They were watching him, but then they were always watching him. Some of them secretly admired him, most of them public despised him, but everywhere he went, every one of them was always watching him. He could cite the law with stunning accuracy; he quoted rabbis, street prophets and ministrels with equal ease. And his wit was sharper than the the assassin’s knife—and as effective at deflating egos and stirring up the masses.
It was a beautiful Sabbath afternoon, and he had been wandering through the city, in one of those apparently aimless, effortless jaunts his often took. No one could ever really know why he had gone down that particularly alley or squatted next to that particularly vile smelling beggar. This day, he’s wandering, but with a purpose: he’s off to a banquet at the home of one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. Before he gets there, he’s managed to offend nearly everyone around him, first by healing a woman whose spine was so bent that she’d crabbed about the city for nearly two decades, and people would just turn away from her rather than gaze on her pretzled body. Then, there’s a man with dropsy, where your body swells with excess fluid, while your tongue craves a drink like an empty creekbed craves rain. And Jesus heals him too, smirking at them with a sardonic “What? So none of you would give your donkey a drink on Shabbat? He was thirsty. I gave him what he needed.”
And with that, he wanders into the lawyer’s home, is greeted by the servants, and takes his place at the long banquet table, filled with trays of fruit and and unleavened bread, steaming pots of lamb and fish, and jugs of sweet, cool wine. In contrast to the poverty of most people, this home has the finest of everything, from the finest food to the most accomplished servants, from the stunning silk tapestries on the walls to the polished stone of the floor. It’s the kind of home people want to be in, especially if they have in mind trying to one-up its decorator.
Everyone at the table is watching him. But he doesn’t notice. Or if he does,he doesn’t care. Instead, he watching the latest guests arrive. The men—for they are all men; this is a Pharisee home after all and one does not invite women, children or beasts to dine with those who bear the image of God—look around the room and quickly size up where the best seats are. Ah, yes, there towards the front, in those spaces closest to the soft striped silk pillow on which the host will recline. They squeeze in tightly, so that the seats around the host’s pillow seem somehow bent, like the whole banquest is going to be pulled into the host’s radiant orbit. They thirst for the glory of sitting close to a man as rich and gracious as this, a man who knows God, a man in whom there is no guile. They thirst like an empty wine goblet thirsts for its filling again.
Finally, the host sits, and leads them in the Shabbat blessing. They raise their goblets high and praise the One from whom this bounty flows. A chorus of joy-filled, wine soaked voices fills up the place.
“Excuse me.” The voice was nearly drowned out. “Excuse me,” louder this time, and those around him took notice. Finally, a blanket of self-imposed silence settled over the table. It was Jesus, of course.
Accusing eyes dart at the host with that “What-is-he-doing-here-anyway?” look that the in-crowd always give each other when one of the out-crowd shows up. Why would he have invited this self-important Galilean to ruin their perfectly lovely Shabbat evening together? This guy fashions himself a prophet with his parlor magic, his band of ruffians and the gullible women who think he’s cast demons out of them hanging all over him in public. He ruins every gathering he comes into: he twists Heaven’s perfect and glorious Law, he stirs the people up against the Empire and the Temple. In short, he’s not the kind of person you invite to your home for dinner, and certainly not in this kind of company.
Jesus holds up a goblet. “Excellent wine, my friend. Thank you.” The host nods, a weak smile frozen on his face. “I was just noticing the seating arrangements, though. Quite peculiar. I mean, here I am down at this end of the table, and I’ve got about an acre to loll about in. While all of you seem to be crowded together at that end, by our esteemed host. What would you have done if the President of the Synagogue had shown up? Or one of the Chief Priests? Why, the host would have had to ask you to move down here, so he could put them up where you just presumed you were supposed to sit. Dreadfully embarassing to all concerned. I suggest that next time you come to a banquet, you find one of the least prominent seats, and let the host invite you up front, if he wants you there. It’s like my blessed Mother always says, the rich and mighty are going to be brought down low and the lowly are going to be rich and mighty.” Jesus took a bit of lamb and chewed it thoughtfully.
“My dear friend, thank you for this meal and for inviting me into this lovely home. A great place to spend Shabbat dinner, and let me tell you, it beats the dirt floor in a barn anytime.” He chuckled to himself, at some secret joke.
“Anyway, I suggest,” he took another bite, and wiped the gravy from his beard. “I suggest that the next time you have one of these dinners, you go out on the street and talk to some of the people that I met on the way here. After all, this bunch,” he waved half a pita around the room, “this bunch can have you over for a feast anytime. I mean half of them are memorizing the menu, so they can out-gourmet you when they have their stuffy little party for the all the other rich schmoozers. But the people I met on the way here, some of them are so poor, they’d gladly bus this table for the privilege of licking our plates. There are blind folks, with flies gnawing at the caverns of their eyesockets and the ones who are crippled up so badly that it breaks your heart just to look at them. Those people, they can’t give a party for you, like your friends can. Which,” he took a sip of wine, and another bite of pita, “which is okay, if you know what I mean? After all, if you take care of the poor, the blind, the sick you win a front row seat at the resurrection, not just a font row seat next to some insufferable, rich bore.”
Sweet Jesus, why do you have to be so mean to us? I mean, he’s talking to us, you know. We, you and me, we’re the rich people he says are going to get their comeuppance soon. After all, even if we are of modest income, by American standards, even if our nest egg got broken while we slipped on Wall Street’s fashionably slick marbled floors, even if we only have one home, one car, one bank account, we are still fabulously wealthy by the standards of the much of the rest of the world.
Today’s Gospel is not really about seat assignments, after all. It’s about the way we choose to live, and the way we see other people who can’t live the way we do. It’s about how Empires rise and fall because they grow so fat and arrogant as to believe that they are immune from the laws of divine justice that govern the world. It’s about Churches so focused on their buildings that they forget that Churches are people, not buildings. It’s about the choices we make, the public policies we support, the way we want to humble those we consider inferior to us, whether they live outside our guarded gates or have snuck in to try their hand at the roulette wheel of American success.
This past week South Carolina’s Commerce Department released the most detailed report ever on economic devlopment in that blighted region we dismiss as the “corridor of shame,” those poor rural communities along the asphalt pipeline called Interstate 95. It’s not really surprising, but it is shameful: In those places, there is only one job for every three people who are of working age. Imagine, one job for every three people! But who can blame the employers for not setting up shop there? The schools are still segregated, with black children in crumbling public schools that only graduate half of the children entrusted to their care; property tax rates are ruinously high as desperate local governments struggle to find some revenue to support basic services; the only careers for young people are working at the Hardee’s or the Subway or taking a chance on the underground drug economy that rules these places. The smart ones choose to leave their families far behind. There are no public parks, or art galleries, or quaint little bistros serving over-priced faux-Euro entrees with delicately sculpted vegetables garnishing gilt-edged platters. We are complicit in the poverty of both body and soul in those places. For we have supported the policies that have made it so and voted for leaders who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor.
All around our country, led by pundits, politicians and preachers, crowds gather, clamoring that they want their country back, as if someone else has taken it away from them. Yesterday, we were treated in unintentional irony to the spectacle of two such crowds, winding around the National Mall, each laying claim to the legacy of a man who gave his life on behalf of the poor. But neither of them were crowds of the poor, the hungry, the desparate: they were crowds of the protected, the pampered, the proud. Rabbi Ben Sirach wrote in today’s reading from the Apocrapha: “Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence and wealth.” The country that we used to have, the one where we welcomed strangers as if they were angels, the one where boatloads of refugees from lands without hope could come here and share in our hopeful future, is now a country that we snatched from ourselves. We hold ourselves hostage to our wealth, even as it slips through our fingers. We fret as China and India use more and more of the oil and gold and tungsten and uranium that we thought was ours alone. We are angry because because Muslim Americans want to build a place to pray that’s too close to a place where thousands of people, including innocent Muslim Americans, died in an atrocious act of hate. We scrunch ourselves together at the head of the table, away from the unworthy ones at the other end, vying for God’s favor. And all through dinner God is telling us that he’s at the other end, with the people we are trying so hard to avoid.
Ben Sirach’s words are a warning to us about the inevitability of entropy. Every human Empire that ever existed collapsed, not because it became too diverse, but because it became more unjust, insolent, and wealthier than the one before. And the cost of injustice, insolence and wealth is borne by the poor, the outsiders, the lame, the blind, the ones who can’t repay. Just like the human body decays, says Ben Sirach, nations decay, dying even while they are still alive, forgetting why they came into existence in the first place.
The anonymous writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews packs the end of his or her letter with sentence piled on sentence of prophetic utterance. Love each other. Take care of strangers, the outsiders, the immigrants, because they might be angels. Under the Roman Empire, anyone seen as a threat to social stability could be jailed and tortured until they confessed to something, whether they were guilty or not. The writer urges us to feel their anguish and not just shrug it off as the price you have to pay for security from your enemies. Make sure your marriages are strong. Stop obssessing about money. Remember that God will take care of you. And then, just in case somebody still believes that social justice is not the center of true worship, the reading ends with: “Don’t neglect to do good and to share what you have, because that’s the kind of sacrifice that pleases God.”
One of the greatest tragedies of history unfolds each day of our post-modern lives: a world of 6 and a half billion people raises enough food to feed all of them and more. Yet, 1.2 billion of them are hungry. 24,000 children die every day from hunger and diseases caused by hunger. That’s eight September 11th’s every day. But nobody’s going to jail for it. No political leader is being held accountable for it. We’re not clamoring for regime change or chasing the elusive perpetrators into the mountains. And do you know why?
Because we know that we are complicit in those deaths. Because the policies that bring cheap food help to our grocery stores starve the people of other countries. And I don’t want the price of my Wonder bread to go up. Injustice, insolence and wealth always destroy a nation. They will destroy ours, unless we turn it around soon.
You have an opportunity, on the National Day of Service, September 11, to spend a few hours helping to feed people who are hungry in St. Martin’s Stop Hunger Now Event. And you have an opportunity to come to adult education all through September to learn more about the ethics of food and the causes of hunger. And you can do something today, right now. You can remember the people who are starving in a world where there’s too much food. You can feel their torment, as if it were you being tormented. And you can promise that you will do whatever you can to change the unjust laws that starve people, that you will hold our leaders accountable for that injustice, that you will never stop sharing what you have and doing good to those who don’t have at all.
It’s a funny thing too, about God’s justice. Saving their lives means saving our own. Sharing our abundance means having more blessings. Loving strangers means entertaining angels. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.