Sunday, September 02, 2007

Jesus Qu(e)erying of the Table

We find Jesus this week seated at a table hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. We must note that Jesus is included at this meal in the home of a very important and well respected religious leader. Jesus is one of them. Far from our most beloved image of Jesus as an “outcast among outcasts,” here we see Jesus as a colleague of the Pharisees, the ones whom we so love to hate.

This new image messes with our easy portrayals of Jesus as the underdog champion of the marginalized and the Pharisees as the evil, legalistic oppressors. Seated at the table, both Jesus and the Pharisees are joined together by their common interest and value in living their lives under the guidance of the Torah. It is important to recognize the questions that arise in the context of the banquet are never whether or not the Torah should be followed, but rather how to set priorities in living a life guided by the Torah. (See William Loader's commentary)

Sometimes in religious conflicts our differences mask our commonalities. We too soon polarize ourselves into oppositional camps that hinder us from ever creating change, paralyzing us and inhibiting both sides from living lives informed and shaped by the Gospel.

This new image of Jesus seated as an equal among the Pharisees helps us to see Jesus as at once both an insider and an outsider. So often we ask ourselves, “What is the best way to create change? From the inside? Or the outside?” Jesus’ answer is clear….both.

As a revolutionary leader Jesus subverts the dominant discourse by using it against itself. Jesus takes examples from common culture and “queers” them, so to speak, to disrupt the hegemonic norm. You have to admire Jesus’ ability critique the dominant power structure while seated at the table of the most powerful.

What begins as a simple lesson in practical living turns to a stinging critique of the status quo.
Many traditional commentators on this passage will strive to point out Jesus’ reversal of social custom…both in the advice given to guests to seek a lowly spot in hopes of being asked to move up the social ladder and to hosts to invite the poor, outcast and marginalized. Here the commentators will be sure to point out the contrast between Jesus’ A-list and that of the Pharisees. Most quote a section of the Qumran, an ancient text of a Jewish Essene sect that outlines rules for communal living. They point out that while Jesus invites the marginalized, the Qumran prohibits their presence in the community.

“And let no person smitten with any human impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God. And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every (person) smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let these persons not enter."

Stressing the parallels between Jesus’ invitation list and the prohibitions of the community of Qumran, they will divide the dinner party into the stereotypical oppressive Pharisees and the gentle Jesus, meek and mild.

Yet, while there is merit in noticing the parallel, we would run the risk of falling into a tradition of anti-Semitic biblical interpretation if we were to only cite the Qumran text.

Are we to forget the myriad of warnings and proclamations that give a preferential option to the poor in the Hebrew Testament? Jesus’ instructions to favor the poor and outcast are nothing new.

The wisdom Jesus imparts about table manners alone is echoed in Proverbs 25: 6-7
“Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, 'Come up here,' than to be put lower in the presence of a noble."
And again in Sirach 32: 1-2;
“If they make you master of the feast, do not exalt yourself; be among them as one of their number. Take care of them first and then sit down; when you have fulfilled all your duties, take your place, so that you may be merry along with them and receive a wreath for your excellent leadership.”
Not to mention the verses that speak about justice, equality, hospitality, mercy and kindness throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to all people, especially the marginalized.
“Be joyful at your Feast—you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns.” (Deut. 16:14)
“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind.” (Lev. 19:14)
“learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“What does our God require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
And these are just a few of the many verses in the Hebrew Testament that instruct such behavior for the Jewish community.

Rather than instructing the Pharisees in a new or different way, Jesus is calling them back to their very own tradition.

In our lust for a unique savior and a singular messiah, we too easily forget the tradition from which we came. This does not make Jesus any less radical. For remember, being radical means going back the root. Jesus is radical precisely because the gospel message is a radical re-call to the community’s historic teachings…teachings of justice, equality, mercy and love. While we understand there is a difference between Jewish and Christian traditions, we must also be aware of the common ground from which we both arise.

Now Jesus does not simply parrot back tradition socio-religious rules and rituals, rather he subverts and radicalizes them by presenting them in a context that reveals the community’s current hypocritical practices. By repeating these instructions at a meal where most likely guests had either ignored those traditional instructions for the sake of social advancement or had feigned humility in the service of self-interest, Jesus held a mirror up to the society, revealing the hypocrisy of both blatant self-seeking and false humility. Jesus pokes fun at the fashions of the day, holding it up to ridicules.

Jesus queers the table manners in a way that radicalizes the tradition of faith, calling the community back to its tradition and at the same time encouraging them to rise above the letter of the law.

So much of what we are called to do is exactly what Jesus did. When we sit at the table of the Pharisees of our own time, whether that be the Pharisees of the Church, corporations or country, our mission is to call them back to their own traditions.


Lance H. said...

And when your own progressive viewpoint becomes the dominant viewpoint will it be incumbent upon others to "queer up" your views by returning to a "traditional" viewpoint? Or is yours the one true view that so many others in history have claimed to have only to be shaken up by somebody else?

Anonymous said...

I find the challenging of Jesus as the poor, and lowly seravnt interesting. I remember reading how it was likely that Jesus came from a middle-class family, not a dirt-poor lower class. There are some scholars that would argue for a Jesus that was a Pharisee, not a carpenter.

Anonymous said...

You make "progressive" sound like a "four letter" word, or am I reading into your comment?
The Bible is the story of continual revelation, it is not a static story. God chose to reveal his plan slowly, as he saw fit.
The church tradition, even that of Acts, shows growing revelation and change, and the expanding and ever growing kingdom.
The Bible is too complex to look at the stories from one perspective.

Lance H. said...


I suppose in the context, I was using progressive as you had described it.

When someone describes the bible as a story of continual revelation, it's difficult for me to decide then how to treat contextual interpretations that have been made through time that we now believe to be wrong. Say for example what place in leadership women have in the church. The catholic church still holds to what it believes is an athentic tradition regarding that. Does that mean all catholics are guilty of corporate sin for doing so? And if so, that means what?

Admittedly it's very hard for me to operate on a level that doesn't subscribe to some sort of rational unchanging truth. I prefer to believe there is some such truth and that it can be known. Otherwise if truth is changing and irrational (meaning not derived from the tools of rational logic and inference), then I quite frankly don't know what to do about that.

Thanks for keeping me honest.

Rev. Tiffany Steinwert said...

Welcome, Lance. I am glad you found your way here.

I think this conversation models much of what I was writing about in terms of "queering" or questioining.

Yes, Lance, I do think that we always have to be critical of and question dominant presuppositions, whether cultural, social or theological, whether progressive or conservative. That's exactly what Jesus did.

This, of course, does not mean we are headed straight down the proverbial slippery slope. Rather, it means that we hold ourselves as Christians more accountable to the message of the Gospel and the vision of God's kin-dom that we know through both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

I think what is truly wonderful and life giving about our faith is the opportunity God gives us through the movement of the Holy Spirit to experience continual revelation, particularly those that break barriers built by social and cultural norms. I find it exciting that God still has something new to teach and show me each and every day.

It can seem unsettling at first, but I believe that is the call of hope for that which is unseen and unknown.

Jules said...

Tiffany, it keeping with your view of the Lectionary reading, you'd have loved Phillip's sermon on Sunday: "Miss Manners' Table Etiquette". It was just wonderful and also incorporated the Lectionary and our congregation's actions at our lunch the previous Sunday. It was cooked & served out front and Phillip was so proud of people allowing folks off the street to step into line and be a part of our meal.

Lance H. said...


I suppose I agree with your comments on some level, but a specific case troubles me. I have many coworkers and acquaintances who are Mormon. Through many conversations with them, they too have leaned heavily on the point that there is continuous revelation. In fact if I have understood them correctly, their churches head honchos , so to speak, have the main job of discerning that revelation and passing that on to their members.

Most Christians I know, consider Mormon's to be heretical when compared to our own doctrine derived from the greek and hebrew scriptures. They certainly fit the definition of queerying up the table as you mentioned here. If I should accept the idea of continual revelation, how then can there be any discernment about the validity of the Mormon faith? (This is meant to be rhetorical as I don't mean to start a dialogue about mormonism)

The mormons I know are generally more kind and more generous than most Christians I know, which could just be more of a statement about the condition of the individual Christians.

Anonymous said...

Lance, you said:

"The mormons I know are generally more kind and more generous than most Christians I know, which could just be more of a statement about the condition of the individual Christians. "

Yeppers. I agree with you there! Without getting into the proverbial can o' worms as to the why they are, let's just say that we christians as a whole have a lot of room for improvement.