Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tension, Temple & Table

Luke opens the fifteenth chapter of his work with “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming to hear Him.  But the Pharisees and the experts in the law were complaining, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” (15:1-2)  According to Luke’s narrative structure, this actually occurs “at the house of a leader of the Pharisees” (14:1b).  Obviously, the complaint of the fifteenth chapter is prefaced by the activities of the fourteenth chapter, and those hearing Luke’s presentation are going to rather enjoy the delicious irony of it all. 

There in the fourteenth chapter, as Luke builds a narrative tension between Jesus and the experts in the law and their associates (which, if Jesus is being critical of them and of the Temple that they represent, is eventually going to come to a head) it is said that Jesus was being watched closely (14:1c).  Based on all that that they would have heard to that point, the audience that sits and listens to the particular telling of the Jesus tradition that has come to be known as Luke, knowing what they already know about Jesus through the narrative and through the oral tradition (just as we approach Luke in the midst of a body of knowledge about Jesus, albeit informed by the New Testament and our own traditions), should expect Jesus to present an open challenge.  After all, with the pronouncements of woe that occurred before these events, everybody is well aware that there is and was hostility.  Luke does not let us or his audience down, as he informs us that “Jesus asked the experts in religious law and the Pharisees” (14:3a) a question. 

An answer was not forthcoming, and in fact, we hear that “they remained silent” (14:4a).  If we presume that Jesus’ is challenging the legitimacy of the Temple and those that support its claims while also deriving their personal support from that same structure, then this inability to proffer an answer is an apt demonstration of the ineffectiveness of these people in their duty to represent God.  Whether they simply did not desire to engage in another rabbinic challenge, or whether they refused to offer an answer because the question was posed to them by Jesus (rather than from them to Him), with a response serving the purpose of validating the standing of the questioner (they were seeking to de-legitimize Jesus), Jesus, by posing another question that is actually an answer to His first question, makes them look foolish with what appears to be a rather obvious and simple answer to a simple question. 

As Jesus offers his question-as-answer that is related to the first question, the sense of the ultimate ineffectiveness and illegitimacy of the experts in the law and Pharisees seems to grow, as Luke informs his hearers that “they could not reply to this” (14:6).  From there, without a change of scene from the house of the Pharisee at which Jesus had gone to dine (14:1), “Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor” (14:7a)---a very important consideration in a meal-table-oriented-and-demonstrating honor and shame culture.  In response, He tells a parable (14:7b).  Without recounting the parable, we can note that it is summarized by Jesus saying “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (14:11).  Crucially, Luke’s hearers would have heard this parable and its summation within the echo of Jesus having spoken of another meal table, as He has previously been reported as saying that “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God” (13:29).  This is the messianic banquet that, without going into too much detail, indicates that the rule of God on earth, through His Messiah, has begun.  To that statement is tagged, “But indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:30). 

So in the fourteenth chapter, when Jesus makes reference to a meal table that will be at least partially occupied by experts in the law and Pharisees, and we hear that Jesus was noticing how some guests chose their places of honor, and then we hear about humility and exaltation, we do so with ears that have just heard Jesus make reference to a messianic banquet, wherein Jesus has used words about the last becoming first (exaltation) and the first becoming last (humility).  These two things cannot be disconnected.  Furthermore, because the fourteenth chapter begins with Jesus challenging the experts in the law and the Pharisees, and because there is no change of setting until the seventeenth chapter, we have every reason to believe that all that follows from that initial, un-responded to challenge is at least tacitly directed to those same groups. 

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