03 November 2009

Exclusion or Inclusion: How is God truly Honored?

Today's Gospel is the continuation of a series of stories in which Luke describes what happens when Jesus is invited to dinner. He is dining with Pharisees and for them it is a decidedly uncomfortable occasion. Jesus has brought them to a point of crisis or decision; he has challenged them far beyond their social or religious comfort zone, and he has asked them to change the way they behave towards others in absolutely fundamental ways in order to really do the will of God. You may remember, he has just finished rebuking them for asking friends to dinner instead of the poor and disabled, that is for seeking honor and avoiding shame by asking to dinner those who could reciprocate (and so, give further honor) rather than those who could not. He affirms that if they behave as he demands they will find their reward at the resurrection of the just.

At this point, the point where today's Gospel begins, one of the Pharisees (I imagine him as the parish armchair theologian or the believer who rejects social justice as having anything to do with the gospel or with Church per se!) burbles on with, "Blessed is he who eats bread in the Kingdom of God." In other words, he tries to divert the focus from the here-and-now demands Jesus has made to a far more comfortable and pious reflection on heaven and the eschatological banquet --- as though that was the real thrust of Jesus' instruction thus far!

But Jesus will have none of it. Instead he tells another parable which sharpens the demands he has already made of these Pharisees; he intensifies the crisis they face, and refocuses attention onto their present meal practices. As Robert Farrar Capon puts the matter, [[(Jesus) launches straight into a story which bumps his hearers off the bus bound for the heavenly suburbs and deposits them back into the seediest part of town!]] (Parables of Grace, p 131)

The story Jesus tells is of a Master who invites guests to a great feast, and who, in the ordinary scheme of things, is shamed when those who are "worthy" of attending refuse his invitation for religiously acceptable reasons. As a result he sends his servants out in two different forays to actively seek out those who are seen as unworthy of attending the feast. The progression is significant: first the servant seeks out the disabled and poor or oppressed. Then, the net is cast wider to the prostitutes, pickpockets, tax collectors --- in general the social riffraff of both town and country. According to usual standards the attendance of none of these would bring honor to the Master. Rather, it would shame him --- as would his actively seeking them out. But in choosing to bring them into the feast and sending servants out after them, the parable serves to criticize and subvert the foundational honor/shame value-system of his society. On this basis alone Jesus' story would be shocking to his hearers.

But there is another dimension which gives Jesus' choice of substitute guests an added importance --- and an added impact --- an even greater shaking of the foundations on which the Pharisees' reality rests. Remember that the Essene community of this time celebrated meals which anticipated the eschatological Banquet just as our own meals, and especially our own Eucharists anticipate this. The Essenes, as was true of many Jews in Jesus' day, saw themselves as participants in a holy war against sin and evil and to help ensure God's victory in this they stressed the importance of freedom from ritual and moral impurity. As a result certain people were ineligible to participate in community life, and especially in community meals. These included the lame, blind, crippled, paralyzed, and otherwise afflicted (never mind prostitutes, thieves, collaborators and tax collectors, etc)!! The basic religious strategy for winning this "holy war" was exclusion. This separatist strategy was one the Pharisees and most Jews also adopted with regard to the world around them --- at least if they wanted to worship as Jews.

Jesus' parable, however, overturns this basic religious stratagem as well. It is not just the foundational social structure and mores Jesus turns on their head, but the religious ones as well. What matters to the Master in Jesus' story (as Luke tells it) is that his house be filled, his feast be celebrated and enjoyed. Where that is done he is well and truly honored. As Paul has been telling us throughout Romans as well, God's strategy for dealing with evil is inclusion, not exclusion, participation in, not isolation from. Our God is one who himself goes out into the hedgerows to seek out and bring the unworthy back with him. He searches for and welcomes the ritually and morally impure, the godless and despised. (And yes, he of course sends his servants out in the same way!) He is honored only when NO ONE, and no part of ourselves, is excluded, only when those who cannot reciprocate and have nothing to offer on their own are brought into the feast. Our God is the One who brings all of us, each and every broken and unclean sinner of us, into the community of Christ so that he may love us into wholeness and holiness. That is our God's strategy for dealing with evil! This is the way he conducts a holy war!

Today in the Church there is a movement afoot to create a "leaner, meaner, purer" remnant community of "faith." If there is anything today's Gospel teaches with a startling vividness and a stunning contemporaneity, it is that such a church has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. An emphasis on purity and exclusion may work in some areas of the world (not the only example, certainly, but bioweapons labs come to mind here!), but not in terms of the God Jesus reveals to us, and certainly not in terms of any reality we would be courageous (or honest) enough to call the body or Church of Jesus Christ!