Outside our doors today one of Madison’s most beloved and popular cultural rituals is taking place. It’s one many of us will be participating in as well, as we make our pilgrimage around the square and sample the various foods on offer. Few of us stop to think about what such rituals mean or signify; for most, if not all of us, the Taste of Madison, like other events such as Art Fair on the Square are fun. In this case, we get to sample food from restaurants we might not otherwise visit, or try new things, or purchase selections that remind us of other times and places—funnel cakes evoking memories of long-ago county fairs.
But such events also reinforce and inscribe our identities—in this case first and foremost as consumers, and they reinforce our place in the capitalist system. There are those vendors who are new or are trying to make a small business succeed as they pursue the fading American dream. There are also the cooks and servers who are working for vendors and likely receiving little more than the minimum wage. And the diversity—the ethnic cuisines that are adapted to mainstream American taste buds, or are being appropriated and monetized by others.
There’s a way in which Taste of Madison is a microcosm of our national culture and global economy. We might also reflect on the differences between those who are working and the consumers, and also think of those who for whatever reason aren’t here. The homeless people who have been displaced, or the African-Americans who live in different parts of the city, or the immigrants who unless they are working here are likely keeping a very low profile. Among those displaced this weekend were would-be guests of our food pantry. It was closed yesterday because of the challenges presented by closed streets and changes in bus routes.
We might also think about the symbolism suggested by our worship here in this place while Taste of Madison begins outside our doors. What does it suggest about the role of Christianity or religion in our society? In the collect of the day, we prayed: “Increase in us true religion.” With the traveling shrine of Wisconsin’s true religion—the Packers limiting access to our services today, perhaps our prayer should be “help us discern true religion.” Still, with all that, the symbolism of our place in this culture is made quite clear.
If the fast food restaurant symbolizes important things about our cultural values in this age of globalization, the Greco-Roman meal was equally significant for that ancient culture. Diners reclined around a u-shaped table with guests positioned according to their importance around it—the most important places being in the center at the host’s right and left hand, with the other guests taking their places in order of declining power and significance. Meals were often occasions for intellectual conversation. The Greek symposium was something of a model for later meals. The meals could go on for hours, with multiple courses. At the most opulent feasts, exotic meats from the furthest reaches of the empire were featured to display the extent of Rome’s power.
As with all other aspects of Roman power, ideas about the meal filtered down through the classes and throughout the empire. For example, scholars have long seen significant signs of influence from notions of the Greco-Roman meal on the development of the Passover Seder.
Meals are important in early Christianity as well. We see that importance not just in the Eucharist or the Last Supper. Paul has a good deal to say about table fellowship, especially in 1 Corinthians. Jesus, too, perhaps most importantly in the Gospel of Luke also speaks about meals, as in today’s gospel reading. And we see him as a guest earlier in the Gospel, especially at the homes and tables of Pharisees.
Luke sets up the story with the observation that they (presumably Pharisees) were watching Jesus closely as he went to dine at one of their homes on the Sabbath. He performs another healing there, not included in today’s gospel reading. Interestingly, unlike the story we heard last week, this healing did not arouse conflict with the Pharisees. In fact, Jesus goads them, asking whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, but in response to his pointed question, there is only silence.
I wonder why Jesus was invited to dinner. Was it because of his fame or notoriety? While we see a great deal of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospel, it’s important to remember that it is an internal conflict within Judaism over the interpretation of Torah, and that from what we know from other sources, on many respects Jesus and the Pharisees were in agreement, and on the key point, the importance of Torah, there was no distance between them.
So was Jesus invited because the host wanted to host a lively theological debate? Was he invited because of his reputation, so that he and other local leaders could get to know this itinerant preacher and prophet first-hand? Was Jesus invited because his presence would bring honor to the host?
In any case, it’s not likely the host got what he wanted. In the first place, Jesus made a rather cutting remark as he watched the guests jockeying for position around the table, pointing out that it made more sense to sit at the lowest places at the table. If the host wanted, he could move them to a more honorable position later. Jesus makes his point powerfully: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
It calls to mind the words that Mary sang in the Magnificat: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.”
But then Jesus goes even further. If the banquet he envisions includes a reordering of status, humbling the proud and exalting the meek, the guest list will be comprised of all those excluded from polite and elite society: “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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
The notion that entertaining requires reciprocity, that one invites people to dinner to secure one’s own position or to ensure that when they throw parties, you’ll be invited too, that one is always looking to advance one’s position, it’s common in certain sectors of our society. We may have heard of those controversies where in Washington or New York City for example, it doesn’t matter what your politics are, if you’re powerful enough, or wealthy enough, you’ll all be at the same parties and woe be to those who dare criticize such behavior.
But that isn’t Jesus’ vision of a good party, or the messianic banquet. There, the proud are brought low and the meek exalted; there the invited guests are those polite society rejects: the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. Or to use categories more familiar to us: people experiencing homelessness, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, and yes, refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers.
Jesus invites them and embraces them. He embraces all of us, too; whatever our needs and concerns, no matter what sins we may have committed. And so too, should we. The table we spread is welcome to all, regardless of status or position. There is place enough for all, food and drink enough for all.
We will get up and go our separate ways from this table, returning to the deeply divided and inequitable society, where the rich accumulate more and more while the poor languish in poverty; where racism continues to prevent a large portion of our society from flourishing, where grinding poverty is a reality for millions, and in our affluent city too many people live on the street.
Many of us will walk around the square today, savoring the flavors that are on offer. May we remember those who are excluded from those tables—the poor, the homeless, fearful immigrants. And as we make our ritual walk as American consumers today, and as we go throughout the week, may we remember and be challenged by the banquet that Jesus prepares, a banquet where all are welcome and all fed; where no one is judged by the color of their skin, by the size of their bank account, or by their immigration status.