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Sermon | The place of honor
Texts: Proverbs 25:6-7; Luke 14:1,7-14
Speaker: Joel Miller
When Jesus goes to eat at the house of a community leader, he’s being watched. That’s how Luke chapter 14 begins: “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.” It’s a bit ambiguous who “they” are who are doing the close watching, but we can assume it was other members of that group known as the Pharisees, and anybody else within watching distance.
“Watching closely” doesn’t necessarily imply suspicion or mal intent. Jesus had been making quite a name for himself. He’s been stirring things up by restoring body and status to the sick, honoring women, casting out harmful spirits, telling parables that both confound and illuminate. Even Herod, ruling the area on behalf of Rome, had taken notice. Four verses prior to this dinner event it was the Pharisees who had come to Jesus and given him a warning that Herod wanted to kill him. Predictably unpredictable, Jesus had responded by calling Herod a fox and himself a hen, gathering her brood of chicks under her wing. Which is what he plans to continue to do, or at least try.
Maybe they’re watching Jesus closely because they’d never met anyone quite like him. He doesn’t fit any pre-determined categories. He’s not interested in playing the respectability game. He’s not even all that strategic about preserving his own life. You can’t help but pay attention when this guy walks into the room. If Jesus were coming to my house to eat I’d be watching him closely too.
So what’s he going to do?
Verse 7: “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.” What Jesus does, while being watched by perhaps everyone, is do some watching of his own. He notices. He notices how his fellow guests, in that place, angle for status, culturally mapped out in dinner gatherings with who eats where, next to whom. Jesus notices how this works. He notices how it all unfolds, like everyone is following a script they didn’t even realize they had been handed, seeking the places of honor.
Now step back from this scene a bit and call to mind a time when you have been playing out this script and then became aware of it, when you were able notice, even briefly, what was going on.
One of the stories that comes to mind for me was soon after Abbie and I were married. As we continue to do regularly, we spent our vacation time in between Christmas and New Years out in Kansas with her family. Abbie’s brother Jesse is pretty tall, around 6’4,” and one of those days he came in the house in his work boots and we were standing side by side at the kitchen sink. So I’m a barefoot 6’2” and he’s now checking in at a solid 6’5”. And as we were talking, shoulder to shoulder, with my shoulders noticeably lower than his, I found myself, involuntarily, rising up on the balls of my feet to close the gap. Just trying to hold that position and act normal.
And after a bit, I realized what I was doing. And as the one most often in Jesse’s position, not accustomed to looking up, it made me reflect on how something as unearned as physical height creates subtle power dynamics.
Another story: Early in my years of pastoring I realized that the title and position can get you invitations to be in the room with various elected officials. Sometimes I would go, as I still do, with other faith leaders for these conversations or forums or whatever they may be. And one of the things I noticed, if I got the chance to meet this person of status, was that my right hand would, again, almost involuntarily, shoot out, inviting a handshake. Handshakes mean different things but one of the things is that they confer some of the status of the higher ranking member - and we somehow know without being told in each interaction whether one is a higher or lower ranking member – the handshake doles out some of that status to the other. And it feels kind of good to be the recipient of that. A little honor boost. Like that right hand you didn’t even knowingly command to extend is doing you a favor. You’ll thank it later. Something back there in your primate brain knew this was what needed to happen in this circumstance.
We tend to view honor and status as an individual achievement. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, make friends with the right people, project confidence, climb the corporate ladder or party ranks, lean in, be a self-made whatever and you too can gain honor and status.
But like so many other instances, our Western individualism makes us outliers. Anthropologists classify the first century Mediterranean world as an honor/shame culture - with these dynamics defining relationships of every kind. Honor is held communally, is typically viewed as a limited resource – there’s only so much to go around – is inherited but can be acquired, is more given by the collective rather than personally achieved. Excessive wealth is met with skepticism and even scorn because the purpose of wealth is the uplift and harmony of the community. In some honor/shame cultures the person with the most honor is one of the most materially poor because they are continually giving away whatever they have, as they are expected to, as an expression of their honor. It’s honor that is the greatest currency. It is owed, and these debts are what hold a community together. Honor, and shame, are frequently tied to gender, and age. It is incumbent on women and the young to properly bear shame, just as it is incumbent on men and the old to properly bear honor.
If you’re traveling cross-culturally, it’s good to know how honor and shame work wherever you’re headed.
The Bible is one big extended cross-cultural excursion. But we get the gist of what’s going on here. Jesus is noticing and critiquing how parts of the honor system of his day harmed the community rather than built it up. And really the entirety of the four gospels can be read through this lens. How is honor being given, challenged, re-distributed. How is shame being forgiven, debts cleared. How is a limited resource being doled out abundantly like a farmer throwing seed over all types of soil, like loaves and fishes multiplied and distributed, with baskets and baskets left over. All signs point to Jesus having some serious issues with how honor and shame were abused. He really cared about this.
In this instance Jesus has accepted this dinner invitation to the house of a leader of the Pharisees and, as Luke writes: “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.” Although it’s a pretty loose definition of a parable. He basically reworks a Bible verse. One from Proverbs they likely knew pretty well. Here’s what Proverbs 25:6-7 says: “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.’”
And here’s Jesus’ parable: “8When 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, 9 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. 10 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.”
So far this sounds a bit like gaming the system without really changing it. When they go high, you go low, then they’ll have to go low so you can go high. Jump over to the right side of the teeter totter at the right time and you get a little honor boost on the upswing.
But Jesus has more to say – which throws the system into more disarray. He goes on to suggest, to his dinner host nonetheless, that the next time he throws a party he should leave out his friends and relatives and rich neighbors, since they have the ability to repay the honor, and instead invite, in Jesus’ words, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” Those without the material or social capital to do anything for your honor, let alone invite you back for a buffet at their place next weekend.
It sounds a bit like honor anarchy where suddenly nobody’s quite sure how honor did or didn’t get passed along and who owes what to whom and whether it can ever be repaid and if that even matters. Almost like you have to start from scratch about what is honorable and what is shameful.
Or maybe Jesus really did want to just turn the whole order on its head, an honor inversion. That the tall would be made short, and the short would be made tall. Try that on for size a while and see what happens. The well-dressed and well-heeled would suddenly feel compelled to extend their hand out to the disheveled and dispossessed to receive whatever measure of honor the formerly dishonored are willing to share.
This reimagining of the honor and shame system isn’t just a phenomenon of the four gospels. The apostle Paul brags to the little congregations he helped form about the very things that have stripped him of his honor - beatings, imprisonments, rejections – a bit of theological jujitsu to claim shame and dishonor as the very source of his honor in Christ.
And with Herod the fox having his way over Jesus the hen, the most dishonorable death of all, crucifixion, reserved for slaves and thieves and insurrectionists, is held up by the early church as the very glory of God revealed to humankind, inseparable from resurrection and union with the Divine. Paul would once refer to this as the foolishness of the cross, the ultimate judgment on the kinds of honor systems we set up which turn out to simply be death dealing ways of holding on to power, now exposed and overcome in the death and resurrection of the Christ. Freed from the old script. This new kind of honor held in anarchic abundance by these little congregations of women and men, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, that dare refer to themselves as the body of Christ.
So that seems to be a big part of what Jesus was up to. And it seems to be how the Spirit of Christ is still playfully prodding our world.
The first act of leaving the old script behind and joining in the play is simply to notice. Like Jesus at the dinner party, to simply notice how honor and shame are working around you, and to opt out of all the ways it harms community, all the ways it harms you.
And then the fun part begins. If God is the ultimate source of honor, the ultimate ground of what actually matters most, then honor is an abundant resource, meant to be doled out and received with joy and gratitude. To give honor is not to deplete you own bank account. To receive honor is not to take it away from someone else. This is something we can do everyday. Honor kids. Honor the person at the check out counter. Honor the imprisoned. Honor the parts of the yourself that others have shamed.
But there is a price. Those hoarding power will loose it. Those living within the new vision may be overlooked for a promotion within the old.
Jesus is throwing a feast, and everyone is invited, which is going to make it wonderfully confusing about who sits where next to whom.
As a postscript I want to hold up the Columbus Education Association, the teacher’s union, as modeling what honor can look like in our community. This past week our teachers challenged all of us to notice some things we hadn’t necessarily been paying close attention to. They called on us to take collective responsibility for the shame of having poor kids in poor conditions in poor facilities with under resourced and overwhelmed teachers. These teachers and school employees stopped playing the game and used the power of moral persuasion to rally the community. It was both a hard week and a proud week to be a parent of kids in Columbus City Schools and I know these problems aren’t unique with this district. Thank you to all teachers who give of yourselves and pass on love and education and honor to our children.
Sudanese church worship music. Recording provided by Yasir Maki.
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