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Luke #53 In Pursuit of Honor

In Pursuit of Honor

Reading: Luke 14:1-14

Introduction: You may have at least seen advertised a recent television movie called, “In Pursuit of Honor.” The movie is based on the true story of an incident in American history when the Army decided it would discontinue the use of horses. The term “Cavalry” would be maintained, but soldiers on horse were too antiquated for modern war. The problem was, what to do with all of those horses? As an economic expediency, the higher authorities in the army decided simply to slaughter the horses. But for the men assigned the task of killing their partners in combat--killing the horses that had carried them and sometimes saved them from losing their own lives--the slaughter of some 400 horses was an unbearable shame. It was like turning their machine guns on each other. So the men assigned to the task not only refused to lead the horses to the firing squad, they set out to drive the horses from an army post in Texas all the way to the Canadian border in order to set the horses free.

That is the story in the movie. What intrigued me about the story was the value of given to acting honorably, even if it defied the Army’s orders and brought about court martial proceedings. Honor is not one of those values you hear about today. That sense of moral obligation to be the right kind of person and do what is right, even when the rules of the army or the norms of culture suggest otherwise, is uncommon. Honor itself as a value which determines personal identity is part of Asian and Eastern culture more than our own. We tend to think of honor as an award given for some outstanding performance rather than a character trait or quality that determines one’s place in society in relationship to others.

The first century world was far more like what we think of as an Eastern understanding today. Honor and shame were the core values that determined personal identity. Honor was something you were born with. Yes, honor could still be ascribed by heroic behavior or in competition with others. But it was not a matter of taking home trophies. It was integral to life itself. One maintained honor by living appropriately to one’s station in life. If you were the son of a farmer, you grew up to be a farmer and you worked the family farm; that was honorable. Shame came about when you acted inappropriately to your station in life. You broke the social rules, somehow.

Our story from Luke today revolves around the values of honor and shame and their importance to identity in the first century. The meal setting was perhaps the most prominent social gathering in society, central to the social order of the day. You read so much about eating and drinking in the New Testament because this was the place where social identity was formed and maintained. “Symposium” was the name given to large dinners in which the host invited those socially advantageous to him to a meal. The guest list might include a special guest, someone prominent in town who, as the meal progressed, would either answer questions or perhaps lecture on a topic of importance. The meal would take place in the largest room of the house. People reclined around the table, and social order determined where one sat in relation to the host. Lower class people could be invited, but they would sit around outside edges of room. A door opened to the street so that outsiders could come listen to the main guest or discussion. There was a bit of conspicuous consumption involved for those uninvited who just came to listen--they wished they had been invited!

Such scenes were crucial in determining social presence in community. Honor often was more important than life itself. Honor was always determined in relationship to other people--what others thought of you was as important as what you thought of yourself. Therefore a premium was placed on events in which you interact with other people. No honor was acquired or maintained in isolation from others. The dinner or banquest scene therefore was very important, as guest and as host. It was in these settings that you interacted with those of your own status level and identity. It was here that your honor--your selfworth, your identity as a person--was determined. One needed to be invited to the right parties, and needed to invite the right guests to his own party!

In Luke's gospel, Jesus is often depicted in meal scenes. Unique to this account, Jesus is shown dining with the Pharisees. In chapter seven, your remember that when Jesus dined with Simon the Pharisee, the prostitute proved to be a better host to Jesus than Simon. Simon was shamed in that story; the woman received honor which had otherwise been stripped from her because of her lifestyle. In chapter eleven, Jesus pronounced a woe against the Pharisees because they loved the chief seats in the synagogue--the places of highest honor. This third occasion in chapter fourteen opens with Jesus as the honored guest at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee. Here they do not invite him so that they can learn but in order to watch. (The word used in v. 1 is always used in Luke in an accusing sense--they are watching to catch him.)

When a man comes in with this disorder called dropsy, and Jesus heals him on the Sabbath, they think they have Jesus right where they want him. But before they can challenge his actions, he challenges their thoughts, and they are shamed by their own inability to answer back to respond to his challege. More importantly, in verse seven, while they were watching to accuse Jesus, he was watching them. Jesus instructs them regarding their choice of seats when they attend a banquet. Choose the lower seats, the less honorable positions, he says, because there is great risk in thinking too highly of oneself. Suppose you take one of the chief seats and someone more important than you arrives. Then the host will tell you to move, and you will be shamed as you walk to the last seat in the room! Imagine being this person in an honor oriented culture. You thought you were the honored guest! Instead you suffer the humiliation of being the least of those there.

This principle was illustrated well in the commercial of Bob Uecker a few years ago, when he was given baseball tickets. He thought he would have seats on the second row behind the backstop! Instead they were in the nosebleed section behind left field.
But what about the risk involved in taking the other route? The proverb in verse 11 states it in plain terms: “He who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” But isn't that a great risk? What if the host doesn't come? What about having to sit with people you don't like, away from conversation.? Ever been stuck at a dinner in the back where you would just rather leave?

Jesus then speaks to the host, who also is involved in acquiring /maintaining honor: The host of a dinner normally invites superiors and peers and those socially below that are advantagious to him. What they think of him and his dinner is crucial to his own honor. That is all part of the reciprocity system: you scratch my back and I scratch yours. You invite those who can do something for you, perhaps economically but more often socially, within the honor system.

Jesus said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Jesus tells the host to forget the whole system of maintaining honor through reciprocity and instead risk losing all honor, being shamed by inviting the shameless. He instructs him to find a new honor and and new identity that will have its reward at the resurrection of the just. I'm not sure we can imagine how strange the words of Jesus must have sounded. They went against all social customs and societal structures. The Pharisees, who were always criticising Jesus precisely because he dined with the social misfits and outcasts, were already in shock from the earlier comments about how to act as a guest. Now they were being told to drop all of their ways of social separation, all of their ways of determining their identity. Jesus was telling them to act shamelessly by inviting the shameless.

In our society, we still have social identities that we try to carve out by being with the right people, dressing the right way, living in the right place, driving the right car. I am afraid that sometimes in our churches, we also have little more than social identities. Particularly if we have been rasied in the church, there can be a tendency to have only a social identity in the body. We can become more concerned about who will see or not see us, who we speak to or don't speak to, than we are concerned about our experience of worship and learning. Even in the context of eating and drinking--something we are quite fond of--who's doing it and where often have an impact on our participation. Then there is the quesiton of who we invite to dinner in our homes. We may not have honor at stake per se, but we do know about reciprocity, don't we? What happens if we invite folks over and they never return the invitation? Cross them off the social calendar, right? They are not socially advantageous, not our friends! We know what it feels like to be snubbed by the "in-crowd," don't we? Then there are much larger questions that we must face about our own discomfort with people from different socio-economic backgrounds. We know the embarassment of having people that we deem "higher class" in our homes. We must admit a struggle, even an inability, to talk to those who are far below us, much less actually have them in our homes. Jesus says, “Invite those who are socially disadvantageous to you; those who can't return the favor; those in fact, that if your friends find out, will bring shame to you!”

What about being a good guest? Who really wants to be last? Church is the only place I know where the back seats go first! I don't think we can attribute that to humility, do you? Everywhere else we want the good seats. We want to be close to the action. Aren't there times when we'll even push and shove our way to get there? So who really wants to take the risk of going unnoticed--particularly if, deep down, you think you're the guest of honor! Who wants to come to a party and stand off away from the action, and wait to be called to the center? We would rather stay home, wouldn't we?

God decided to become flesh once and come live on the earth with his creation. He gave up the honor of being seated in the heavenlies to take on the shame of slavery to human form. He didn't choose the Greeks or the Egyptians or the Romans to announce his coming. He didn't choose Rome, or Athens, or Babylon to grow up. He chose an obscure group of people called Jews and an obscure little village in Palestine in which to grow up. Even the natives said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” There was nothing culturally or educationally prominent about his background. When he did begin to proclaim who he was, his people rejected him. In an honor/shame society, he suffered the ultimate shame of death on a Roman cross. Only then did exaltation become possible. Only then could there be life after death. Only then could honor replace the shame.

Jesus never asked his disciples to do something he had not already done in a much more comprehensive way himself. Only when we have come to terms with his identity and accepted that identity as our own, will the social barriers begin to come down. Only then will the discomfort in the loving the unlovable recede from our thinking. Only then will our reason for being together no longer social but truly spiritual. Who will follow Jesus this morning?

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, April 23, 1995 a.m.

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