Painfully Continuous

Sunday 23rd October 2016
Year C, The Last Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Woodmancote
Isaiah 59.9-20
Luke 14.12-24

I don't suppose It's that different here in Woodmancote but where I live in Hurstpierpoint some people have an absolute set of unwritten, almost subconscious, rules about inviting people to dinner. So that when we invite people to dinner I can tell who will invite us back and who won't. Of course there are some people who just don't invite any people to dinner and there are no doubt some who find my company somewhat challenging but, still, there are general rules which can easily be discerned, the most interesting of which is that we will not be invited to the houses of males educated at private schools because I was not educated at a private school; never mind that I am a Cambridge and Harvard graduate, I am socially inferior to males educated at private schools.

'Twas ever thus, with the further refinement that rank was represented by one's position at table, replicated today by the table of precedence in my Mrs. Beaton. So if I ever have the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Prince of the Blood to dinner, I will know how to seat them.

At the time of Jesus, the positioning of dining couches in relation to the host was critical and, at large banquets, the precedence was first of all vertical and then horizontal: the more important you were, the higher the storey at which you dined, to take maximum advantage of whatever breeze was blowing, which explains the verses of Luke just before our reading where a guest who seated himself in a low position was invited to go higher, not higher up the table in our usage but higher up the building. Eating was also far more central in the culture of the Middle East at the time of Jesus than it is now because there were not so many ways as there are now of displaying one's wealth and position in society: no Christmas cards, of course; no posh restaurants but only rather primitive inns for travellers; and not such a great range of presents from the extravagant to the trivial. So just as people displayed their wealth largely in livestock and grain storage, so they went to the next stage of displaying it in banquets; and although most of Jesus' listeners would not have been to all that many banquets, they understood the rules of precedence and copied them at their own weddings and funerals.

Seen in this light, our Gospel reading looks relatively simple: the supposed friends of a man proposing to hold a banquet did not rate the invitation each received high enough to rank it above their various private concerns but turned it down; thus, we are invited to conclude, if we behave in the same way when we are invited to the heavenly banquet we must not make the same mistake but must accept our invitation.

So far so good. But there are two further implications in our two Readings. The first, from Luke, repeating a familiar theme most sharply expressed in the image of the eye of a needle, is that the poor have a much higher chance of eternal life than the rich. Which naturally should lead us to ask where we stand in the ranking of income and wealth; perhaps modestly in our own geographical community but very high as world citizens. So, we should ask, does our relative wealth lower our chances of eternal life.

The final stage of the argument is underlined in our First Reading from Isaiah: the obligation of the rich towards the poor, however defined, is to accord them proper socio-economic justice, not procedural justice in the courts, not the odd coin in a collection box, not the annual cheque to Christian Aid, not even tithing, but something much more fundamental than that!

Against this message we have erected three major defences: the first, and fundamental argument, is that whether or not we enjoy eternal life is simply thanks to the merits of Jesus Christ and has nothing to do with our private, or even public, behaviour; the second is that we should not mix politics and religion and that we are entitled to draw our own conclusion about the distribution of income and wealth; and the third is that as long as we pay our taxes and something towards charity, problem solving belongs elsewhere and not with us.

The respective objections to these three arguments are, in my view, incontrovertible. In the first place, we were created to exercise free will in matters of good and evil, to make choices that run counter to our competitive DNA and that to choose to do good is a fundamental part of our createdness which is entwined with and not separate from, let alone inferior to, our salvation from God in Jesus which has not saved us from our individual sins, from our failure in exercising free will, but has saved us from the flaw created in us of what Saint Augustine called "Original Sin".

In the second place, the only people who want to keep politics and religion separate are the rich and powerful because they have everything to lose and nothing to gain from a full blown proclamation of the message of Jesus on the centrality of socio economic justice. And, linked to that, in the third place, our private and, much more important, our public obligation to socio economic justice, to build the Kingdom on Earth as it is in Heaven, is not reciprocal nor in any way conditional. It doesn't matter what other people or other societies are doing; we must observe the teaching of Jesus regardless, unconditionally.

This is a tough ask, but we cannot go on any longer thinking of Jesus as simply a fleshly manifestation of a spiritualised God. He was a full blooded advocate for socio economic justice in a direct line from Isaiah and, in abandoning its responsibility to promote public justice in favour of making judgments on our private behaviour, the Church has betrayed its mission. We are supposed to spread the good news, not only about Heaven but about the proclamation of Jesus that we should build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Before we pass next week into the Sundays before Advent, this is a salutary message for the end of Ordinary Time: somehow, we must strive to make living the socio economic Gospel painfully continuous rather than spasmodically gratifying.