Laugh, and shame the devil 

Luke 14.1, 14.7-1

Sunday 28 August 2022

Laugh and shame the devil                                               ©Suzanne Grimmett

“That’s right, little one….I like what you’ve done”

You see these words spoken over a child by their parents and you will see a little boy or girl glowing under the affirmation.

I saw plenty of these kinds of affirming encouragements spoken by parents yesterday at the Funfest as they learnt woodworking skills with the Men’s Shed or sculpted a truck or shaped a flower arrangement.  I loved the party atmosphere and the unconditional welcome extended by our community here and the joy we had in sharing in the delight of so many children.

Today’s Gospel includes a lesson about where we should seek affirmation and confirm our sense of worth, as well as a description of a party where everyone is welcome.

On the surface, it looks like Jesus is spouting some conventional wisdom in the tradition of the wisdom teachers. If you go and take the most important place at the table, you could be embarrassed by being asked to move back to a seat for less important guests; so be humble and don’t expect the place of greatest honour. This could be a reasonable quick summary of what Jesus is saying. We could take away the moral lesson that we should not think of ourselves as more important than we are, and leave it at that, or we might also remind ourselves to suppress our desires and be content with the lowliest place. Self-sacrifice 101.

But I think we should hesitate before assuming we have its meaning wrapped up. Ancient scholars do tell us that Jesus lived in a culture driven by the carrot and stick motivations of the fear of being publicly shamed and the promise of being publicly honoured. The wedding party seating plan was a real thing governed by conventional social rules with particular winners and losers. It seems a bit like Jesus is giving his audience a sneaky new way to win at this game.

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.

This should give us pause as we look at this text. What is Jesus really saying here? I wonder if Jesus is offering this suggestion that his audience may catch themselves out in the ridiculousness of their own thinking. Perhaps he is sitting there and gently watching them all consider this….imagining themselves waiting in the lowest position in the hopes that they may be raised up and then the penny drops and they realise how much of their ego is on display. Maybe they throw their heads back and laugh and Jesus laughs with them.

We are not free of this kind of social climbing, are we? We do not have to live in such an overtly honour/ shame driven society to realise that we often engage in all kinds of behaviours designed to secure our social position. Human beings generally tend to receive their sense of worth from other human beings, making us quietly desperate at times for recognition. We all have a profound need that someone should notice us and approve what we are doing. Building a reputation for ourselves that is publicly visible to others can motivate all kinds of behaviours as we seek to be respected and recognised by our peers whom we admire. This can motivate us to be sure to include those of whom our peers approve and exclude those whom we believe our peers would exclude. It is basic mimetic group behaviour by beings who centre their self-worth in their reputation. I am indebted to James Alison for a reminder that sometimes in scripture the Greek word for “glory” can also be translated as “reputation.” In particular Alison notes that the words of Jesus in the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel can be translated as;

How can you believe in the One God if you depend for your reputation on your imitation of each other, and do not seek the reputation which God alone can give?                     (John 5:44)

John’s Gospel is very different to Luke’s but there is such a congruence of this text with the story we hear today. Jesus is painting a picture that helps us to realise that for people of faith to be playing the same imitation games to confirm our reputations in the eyes of one another, is to be missing our freedom and life.

Sometimes a gentle parody can help us. Dickens created satirical characters that revealed the machinations of the social climbers of the Victorian era. I particularly like the novel “Our Mutual Friend” which is full of ridiculous characters who mimic one another and put on extravagant outward displays for the sake of social advancement. Mr and Mrs Veneering (love the name) represent the perfect performance of a couple keeping up appearances of wealth and respectability, seeking out those who will advance their standing and rapidly rejecting those who can’t. Dickens parodies the exhaustive and tragic attempts made by a variety of characters to advance themselves, but who then ultimately destroy themselves as their façade crumbles and they lose their precarious hold on a social reputation of importance. Caricatures can be a confronting mirror to our lives. We are not in Victorian England nor first century Palestine, but we still need to have our motivations exposed. Maybe we might need to catch ourselves occasionally and laugh at our own games and recognise that we are looking to secure our reputation in the wrong places.

I think Jesus had a clear-sighted vision of what was going on in his culture and the kinds of forces that were at play in society. I also see that he took pity on us in our lostness as we seek approval not from the God who has created us for freedom and goodness, but from one another, leaving us untethered and exposed as we place our worth in the hands of others. The evil that would diminish and demean and rob humans of dignity thrives in the utter seriousness that we apply to this business of social acceptability. Maybe that’s why I would like  to think Jesus is encouraging his audience to laugh at themselves. I think there is a strong truth in the saying that we should “Laugh, and shame the devil.” Laughter is a most powerful antidote to any religion of fear and to any personality in danger of taking him or herself too seriously. Far from being solemn, so many of the saints seem prone to ready laughter. I love this from the 14th century Saint, Julian of Norwich who says;

I also saw our Lord scorn [the Devil’s] wickedness and set him at nought, and he wants us to do the same. At this revelation I laughed heartily and that made those who were around me laugh too…[1]

Perhaps the evils of the way we include and exclude, perform and placate, may be exposed by a hearty laugh at ourselves and our overactive egos.

It is no accident that the story that follows this lesson on how to manage the wedding party seating is a story about a party where the doors are flung wide and zero attention is paid to the social conventions. It is a hint of the joy that is possible when we can forget ourselves for long enough to give up our posturing and pretensions, our exclusive parties where only the people of the ‘right kind’ or those we want to be seen with are invited, and simply take delight in one another.

We need to stop complaining and competing so that instead of our exclusive events we have an invitation to a radically inclusive meal. Jesus says, go out and include all those who normally could not access your parties, would not feel at home in your worship services, and would never make the guest list for your intimate gatherings. It is where we learn that forgetting about our reputation and not being ashamed of those whom the world counts of little value means that we are ultimately investing in an everlasting reputation (which is the only one that ever really mattered). Jesus is the host of a party where everyone is equal and where, instead of there being a need to overcome our difference through a scapegoat or a ritual sacrifice, we have instead a family meal open to all.  This is the consummation of our lives where we may look to the one who has always been inviting us to let go of our seriousness and self-importance in favour of the laughter of the God who has watched us with love and forgiveness across all our days.

It is at that party, that moment in our future when the truth is made clear about God, about goodness and love, where we may hope to hear our motherly father God say to us, “That’s right, little one…I like what you’ve done”.[2]                             +Amen

[1] Julian of Norwich as quoted in Hall, Amy Laura. Laughing at the Devil . Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.  

[2] James Alison’s Raising Abel, pp. 180-183 including reflections on the affirmation, “That’s right, little one”

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