Wanting for food, is not even on the radar screen, at an important banquet fundraiser! To get invited to an exclusive gala like this, you have to be a good giver to the party or organization already. The, meal and a speech, is an occasion to ask for favors, and assess your standing within the group. There’s competition to get close to the candidate, or leader of the organization, and increase your status, which dovetails nicely with the needs of the politician or CEO. Money buys influence for the contributor, and competition increases the take for the candidate or asker. There’s lots of back slapping, and the more you give and smooze, the higher up you go, and more honored you are.
Yesterday we held a picnic potluck with our fellow Lutheran congregations in Edgewater. It was a delightful afternoon, but with a different kind of smoozing. There was no politician or CEO to please, no $1000 a plate requirement to get in the door, only the communal, bring a dish to share, expectation. The church potluck is more like the miracle of feeding the 5,000. You begin with a basket of bread and a covered dish or two, someone gives thanks for the food – it doesn’t have to be the pastor! – you share it with the crowds, and everyone has enough to eat, and still, there’s lots of leftovers!
Jesus dined in a variety of settings, and his ‘speech’ varied according to those he ate with. For the 5,000 that he fed, he had compassion. For the sick and outcast, the tax collectors and sinners, he healed, forgave and celebrated. For Mary and Martha, he affirmed their acts of service, and the priority of God’s life-giving word. For the rich and upwardly mobile he gave them the choice of dining in the kingdom of God, or serving the Master of money. For his disciples, who also showed a desire for honor and greatness, he modeled humility, service, and the ultimate non-violent sacrifice.
There is a way in which Mediterranean society is like the elite fund-raiser of our day, in the way it taught honor and shame. Male society was all about gaining honor, and avoiding shame. Whether rich or poor, it was inbred that you must defend your honor, and protect it from being shamed. Your job, your wife, your children, your possessions, all depended on your honor. Following the rules, and making them work for you, was part of how you avoided shame. And so for Jesus, accepting the invitation to the Shabbat dinner party at the rich leaders home, meant he was entering a highly competitive world of honor and shame. The feast had well defined customs of reclining at a lavish table, and being served. Afterwards, Jesus was the featured speaker. Just like the fundraiser dinner, jockeying for position closest to the guests of honor was expected, simply taken for granted – it was the way you enhanced your honor and protected your reputation from being brought down and shamed. Honor could buy you more influence and power, just like money in our culture, and both are perceived to be a limited resource that you need to compete for. You were either a winner or a loser, and that compounded your honor or shame.
In our part of the world, honor and shame are defined in any number of ways: By our place in the economy, the size of our “castle,” the car we drive, and at bottom, the ‘almighty green-back.’ And, of course, with unemployment at 10%, and house foreclosures at record highs, there’s been a lot of losers. Our Great Recession is tottering on becoming a “double-dip recession.”
In our present predicament, nothing typifies who’s invited to the banquet of green-backs, more clearly than the “Paulson Plan,” named after Henry Paulson, who became Treasury Secretary, as things were unraveling a couple years ago. Paulson may be right that he saved the economy from a Depression era collapse, but not without creating distinct winners and losers. The Paulson Plan was conceived behind closed doors one October weekend of 2008. He called in the CEO’s of the 9 largest banks, all on the verge of eating bad loans, and Credit-Default-Swaps, of their own making, and spoon fed them all the same medicine. And so in a sense, he humbled them by inviting the little guys to come up higher, and the more well-off banks to go down lower. The idea was that the honor of the banks would be rescued, in our eyes, and a terrible collapse of the economy, be averted. But the places of honor at the banquet, we found out later, remained the same. Those with pensions and mortgages, and the poor, were not invited in. Paulson, the former head of one of the 9 banks, invited in his friends, but not the middle-class and working poor, not those on disability and on the streets. And so, those left out, have only, shame and anger. The banqueting table remained reserved for the winners, in the Paulson Plan. Just the opposite of Jesus’ vision.
In the banquet of “the resurrection of the righteous,” Jesus tells us, the invitation to the feast goes out to the poor and crippled, the lame and the blind, first, before our friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors, because they have the means to repay you, and then all you have is a lot of parties for the winners, at the expense of the shamed.
Aren’t there any alternative models out there? Any ways in which we can begin to live into the realm of God? I heard a remarkable example the other day about how Billy Joel honors some fans at his concerts. I was told, anyway, that he is said to always reserve a section right up front at all his concerts, and then the day of the event he invites a group from the nose-bleed section to come up to these choice seats and enjoy the concert as his honored guests.
Or, the example of the church potluck. I like the way everyone is invited equally. Bring what you can, offer it up with thanks, share it with everyone else, and somehow it is enough, more than enough, with leftovers. There are no reserved seats, and the featured speaker is everyone’s lively conversation, and everyone is honored – no one is shamed.
Do you know someone that hasn’t been invited to the banquet? Do you know someone who is hungry, or hungry for spiritual food? How are we responsible to them? What meals and events do we influence? How can we be more inclusive and less shaming? Let’s take a minute for talk-time. I know you have lots more examples of Jesus fellowship meals. There’s Martha Dinner and potlucks thru church. But what about in the work place and the meetings you’re at? How can they better honor everyone? Take a minute to talk with a neighbor about this. Who would you like to invite to the banquet?
In the fellowship of the table that Jesus gave us, the Lord’s Supper, Jesus invites each of us to come up to the place of honor, and receive the “bread of life” and “the cup of salvation.” We are welcomed into the heavenly banquet, already, and sit at the table, the feast that Jesus hosts, the meal of “the resurrection of the righteous.” Our honor is not tied to anyone who can shame us, in this world. We are honored by the one who feeds us at this Eucharistic table, who lifts, and invites us up higher. Come to the banquet! Our risen Lord is the host! The meal of salvation is served!