Food and Pharisees

Sometimes in the newspaper that we take you’ll read a review by one of the contributors, let’s say Sheila, and then there’ll be a little addition at the end where it’ll say this week Sheila has also seen such and such a play, read some book of the moment and visited some must-see exhibition. I suppose it’s to reassure us that Sheila is a well-informed person totally au courrant with the latest trends and always working to improve herself (for our benefit of course), or maybe it’s just to make us jealous that we don’t live in London as well.

What would your list say? What have you also done, seen or read this week? I’d like to be able to impress you with the high culture of mine but I’m afraid it consists solely of reading a detective novel and watching Masterchef. Apart from that I’ve spent most of the week in the garden. But if I add that the detective concerned was Inspector Montalbano those of you who’ve heard of him will begin to recognise the common thread of food. For, in these books, between every piece of action the good inspector relaxes with a mouth-watering plate of Sicilian delicacies described in loving detail and eaten with relish. And in Masterchef, if you have managed to avoid it, the aim is to produce the most amazing food under the toughest of pressure. I have to admit to enjoying food and food related activities.

So when I saw that the reading this week featured Sunday lunch I thought great, a sermon about food - should be a piece of cake. And at one level it could be - this is a great passage for those of us who like to beat ourselves up a bit. Oh my goodness, are we the new Pharisees? Are we guilty of wanting pride of place, demanding recognition all the time? Do we only do things for people who can reciprocate by doing things for us? Are our structures and activities designed to exclude those who are not like us? When was the last time that we did anything truly altruistic? Should we all resolve to involve a poor person at our next dinner party?

And the answers may well be yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and ... probably not. It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask ourselves searching questions, to reflect and to seek to act on where our reflections lead us. And by my reading, that’s what Jesus would have us do, without totally beating ourselves up. For I’m not sure that the discussion at the lunch described in the reading was quite as confrontational as it might initially seem.

For a start Jesus was a guest of a Pharisee and there’s no record of him being booted out for his comments. And secondly the very word Pharisee has come to evoke a boo-hiss, must be bad reaction from Christians over the millennia, largely of course because of the way the gospels are written and possibly, I would suggest, somewhat unfairly. It’s conceivable that this was just the kind of thing Jesus’ host expected.

Let’s just recap what Jesus said - first be careful where you sit, you may think you deserve recognition and kudos, but not everyone may have the same view of your greatness as you do. Second, have you looked at the scope of your social circle recently? Are you sure it’s not a bit limited?

Provocative yes, but for sure you can read these as starting points for reflective debate which would have been recognised as such. The host was a prominent Pharisee for goodness sake, a bit of a tough nut no doubt, used to people trying to rattle his cage and prepared to respond in kind. I’d like to think that in the course of debate he’d gradually take the points on board so maybe that’s the way we should approach them, reflectively rather than defensively.

So let’s do that. Let’s apply a little reflection to both of the threads. The “careful where you sit” thread and the “scope of your social circle” thread.

An initial impression might be that we’re not too bad at the “careful where you sit” bit. There’s no obvious place of honour here, no exalted place which we all fight to sit in, unless it’s the back row perhaps. But is that taking it too literally? More likely Jesus was getting at people who think of themselves as at the centre of things. Maybe he was suggesting that there is a tendency to seek affirmation through what we have, what we are, and how people respond to us, rather than through God, through seeking out what he wants of us and responding to him as our first point of reference. I think Melanie was making a similar point in her clock letter this month.

And while we’re on this topic, a subtle temptation here is to think “I don’t push myself forward so I must be all right.” Well no, I don’t think so - the balance to be achieved is to do what we can, and allow ourselves to be affirmed when it’s appropriate but to remember that what we do is primarily for God, not ourselves.

So secondly, what of the “scope of your social circle” thread of Jesus’ comments? Initial impressions here may seem less favourable as inevitably people tend to congregate where they feel comfortable and a CofE church service may not be in everyone’s comfort zone any more than the poor and outcast would necessarily have felt at home at a Pharisaic Sunday lunch, come to think of it. But the key thing is surely what happens beyond these walls, whether we are reaching out to help where it’s needed. Whether our first instinct when dealing with people is to include rather than exclude. Much is being done of course but as ever, there’s always more that can be done.

So what will be on my also did list next week? Well, Masterchef, inevitably, but perhaps the reading today might lead me to reflect that it should not only be what I did for myself. Perhaps it will include something for someone else, something for God.