A Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (28/08/22): When Is A Parable Not A Parable

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Once again Jesus is the guest of honour at a meal. And as usual he observes the behaviour of his host and those around him, which leads him eventually to comment:
When he [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honour he told them a parable.
Actually we don’t hear a parable. But since we are rather familiar with Jesus’ story telling, and the setting he uses, a banquet, is one of his favourite ones, it’s not that hard to imagine how the parable might have sounded:
“Two men went to a banquet hosted by a friend. The first sought out and found the very last seat near the head of the table. The second took a seat at the other end of the table where there was plenty of room. When the host of the meal came in he noticed the first man sitting near the head of the table in a place of honour, and the second sitting near the foot of the table, he went to the man sitting at the foot of the table and said to him: ‘Friend move up higher.’ And then he went to the first, the one sitting in a place of honour, and said to him: ‘Give this person your place.’ And the first man was forced to take the lowest place and was greatly humiliated in front of all his neighbours. Whereas the second man, the one who had taken of lowly place, sat down in a place near the head of the table and was honoured in front of all his neighbours. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled. And those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
And, again typically for Jesus, he carries on. He describes the same setting seen from the other side, the point of view of the host rather than of the guests:
“A man held a banquet and invited all his friends and everyone with influence that he knew.” And in contrast to what often happens in Jesus’ stories, “All those who were invited came. Over the following months all those who came to the man’s banquet invited him to meals of their own or repaid him in some other way. So he got what he was looking for. He had received his reward. But another man held a banquet. He went out into the street and gathered in the poor and the crippled and the lame and blind. Over the following months his name was honoured among the poor and with God. He had stored up treasure in heaven. But his reward is delayed until the resurrection of the righteous.” The scenes which Jesus pictures, even without him actually telling these stories, are familiar from everything else he has said. As is his teaching here.

But for whatever reason, either Jesus didn’t tell these stories on this occasion, or Luke chooses not to report them directly, we don’t actually get the parable. What we actually hear is Jesus give two rather oddly specific commandments:
First: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet do not sit down at the place of honour
And second: When you give a luncheon or a dinner do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbours.
If we were to make a list of commandments, “Thou shalt not sit down at the head of the table,” And “Thou shalt not invite your friends round for lunch,” probably wouldn’t figure as the eleventh and twelfth commandments, if they appeared on our list at all. Though as commandments go, these are probably very difficult to keep. I’m guessing that a commandment like: “Thou shalt not kill” is for most people not too much of a tall order to obey. Even though it is commandment that is tragically often broken, it is not in the nature of most of us to kill. But commandments that prohibit sitting in places of honour, or invited people we get on with to dinner, those would be much more of a challenge. They run against the basic human nature which we all share. And then run against simple, practical social conventions that we all use without ever really noticing. And indeed Jesus’ comments are a product of his observing exactly those things at play in front of him: “When he noticed how the guests chose places of honour.” That just is the way people are. How those people behaved at the dinner is a reflection of how people are more generally. People, us included, tend to judge our value as human beings in comparison to the people around us. Our sense of self worth very often comes as matter of comparison with others. Of course for those with ambition or perhaps with a fragile sense of self worth this means pushing upwards in that comparison. Which also means that often that to feel valued some people have to push others down. And therein lies the roots of all kinds of “-ism” and “-phobias”: sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia and on and on. And likewise our social interactions can become an exchange. As a guest we perhaps know “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” But as the host that is almost an expectation. It is natural of course to invite our friends and family and for them to invite us in return. But many of our social interactions can become more calculated than that, on the basis of what is in it for us. And that way of ordering society leaves those without resources and without power, like the poor and the sick and the disabled, it leaves them excluded. Jesus’ parables and his commandments are directed towards the way in which human society is ordered, and offers a vision of a more beneficial, egalitarian and inclusive alternative which he calls the kingdom of God.

When is a parable not a parable? And when is a commandment not a commandment? When we hear Jesus’ parables we know he’s talking in metaphors. There wasn’t really a man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. There wasn’t really a man who went out to sow seed. They are metaphors. They are meant to represent something else, to help us understand something bigger than the dangers of travelling and the problems of farmers. When Jesus starts talking about a wedding banquet we know he doesn’t meal a real wedding banquet. We are pretty sure it’s a metaphor. What he’s really talking about is the “Messianic Banquet” the glorious hereafter when all the promises of the Bible are fulfilled. It’s very easy to spiritualise Jesus words in that way. And in so doing remove the immediate force of those words from our lives. When is a parable not a parable? When it becomes a commandment. Jesus isn’t talking about some spiritual future. He wants us to address how we handle our social interactions in the here and now. But when is a commandment not a commandment. The two commandments which Jesus present us with here are oddly specific: Don’t take places of honour, Don’t invite your friends, oddly specific and rather difficult to keep in practice. Except of course that they may be ways of pointing to broader principle of how we organise our relationships with ourselves and with one another, and how we order society as a whole. When is a commandment not a commandment? When it has become a parable. Jesus wants us to see past rules for organising dinner parties. And see in them a better way of organising the world.

Jesus has a somewhat complicated attitude towards commandments and towards religious observance. His parables or his commandments at this particular dinner party come after he has had another run in with the Pharisees over commandments and religious observance. Before he didn’t tell his parable, he had been debating once again the issue of whether it is permitted to heal on the sabbath. And once again, to the consternation of his listeners, he demonstrates that despite the commandment against working it is permitted to heal someone on the sabbath. Jesus doesn’t think there is any point to obeying commandments or being religious as ends in themselves. So not sitting at the head of the table, or not inviting people who could invite you in return serves no real purpose by itself. Such obedience is empty. What Jesus knows to be important is loyalty and trust toward God. So not sitting at the head of the table is actually about knowing that our true value as human beings comes not in comparison to other people or on the basis of our ability to push ourselves forward. Our value as human beings comes from God, and it is a value that is always infinite. Likewise not inviting those who can repay you is actually about knowing where our true reward comes from. Jesus time and time again urges to help those who can’t help themselves, or us, and thereby receive reward from God. Which of course means that Jesus is not actually indifferent to commandment or to religious observance. He does definitely think that we should not try to put ourselves in places of hour. He does definitely command us to take care of the poor and those who can’t take care of themselves. Since doing those things would be strong outward evidence of our genuine loyalty toward and trust of God.

Curiously what Jesus is asking of us in these parables and commandments is faith. He observes the way people push themselves forward, the way people conduct their relationships in transactional ways, and he understands why people act that way. They want to see results. They want to receive reward for their actions in some immediate and tangible way. By contrast, to act in the way in which Jesus directs requires faith. To sit in the lowest place requires faith that God will eventually come and lift you to the highest place. To invite those who can’t repay you requires faith that God will reward us for such actions. When is a commandment a parable? When it directs us to have faith in God

When Is A Parable Not A Parable by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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