
who had a particular interest
in maintaining and enforcing the purity codes -
and Jesus was under suspicion,
so, Luke says, he was being closely watched.
As was normal,
those who had come for the meal
were jockeying for the best seats -
the seats that were closest to the cleanest people.
Jesus was also watching closely,
and in response to what he saw
he told what Luke calls a parable,
but is more a piece of advice
for strategic socialisation.
“When you go to a wedding banquet,” he said,
“Don’t assume a seat of honour.
Imagine your embarrassment and disgrace
if your host were then to come
and give your seat to someone more distinguished!
No - take the lowest place,
and if you have to stay there,
at least you’ll suffer no public shame.
And if your host comes,
sees you and says
‘Friend, come - move up higher!’
then you will have received a public honour.
For all who exalt themselves
will be humbled!” Jesus said,
“and those who humble themselves
will be exalted.”

Jesus began with pragmatic advice -
a way to avoid shame,
a way to keep face -
and keeping face, avoiding shame,
receiving honour -
those things were immensely important
to those who would have gathered
at the Pharisee’s house.
Jesus was speaking their kind of language.
He understood their world.
This was a man - they thought -
who could give them pointers to live by -
ways to get on in the world of the purity codes.
So by now they were listening intently,
ready to accept what Jesus had to say,
and if Jesus had stopped there,
they would have been very happy.
But he didn’t.
As almost always when Jesus taught,
something that looks innocent,
innocuous and simple -
something as straightforward
as sitting down to a meal -
develops into something highly explosive.
With the attention of all
who’d come for the Sabbath meal,
Jesus turned to his host -
the leader of the Pharisees,
the man who was the source
of influence and honour in that town -
he turned to his host and said.
“When you give a luncheon or dinner,
don’t invite your friends, or your brothers,
or rich neighbours -
just in case they invite you in return.
(And of course that would be the point,
that’s exactly what you’d want,
in the purity codes).
“Don’t invite the great and the good,” Jesus said,
“instead invite the poor,
the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed” he said,
“because they can’t repay you -
but you will be repaid
at the resurrection of the righteous”.

There are two explosions here.
The first is in the idea that those who are clean -
the great, the rich, the powerful and distinguished,
might actually eat with people
who, they believed, had been cursed by God -
that they might actually risk infection
from those who were poor, and lame, and blind.
That was a shocking idea -
a most disturbing idea -
for those who believed their salvation
lay with keeping anyone threatening far away.
They wanted to build a fence -
a great big prickly hedge -
around themselves and their families
and people like them -
and they wanted anyone sick or sad or strange
to stay on the other side.
So Jesus was suggesting something distressing -
and in many ways it’s still shocking, even today -
but then we remember
that’s exactly what Jesus did.
It’s the way Jesus lived his life.

Jesus sat down and shared food
with tax collectors, women of ill repute,
people who made their living
doing the smelliest, dirtiest things.
He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink;
he broke bread with 5000 people -
and who knows who they were
or where they came from -
all we know, and all Jesus knew
was that they were all in need, and he responded.
That’s what Jesus did -
he sat down - he shared his bread,
he shared his life, and his hope, and his wisdom
with everyone - but especially with those
who needed him most.
That was the first explosive idea -
that he - or anyone! - would risk infection -
that he would identify with the moral imperfection,
the illness, the weakness,
the strangeness of the world -
that he would let himself be tainted
by the brokenness of the world -
that was explosive enough -
but then comes the second explosion.
“And you will be blessed,” he said,
because they cannot repay you -
for you will be repaid
at the resurrection of the righteous.”

“You will be repaid
at the resurrection of the righteous”.
So the righteous are not the clean -
not the high and rich and mighty -
according to Jesus.
The righteous are not those
who make and police the purity codes -
the righteous are those
who give banquets for the poor,
who sit down and break bread
with the crippled, the blind and the lame.
Far from being tainted
and risking their salvation -
those who commune -
those who share their food and their lives
with those who are in need -
they’re the ones who are headed for resurrection.
And then comes the final kicker -
because at the resurrection of the righteous -
at that celebration of God’s kingdom,
that Jesus has described again and again
as being like a wedding banquet -
at the resurrection of the righteous,
those who share what they have with the poor
will be repaid -
and the only way they can be repaid
is if the poor and the blind and the lame
have also been raised
in the resurrection of the righteous.
And if the poor and the blind and the lame
have been raised
in the resurrection of the righteous,
it’s because they number among the righteous;
they’re among the ones that God will raise
to feast with God in glory,
and they’re the ones who will then repay
those who have cared for them,
those who have shared their lives
and their bread with them,
those who have recognised
God’s image and God’s presence
in the poor, the lame, the blind,
the sick, the sad, and the strange,
and have invited them
to come and share their table.

Today is Refugee and Migrant Sunday,
and many congregations
are reflecting on God’s call to welcome strangers,
and to care for those who are forced to the margins.
For the Uniting Church
it’s a very important aspect of our life
and in congregations like this one
that ministry and mission is being honoured.
As Christians we are called into communion -
communion with God,
communion with God’s children.
Communion only begins
when someone serves -
when someone washes feet,
or offers food, or makes a place at table.
We are called - not to sit in places of honour,
but to take up options for service;
to share what God has given,
to issue God’s invitation,
and to exercise God’s hospitality. Amen.