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Life Arts    H1'ed 9/1/19

Everyone Likes A Good Joke: Jesus Makes Fun of "Humble" Religious Hypocrites

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Readings for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; PS 68: 4-5, 6-7, 10-11; HEB 12: 18-19, 22-24A; LK 14: 1, 7-14.

[What follows is a dramatic re-creation of Luke's rather abstract account of Jesus' dinner at a Pharisee's home. (See the narrative here.) While Luke seems to have the Master recommending impossible (for Jesus) hypocrisy and self-promotion, the re-creation seems more probable and gets at Jesus' real message about the Kingdom of God and its preferential option for the poor. It's an example of how liberation theologians approach such narrative.]

In this morning's gospel, Jesus finds himself invited for dinner to the home of a Pharisee. All present, Luke tells us, are watching Jesus closely. No doubt, they're keeping an eye on his disciples too. And they don't approve.

After all, like Jesus, his disciples are mere riff-raff. But at least Jesus is the reputed peasant-rabbi. Everyone's talking about him. And investigating Jesus is the whole reason for this dinner. So for the moment at least, the Pharisees are willing to cut him some slack. He's sitting near his hosts towards the head of the table.

His hangers-on however are a different story. They're rough. They smell of fish and sweat, and have no manners. And yet, as Jesus' friends, they've been granted a place at table down towards the end. Even there, they feel out of place, but for that very reason they are enjoying themselves tremendously. You can imagine their rough jokes and loud laughter.

Yes, the Pharisees are watching Jesus and his friends. But obviously, Jesus has been watching them as well. He knows they are expecting some words of wisdom. So . . . he tells them a joke. And the joke's on them. It contains a sharp barb.

"Thanks for inviting us to this banquet," Jesus begins. "Unaccustomed as we are . . ." He pauses and smiles. "That's quite generous of you. After all, none of us can repay your kindness. We are homeless people, as you know. We're unemployed too, so we are in no position to return your kindness.

The best I can do is offer you some wisdom. So let me tell you what I've been observing here.

"Evidently," Jesus goes on, "it's your custom to adopt the humility recommended in the biblical Book of Sirach. I can't tell you how impressed I am; I'm edified by your piety. I mean, you have clearly taken to heart the words of the sage, Jesus ben Sirach what he said about being humble, especially if we are 'great' as all of you are here, I'm sure."

Jesus eyes his listeners. He can tell that they are waiting for the penny to drop. So he drops it.

"I can see that when you come into a place like this, you take the lowest place available -- down there where my friends are." With this, Jesus stands up bows his head, stoops his shoulders and slumps towards the lowest place at table. He laughs.

"That way," the Master continues, "our host, of course, is obliged to publicly invite you to a more honored position at table. 'Friend,' he'll say, 'come up higher, and sit in the place you've merited not down there with the unwashed and poor.'"

Now Jesus is standing. He throws out his chest and strides towards the seat right next to his pharisaical host. He chuckles again. "That enables you," Jesus continues," with great protestations of unworthiness, to take your 'rightful' place at table. Your stock has risen in everyone's eyes.

"So congratulations are in order," Jesus says. "All of you have learned your lessons well. You've just created a show, and have actually exalted yourself by pretending to be humble. In a sense, you've received your reward."

Jesus is seated again and looking intently at everyone. Their mouths are open with shock.

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Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Retired in 2014, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 40 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program. His latest book is "The Magic (more...)
 

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