Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (1 September 2013)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Jeremiah 2:4-13 and Psalm 81:1, 10-16
  • Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
  • Luke 14:1, 7-14

First reading: Cracked cisterns

This week’s passage is part of the opening complaint by Jeremiah as he sets out God’s case against the people of Judah. These opening oracles extend through the first six chapters of the book. They are significant texts in the history of Jewish religion as here we find Jeremiah invoking the traditions about the exodus from Egypt and the period in the wilderness. These traditions tend to be more associated with the northern kingdom (Israel) and they seemed to have played a lesser role in the southern kingdom (Judah), where the the dominant covenant traditions revolved around the promises to David and the significance of Zion as the city of the Temple. After the fall of the northern kingdom around 722 BCE, it seems that some of the northern traditions were adopted by the southern kingdom as it expanded its influence northwards into areas previously ruled from Samaria. The exact process by which this happened is not fully understood, but it is part of the larger historical process that saw Jerusalem become the custodian of the Israelite tradition and eventually gave us the Old Testament.

For Jeremiah to appeal to these traditions in the way we find him doing here, we must assume that the Mosaic traditions formerly associated with the north have now taken root in the south.

Towards the end of this week’s lectionary passage, Jeremiah uses the metaphor of the cistern. God is compared to a fountain of living water, but the people have chosen to dig themselves cisterns that are so faulty they cannot even hold water. This is a vivid image, and it reflects the reality of life in the hill country of Jerusalem and its environs. In a landscape bereft of rivers, people valued springs and wells as natural sources of fresh water. With technological advances around the beginning of the Iron Age (ca 1200 BCE), people were able to carve cisterns in the limestone rocks and line them so that the winter rains could be captured and stored for the dry summer. A cracked cistern would leak and be of no use to the people who depended upon it for survival. It is vivid metaphor, and one that evokes the NT metaphor of Jesus as the source of living water.

Gospel: Table and Kingdom

The verses designated for this week’s Gospel are part of a larger unit in Luke 14:

  • 14:1-6 A Sabbath healing by Jesus
  • 14:7-11 Parable of the Wedding Guest
  • 14:12-14 Instruction on Hospitality
  • 14:15 The Messianic Banquet
  • 14:16-24 Parable of the Feast

[In passing, we can observe that Luke’s version of the Parable of the Feast is not read at any point in this year’s cycle. Matthew 22:1-13 is used for Proper 23 in Year A, but we never get to hear Luke’s version in the Sunday liturgy, even though scholars see it as closer to the original than Matthew’s form.]
Concerning this whole complex, John Dominic Crossan [In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, 1973:68f] observes:

The literary situation is as elegant as it is artificial, so that the parable in 14:8-11 has been smoothed into its present place by the application to Jesus’ fellow guests in 14:7 although there is no evidence that their taking of the first places created any problems with the “actual” situation of the meal where Jesus was present. The parable, opened by 14:7, concludes with 14:11 concerning the reversal of the exalted and the humble which, as already seen, involves the eschatological judgment of God.

Crossan continues:

The injunction contained in 14:8-10 does not fit particularly well with its opening application and neither does it go well with its concluding 14:11. In itself it has to do with table etiquette and its motivation could be described at its most positive as utterly banal and at its most negative as rather immoral. One is told to take low seats at a banquet in order to be moved up higher and obtain glory before one’s fellow guests. If one jumps immediately from earthly table etiquette to eschatological rewards, it may be possible to accept the parable as it stands. As one might humble oneself on earth to obtain earthly glory, so should one humble oneself on earth to obtain heavenly glory. This is possible but not totally convincing. Another interpretation can be offered … In 14:8-10 the literal point is a somewhat amusing everyday experience in which one can easily imagine a situation of polar reversal. Jesus is saying in effect: can you imagine a situation in which a man in first place ends up in last place and vice versa? The story tells of the quite convincing possibility of a man who takes the first seat at a banquet, others arrive and take the intermediate seats, so that when a guest of great distinction arrives the first person must not only give up his first place but take the lowest. This example of situational reversal shows how the Kingdom arrives so that one experiences God’s rule as that which turns one’s world upside down and radically reverses its normalcy. The Kingdom is not one’s ultimate concern but that which undermines one’s ultimate concern.

As noted above, the Parable of the Wedding Feast has come down to us in three versions:

  • GThom. 64:1-2
  • Luke 14:15-24
  • Matt 22:1-13

Each version is quite distinctive, although a common story can be seen underlying all three. The International Q Project reconstructs the original story as follows:

A certain person prepared a [large] dinner, [and invited many]. And he sent his slave [at the time of the dinner] to say to the invited: Come, for it is ready.
He came to the first (and) said to him: My master invites you. he said: I have bills for some merchants. They are coming to me this evening. I will go (and) give instructions to them. Excuse me for the dinner. he came to another (and) said to him: My master has invited you. He said to him: I have bought a house, and I have been called (away) for a day. I will not have time.
He came to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. he said to him: I have bought a village. Since I am going to collect the rent, I will not be able to come. Excuse me.
He went to another (and) said to him: My master invites you. He said to him: My friend is going to marry, and I am the one who is going to prepare the meal. I will not be able to come. Excuse me for the dinner.
The slave went away. He said to his master: Those whom you invited to the dinner have asked to be excused. The master said to the slave: Go out on the roads, and whomever you find, invite, so that my house may be filled.

Crossan [Historical Jesus, 261f] suggests:

All three extant versions have interpreted and applied the parable to their own situations by contextual connections and intratextual developments. I think, however, that a common structural plot is discernible behind them all. … It is the random and open commensality of the parable’s meal that is its most startling element. The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality is the radical threat of the parable’s vision. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s mesocosmic mirror, the table as the place where bodies meet to eat. And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open commensality is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.

This Sunday we focus not on the Parable of the Feast, but rather on Luke’s embellishment of the parable. Bernard Brandon Scott [Re-Imagine the World, 2001:113] comments as follows:

Luke seems more concerned with those invited after the first reject the invitation. This fits with the way Luke’s gospel situates the parable. The scene is set at the dinner of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 14:1) and the larger context is Luke’s travel narrative (Luke 9:51-19:27). Jesus initiates a discussion of table manners, noting first that one should not initially go to the highest seat, but the lowest. Then the host will invite you to move up. In an honor/shame society, to be shamed by having miscalculated and assumed too honorable a place would be a great loss of face. Jesus then turns this little bit of wisdom into a moral statement: “Those who promote themselves will be demoted, and those who demote themselves will be promoted” (Luke 14:11). From this he draws a bit of counter wisdom advising his host not to invite his friends or those whose presence would give him greater honor, but “Instead, when you throw a dinner party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13). Then, he says, you will be truly congratulated! The parable is then related in Luke as an example of this counter wisdom.

The core insight about proper modesty at a banquet is ancient Jewish wisdom, and can be found in the following passage from Proverbs 25:6-7:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

What seems to be distinctive is not the theme of modesty when choosing a seat at a banquet, but Jesus’ application of the theme of unexpected reversal to promote his vision of a “community of equals” in God’s new domain.

This subversive wisdom of Jesus is seen in many of his sayings, including the Beatitudes. The particular saying around which Luke may have fashioned his “table manners” instruction scene is known from three different passages:

All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matt 23:12)

For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 14:11)

I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other;
for all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 )

James D.G. Dunn [Jesus Remembered, 2003:412-17] underlines the significance of this theme of reversal in the message and mission of Jesus:

As many have observed, a persistent theme in the Jesus tradition is that of eschatological reversal. One of its most striking expressions appears in the collection of beatitudes … [e]schatological reversal is a theme repeated elsewhere in Jesus’ kingdom teaching, particularly in Matthew. It is the child who typifies the kingdom participant: only such will enter (Mark 10.14-15 pars.; Matt. 18.3). In contrast, the rich will find it exceedingly hard if not impossible to enter the kingdom (Mark 10.23-25 pars.). Matthew also has a saying about toll-collectors and prostitutes ‘preceding you into the kingdom of God’ (Matt. 21.31). Particularly prominent is the great(est)/least motif: the kingdom is like a mustard seed, smaller than all seeds, but when grown is greater than the other herbs (Mark 4.30-32 pars.); the disciples argue about who is greatest (Mark 9:34 pars.), that is, no doubt, in the kingdom (Matt. 18.1,4); in Matthew’s version (Matt. 20.21) the request by/for James and John is that they should be granted seats on Jesus’ right and left in his (obviously) future kingdom (‘glory’ — Mark 10.37); it is the servant who is ‘great’; the Baptist is greatest among those born of women, but the least in the kingdom is greater than he (Matt. 11.11/Luke 7.28).

The challenge of those words to our communities of the comfortable as we gather around the table of Jesus this weekend is too obvious to need further comment at this point.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

 

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. Currently serving as the locum priest at Byron Bay Anglican Parish.
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