One of my favorite biblical commentators, Ched Myers, compares Scripture to the text of a fine play. One way of approaching this text is to read it, study it in depth, take it apart and ask questions to it. What all influences does the author bring to the writing of this script? How does the social context in which it was written affect its meaning? Why is this line phrased this way and not another way? What other lines in other parts of the play relate to it? What are all of the ways this one particular word could be understood? How does this character’s relationship to this other character develop over the course of the play? This can be an important stage is coming to know a text with many discoveries made along the way adding to the depth and richness of the script. But the real knowing of a text, Myers argues, is when we begin to perform it. When we start to place ourselves inside the story of the script and take on the characteristics of what the script calls for. When we start to move in the way the script asks us to move. When we begin to feel the feelings of the characters in the script and embody the life that the script calls for. Learning to adapt the script to this setting with these people and these resources. Learning to read between the lines and tweak and improvise. Studying the text involves our minds, and our hearts, our curiosity, our detective skills. Performing the text involves all of these along with our bodies and our creativity. Myers believes that communities of faith are called to perform the scriptures in their setting. Each community has a certain collection of texts that are at the center of their life together in how they act out their faith.
I would like to suggest that Luke 14:12-14 is one of those Scriptures at the center of the life of Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship — one that we are performing and living inside. “Jesus also said to the one who had invited him to the meal, ‘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. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The most obvious way that this Fellowship performs this text is through the Community Meal that we share with each other and neighbors the second and fourth Tuesday of every month. This has been going on for a number of years now and has become one of the main ways that CMF is known in our neighborhood – the church that serves the Tuesday meal. From 5-7 in the evening these two Tuesdays a month, we serve and eat with perhaps 25 to 30 or more other folks, with many helping themselves to seconds and with a number of folks taking food with them to give to a friend who was unable to make it or to have for their own next meal.
This short teaching of Jesus occurs right in the middle of a Sabbath meal hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. Meals play an important role in Jesus’ ministry, especially in Luke’s gospel. More than just a chance to get quickly refueled, which is often our fast-food mentality, the meal was an extended time of social interaction, often involving washing rituals and spoken benedictions at different points in the meal. In more elaborate meals at bigger homes guests would begin sitting up to eat the appetizer, before moving in to the dining room to recline and eat the main course and dessert the servants would bring them. Meals carried with them certain norms and expectations of behavior, of order, of social hierarchy.
Jesus ate with all sorts of people, Pharisees included. Given Jesus’ track record of challenging the social hierarchy and turning norms on their heads, this Pharisee should have known that this meal with Jesus was most likely not going to be your average picnic in the park. And sure enough, just as they’re getting settled in, Jesus begins unsettling the event.
It begins with Jesus challenging the Sabbath norms of religious leaders. The Sabbath was seen as a blessed gift from God, a holy space in time when work ceased and the people took a deep breath to simply enjoy creation. During this Sabbath meal a man appears who was in need of healing. Jesus essentially asks his hosts which is a better way to celebrate the Sabbath – to completely cease from all work, or to see that people are enabled to enjoy creation. Not getting an answer, Jesus goes to work seeing that this man is healed, citing Scripture to back up his action. Luke then records, “And they could not reply to this.”
Not content to challenge just one norm for the day, Jesus starts to take notice of how guests had tried to position themselves in those places which carried more honor. In an honor/shame society, where you sat in relation to others had potential to ramp up or reduce your perceived honor. Jesus speaks up and says folks should not even try to play the honor/shame game. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Sensing that if he hasn’t been kicked out yet he might as well keep on going, Jesus makes a third challenge to standard meal fellowship – this statement about making sure to invite those who are unable to invite you back. At question here is how we experience, or should expect to experience, reciprocity. A dictionary definition for reciprocate is “to give, do, feel, etc. in return; return in kind or degree.” Equivalent to what is given. Being in the home improvement mode for the last year or so, one of the first things I think of when I hear the word reciprocity, is the carpenter’s best friend in power tools, the reciprocating saw. The reciprocating saw has a blade that moves back and forth, in order to cut whatever needs cutting. For every inch that the blade moves outward, it always moves back, in an even, reciprocating motion.
“When you give a meal, don’t always invite people with whom there will be a perfectly balanced back and forth, give and take. But invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”
Jesus would like for us to expand our notion of reciprocity, to move outside the circle where things always come back to even the score. To do what we do, not because there is some big pay-off at the end where we get reimbursed and rewarded, but because the act of giving is valuable in itself. To let go of our expectations for balanced reciprocity and to invite a certain kind of unbalance into our lives.
This script on reciprocity is one that we are performing together, and coming to know, not from the outside, but from the inside. Finding ourselves living inside of this story. Thinking now specifically of the Community Meal experience, since we have been performing this script for a number of years now, what is it that we are learning together? What are we learning about reciprocity and the way things do or don’t get repaid? What do we need to continue learning?
I’ve asked a few of the people who regularly serve with Community Meal to write some brief reflections to give a window in the kind of giving and receiving they have experienced at the meal. As you hear these, listen to the kind of reciprocity that is going on.
Here’s one story: We do not have a lot of families (with children) who attend, but there is one family with 2 children who do attend regularly. It has been a blessing to see these children “blossom” interacting with the ones of us who are there. They draw pictures, ask us to play school, and always show us that they have eaten most of their food, so they can have dessert. Even if we are busy, they still hang around just to hand us a picture they have drawn before they dart off.
Here’s another perspective: In a world where one can count on very little, Community Meal has happened every 2nd and 4th Tuesday for a number of years. Good nutritious meals are served and the neighborhood knows this. It is rewarding to be part of a crew that executes an event that gives the residents in the neighborhood a common enjoyable experience. Where else would one have the opportunity to interact with such an interesting group of people—crew included! Hospitality has always been a stretch for me. Working on Community Meal has helped me gain some confidence in that very important area.
And another story: I always liked it when Patience came to the meals and church – a girl who has since moved to a different part of town. I don’t know how any one could have been more direct in telling me what I need most. (I cannot imagine naming my child patience.) I would go home from those meals exhausted with the extra energy it took in caring for that clan of young girls. Showing them unconditional love and respect was sometimes almost more than I could muster.
What I hear in these short stories isn’t a lack of reciprocity, but an expanded experience of giving and receiving. There is not a balanced exchange of food going on in, but in the economy of God’s Spirit, there is a wonderful exchange of blessings. And this is what Jesus says in v. 14. Do this, “And you will be blessed.” You don’t do it for the blessing, to get something, but that is how it ends up working. You get to see children blossom and mature. You get to learn about hospitality. You get schooled on how to be a more patient person.
My own experience with Community Meal has been similar. For me, it is a coming together of my family, since we all go down and eat together, my church family, and my neighborhood family. Living in the community, we get a chance to interact with folks beyond just the Tuesday setting. Community Meal has truly done important work not just for the Meal aspect, but also for the Community aspect. We often see people on the street and stop to talk. Occasionally someone will stop by the office during the day. Almost without fail people will make sure they know the date of the next Community Meal.
This meal is a way that Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship is more than just a meeting place for us, Cincinnati Mennonites, but also a fellowship for Oakleyites. It gives us a presence and an identity in the neighborhood. In many ways, what we do together is almost its own little church. A number of folks who attend do think of me as their pastor. There’s nothing close to membership or a formal service, but we do sing the blessing prayer at the beginning, there is plenty of sharing and prayer requests and praying. And we are taking communion together every time we meet – with the bread and wine being replaced with pasta and coffee. The body of Christ, sustaining all of us.
I think what Jesus is trying to move us toward in this teaching is getting beyond even thinking in terms of reciprocity – blurring the line between who’s giving, who’s receiving, who’s rich, who’s poor, and who’s hosting and who’s visiting. It goes back to this idea of freeing us from an us/them mindset. Getting beyond thinking in terms of us serving them, them blessing us. That’s how it starts, but what Jesus is moving us toward is the place of the beloved community where we all just bring ourselves and what we have to offer, and we enjoy each other. No need to calculate which way reciprocity is flowing.
Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers and sisters or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.” As well as we are performing this text with Community Meal, it remains an incredibly challenging script. At this time we are not able to accommodate everyone who would come because of accessibility issues with the building. Jesus said to invite the poor and the lame. So far you can come easily if you’re poor, but not if you’re lame. This also remains a challenging script because it is addressing more than just the Community Meal time. How do we perform this script in other settings, such as our homes? How do we adapt it, embody it outside our two Tuesdays a month? In our own lives How do we move beyond the kind of charity that is merely giving from a distance, and maintain relationships with those who are poor. Perhaps most challenging, how do we continue to move beyond an us/them mindset toward anyone in need? How do we come to know our own poverty that places us on level ground with everyone else, and how can we experience other’s richness and our own richness, that also puts us on level ground? How can we expand fellowship beyond our familiar circle of predictable giving and receiving? When Jesus was at the house of the Pharisee he did not pose easy questions, and they remain quite difficult. It’s a challenging script to fit ourselves into. But it is our privilege to not only study and talk about the script, but to also begin to perform it, and to learn as we go.