Driving through south-western Victoria recently, I became aware, in a way I had not been before, of Australia as a fenced country. Ownership of the land is defined and marked out by fences, fences of all types, stone and rock, wood and wire, roads and rivers. It occurred to me that fences speak about where we place people in the geography of our country, the value we place upon them in our economy and the lingering presence of past definitions and practices.
Our gospel reading opens a window into the slurs and asides spat at Jesus by his detractors and opponents. ‘“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” In shame based societies proper conduct in public, keeping appropriate company and not keeping inappropriate company was all about keeping up appearances. You kept company with those of a similar status as yourself or made the effort to engage with those above or beyond your class. You did not keep company with those deemed to be below you – not consorting with the servants, slaves, prostitutes or drunks.
Table fellowship, whom you ate with, was the place this was most obviously evident. When people challenged Jesus about who he was with, it wasn’t a comment about his open and generous nature or his willingness to include everyone, it was about how radically he disregarded the sacred nature of table fellowship. Jenks suggests “the slander is more a marker of social conflict between Jesus and his opponents rather than an index of his personal values and conduct.’
John Dominic Crossan writes:
“In the first as in the twentieth century, a person might create a feast for society’s outcasts. The could easily be understood even or especially in the honor and shame ideology of Mediterranean society as a benefaction and one of extremely high visibility. No doubt if one did it persistently and exclusively there might be some very negative social repercussions. But, in itself, to invite the outcasts for a special meal is a less socially radical act than to invite everyone found on the streets. It is that “anyone” that negates the very social function of table, namely, to establish a social ranking by what one eats, how one eats, and with whom one eats. It is the random and open commensality of the parable’s meal that is its most startling element. One could, in such a situation, have classes, sexes, ranks and grades all mixed up together. The social challenge of such egalitarian commensality is the radical threat of the parable’s vision. It is only a story, of course, but it is one that focuses its egalitarian challenge on society’s mesocosmic mirror, the table as the place where bodies meet to eat. And the almost predictable counteraccusation to such open commensality is immediate: Jesus is a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and sinners. He makes, in other words, no appropriate distinctions and discriminations. He has no honor. He has no shame.”
Jesus was pulling down fences and breaking the sacred nature of table and the rules set up to protect it. Jesus simply doesn’t recognise those rules and lives with little regard for social ranking in terms of who one eats with. One may in fact include many people from many different social rankings thus causing confusion about what is and is not acceptable.
Here is a principle worth considering by the world and by the church.
Australia, we are told is a classless society, one in which everybody has equal opportunity to be well fed, well educated and to be happy. There are no privileged classes and there are no underprivileged classes in the telling of this story. Yet we know that this is not true. A recent article suggested that good looking students get better grades than not so good-looking children and we suspect this also applies to university entrance and job success. We know that if you go to a private school you will have better resources, better social networks and that more opportunities may indeed come you way. We know that certain suburbs and types of people are to be avoided if you wish to live amongst your own social class. Aspirational people seek to live closer to schools with a good academic record to give their children the best chance, value education and tutoring and avoid their children mixing with the wrong peers.
Social ranking matters. Symbols of social ranking matters, Houses in the right suburbs, children in the right schools, overseas holidays, right labels on clothes and the right badge on the care all matter, otherwise why would people incur great debt to achieve them
Once we have arrived at such social acceptance we avoid those we have left behind. We move on and begin to look for the next plateau in the social ranking game.
Jesus sets the challenge in this story. His behaviour is radical and anti aspirational. He spends time with those he likes, those he befriends, those who enable him to be the fully engaged human being he was. He is not stifled by societies expectations but takes social, intellectual and spiritual stimulation from the most interesting and alive people he knows, those without expectations and fences, those outside expectations and fences. He challenges us to let go of our dependence upon our class aspirations and become classless and at home with whoever we wish to share table with.
For the church this is another great taboo, who shares table with us? Is this life-giving table available to all or only to those who are like us, come from our class and share our world view? Over the recent years the church has had to, and continues to be challenged to redefine who is welcome, including slaves, non-whites, women gays, trans-genders, believers from other denominations and people of other faiths. What was once only a denominational practice, open only to those who believe like us, is now challenged by the diversity of our understanding of who are recognised as persons (slaves, indigenous,LGBTI people and women and children). Our Archbishop, in a press release Friday reminds us all to be open to the possibilities with in the upcoming plebiscite on marriage equality and that we, as reflective people, are to exercise our consciences on this matter. Our church, the Anglican Church has had to face this because of its historical attachment to the establishment and has come rather late to practice a welcoming hospitality to all, at least to some degree.
Who is welcome at this table – there is no limitations based on class, gender or race; there is no fence built to keep people away. All are welcome. This is the church and the society Jesus speaks up for and challenges the table based social ranking of his time. This the church and society we are to speak up for and challenge the fences built to keep people in or out of our own safe places. Amen.