XIII Pentecost, Year C
Jer 2:4-13 or * Sir 10:12-18 or Prv 25:6-7
Ps 81:1,10-16 * Ps 112
Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, "Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?" I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, "Where is the LORD?" Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
* (Sirach 10:12-18)
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations. Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities, and destroys them completely. The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly in their place. The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place. The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations, and destroys them to the foundations of the earth. He removes some of them and destroys them, and erases the memory of them from the earth. Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you. " So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?" Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such
sacrifices are pleasing to God.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Honor. We value it highly in our society, but in Jesus’ world, it was far more important. Anthropologists describe the society of Jesus’ day as an “honor/shame” society. In this kind of society, battles for honor are life-and-death affairs. Shame, the absence of honor, is considered to be a worse fate than death.
Honor is a complicated commodity. It is bestowed for a variety of different reasons, according to the rules of the society in which you find it. It is always, however, a source of mimetic conflict. It is a limited commodity in any society, one for which models and rivals must compete. Having honor, though, makes you a model, sets you up as a potential victim. It differentiates you from the masses, makes you a likely scapegoat (the original functional origin of kingship!).
As a commodity, we were warned by Jesus, just a few weeks ago, to be wary of all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in a wealth of possessions. To seek honor is to place ones confidence in them, and not in God. It is to act idolatrously.
In today’s reading, Jesus critiques the problem of honor explicitly, and offers a solution to the problem with an example of positive mimesis. First, he suggests that, when summoned to a social function, we renounce “place” as a value. He is not suggesting that we take a place lower than that which we deserve, that we act out some false modesty in order to avoid the risk of being embarrassed (shamed!). He is saying that we do well to take seats for which there will be no mimetic squabbling. Do not seek things that will put us inevitably in a position of model or rival. Take the very lowest place, the one no one will want. There is no honor in underestimating your value in the eyes of your host. There is honor in avoiding conflict over honor.
In the same way, Jesus tells his listeners to use their dinners not to bestow honor, but to deconstruct the honor system, the system that shames those who cannot “return the honor of your invitation.” Preachers will be tempted to use this passage to promise a delayed reward for inviting the dirty to dinner, something to be had at the resurrection. Jesus doesn’t mean that at all. Rather, what he promises is that those who learn to do as the Father does (practicing positive mimesis) in this life will find the coming kingdom far more “homey.”
In our society, honor continues to play an important role, but we have so lionized the “anti-hero” in popular culture (Die Hard, Mad Max, etc.) that the ways of accruing honor are as variegated as the spider plant growing outside my window. We’ll explore that reality and its preaching implications in “So What.”
We highly recommend the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh. It is an excellent reference work and clearly articulates the honor/shame binary of the process of sacralization (where victims are deemed guilty prior to the ‘mob’ execution but subsequently have attributed to them ‘transcendent’ qualities for having taken away the mimetic wrath and reconciling the community).
Also helpful to us has been Jerome Neyrey’s The Social World of Luke-Acts. This volume, edited by Neyrey also contains essays by Malina and Rohrbaugh as well as other distinguished scholars.
When we approach this text as preachers of peace, our first question needs to be, “Where does my congregation find honor?” Though it probably isn’t the motivation for many of them, we all know the person who runs the ushers or leads the worship team for the sake of the recognition. On the other hand, we also know the person who peppers the leadership with questions at the annual meeting, who raises all the tough questions in Bible study also for the honor, even if it is the counter-cultural form. Both of these quests for honor are called into question by today’s text.
Is your congregation one that gives honor to the financially successful? Or to the one who does lots of community service? Do your teenagers deal with the dangerous issue of “respect” in their daily lives? (This is perhaps the most violently manifested kind of “honor” in American society.)
One we’ve determined where “honor” lies for our congregations, we can translate Jesus’ teaching into their world view. The “lowest place” Jesus calls us to is the Cross. It is the only place from which we can view our brothers and sisters without being a part of the mimetic trap. The “honor” version of the trap takes so many forms. If we are to find the “lowest place” for our congregations, we need to know which ladder we’re on!