In the gospels, one of Christ’s most frequent controversial acts is to heal people on the Sabbath. The seventh day of the week was a holy day among the Jews. In the creation account in Genesis, God rested on the seventh day, and so humans were meant to rest on that day, too.
No work, no school, just attendance at the synagogue, followed by family meals with food cooked the day before. So, Jesus knows he is going to provoke some raised eyebrows whenever he heals on the Sabbath. And no one is more of a stickler for getting the rules right than the Pharisees.
They consider themselves the most conscientious and pious of all Jews. Even more orthodox than the priests in Jerusalem. If anyone is going to be miffed when Jesus performs a healing on the sabbath, it will be the Pharisees. They are good hosts, so they know better than to criticize a guest. But they know, and Jesus knows, what they think of this Sabbath healing. They are not happy.
But Jesus reminds them that instinctively they know better. 'If one of their oxen or a child fell into a well on a sabbath, they would perform a rescue. Children and domestic animals were both considered property back then.
So, Jesus is saying you would rescue what you own on a sabbath. As God’s son, Jesus has the same right to heal this man on the sabbath. As God’s son, Jesus claims this human being as his own. In making this comparison, Jesus is gently reminding them that he is more than just another dinner guest. The Pharisees are making two mistakes: The first is that they are being too narrow in their understanding of the rules of the Sabbath. The second is that they have not recognized that someone greater than them is in their midst.
To drive the point home, Jesus tells a parable about guests at a wedding. Back then, absolutely everyone in a village would be invited to a wedding. So, the powerful and the powerless would both be present. The host of the wedding, the groom’s father, is in charge. He can decide who sits where. Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus says, it would be a mistake to walk into a wedding dinner and sit down at the seat of honour next to the host. If you sit next to him, you risk being humiliated if someone else more important than you show up. No one wants to be the one who the host asks to get up and make room for someone with more status. It would be better, Jesus says, if you sat far from the seat of honour. Let the host decide if you should move up, that will be better than being moved down.
The parable is told to politely chide the Pharisees for their arrogance. In the parable, Jesus warns individuals against assuming that they are the most important person in the room. Jesus tells the parable to remind all of the Pharisees that as a group they have been arrogant to assume that they know the rules of the Sabbath better than anyone else, including Jesus. Jesus is warning against the perils of personal arrogance, and institutional arrogance.
In the past few years, Canada has been rocked by cases of institutional and personal arrogance. One recent example comes from the Hockey Canada scandal.
We’ve learned that the organization was keeping a slush fund for paying sexual assault settlements for their hockey players.
In multiple cases, individual players in the Juniors, as well as groups of them, have been accused of sexual assault, rape, and sometimes gang rape. And these acts were being covered up and paid for by the top brass of Hockey Canada. Parents have been shocked to learn that the dues they have paid on behalf of their kids has been used to cover up and pay off sexual assaults.
In our country, hockey players are heroes, and they know it. Their prowess in the sport earns them reverence, which they can leverage off the ice when seducing women. It appears that they felt above the law, forcing women into unwanted sexual encounters. That personal arrogance has been backed up and probably reinforced by Hockey Canada’s willingness to pay for their crimes, and to keep them secret. They have acted as though they deserve the best seat at the dinner.
Churches are no strangers to this kind of arrogance.
Twenty years ago the public learned that that the Catholic Church employed priests who have sexually assaulted congregants and children. To make matters worse, the Catholic Church has covered up their crimes.
Priests have been quietly moved to other parishes where their criminal behaviour has continued. Lately, it has become clear that this practice been present in Protestant denominations as well.
In the United States, the largest denomination, the southern Baptist Convention, is wrestling with their own sexual abuse scandals.
Closer to home, here in Hamilton, the leader of a Protestant mega church has been found to have had inappropriate sexual relationships with congregants. All of these scandals are rooted in the kinds of arrogance that Jesus is talking about in today’s scripture reading. The first is the arrogance of thinking that your social status entitles you to the most important place in the room. And the second is the institutional arrogance that assumes your group knows better than anyone else.
There has been a seismic shift lately in our attitudes towards sexual assault, largely due to the #Metoo movement. Up until that movement came along, most hierarchical organizations, like Hollywood studios and corporations, thought they could get away with sexual coercion and assault. For centuries, schools and corporations have operated based on strict hierarchies like the relationships of bosses with secretaries, and teachers with students. There was no question who was most powerful, and who could exercise sexual coercion if they desired.
In 2019, 25% of Canadian women experienced sexual coercion at work.
Long-term studies have found that 8% of all rapes occur at work.  It is safe to assume that sexual coercion and assault were even more common in past decades and centuries.
These hierarchical organizations have always given men the power to exercise sexual coercion, and women have not had as much power to resist, or even to complain. Up until recently, women either stayed quiet, or their complaints were dismissed by human resources departments. Bosses were considered far more important, and worth protecting, than less powerful female employees.
Rev. John Suk, my predecessor here, once made the point that the difference between churches and other institutions is that you can choose to leave the church. Businesses, churches, and schools have always been places where sexism and sexual coercion have been exercised. But we don’t feel we should give up on sports or buying products when we hear that sexual assaults and coercion happen in those institutions. But we can choose to leave church. And lots of people have. Every time another priest or evangelical pastor is identified as having engaged in sexual assault; the reputation of Christianity as a whole takes another hit.
Why do people leave church in response to sexual abuse, but not corporations, or boycott Hollywood studios? The big difference is that Christianity is founded on a principle of love and care for the most vulnerable. When church leaders exploit the vulnerable, they are exposed as not just predators, but as hypocrites.
Their crimes may be the same as the boss in the office with the door closed, but the meaning of it is different. Ministers are supposed to protect the vulnerable, not prey on them. That is a fair and just expectation. Christ calls on ministers to not assume that they are the most important people in the room, but to be humble, and take the least important seat. Yet, in practice, ministers often become wrapped in self-importance and institutional power. Adulation and influence tend to encourage arrogance and self importance, which for some, translates into a sense of sexual license with their congregants.
The forces of sexism and patriarchy which inspire male sexual violence can be found in every corner of our society, and the battle to defeat them will take a long time. They will not go down without a fight, indeed, many fights. Our calling in the church is always to be on the side of the vulnerable, and to recognize that our church authorities are called to be humble, not arrogant. That may mean a radical change to how church is conducted in the next few decades. Our reputation and authority have been so tarnished by these scandals and revelations, that regaining people’s trust will take a lot of effort and humility. We can no longer believe that saying we are the church will hold much sway in the arguments we make. Fancy buildings and fancy costumes feel like they are part of the problem, of the arrogance that got us here.
After Christ tells the parable of the wedding, he gives one more bit of advice to the Pharisees. In the wedding parable, he had said that it is better for a Pharisee to sit at the back and be called up, than to be at the front and be sent to the back. But that idea of being called up to the important seat at a wedding feast might appeal to a Pharisee’s ego and feed their arrogance. So, Christ adds a coda to this lesson. He tells his host, the head Pharisee, how to hold his next dinner party. Jesus tells him, don’t invite your friends or your relatives. If you do, they may repay you with a dinner party invitation. That makes your dinner party of no credit to you, you are just trading favours. No, if you really want to do something God will respect, have a dinner party for the people the religious authorities reject. The poor, the lame, the disabled, the blind. They will not be able to repay you. Yet, if you hold a dinner for them just the same, you will be rewarded by God in the end.
Earlier, we heard how at dinners there is a pecking order, where the most important people sit next to the host. But Christ tells the leader of the Pharisees that he should host a party where there is no hierarchy. No jostling for position, no person more important than the rest. Christ’s mission on earth is to help us see how to arrange ourselves and our society so it will be more like the feast that God would hold. One where everyone is invited, and no one is more important than anyone else.
Jesus is suggesting that there is something even better than being at the head of table – and that is when everyone is equally respected, even those without power. That may seem like a Sunday school truism. But Hockey Canada could have saved itself a great deal of grief had it treated the women who were assaulted as equally important to their hockey players. They lost their place at the head of the table by ignoring the dignity of the people they thought were unimportant. Churches and corporations alike put themselves and others at risk by embracing arrogance over respect.
Jesus is pointing the way to a more stable, more equitable and ultimately more successful way of running organizations. One where the best seat is reserved for those who have proven their worth through humility and compassion for all. In our time, that means that institutions need to be transparent when employees misbehave, and whistleblowers should not be discouraged or censured. Standing up for the rights and safety of the vulnerable should always be seen as best practice.
Jesus imagines a dinner party where no guest is more important than any other. He encourages us to see that we are not here to impress other people, but to help serve the feast that God has provided for everyone. We are called to set aside arrogance, for our selves and our institutions, and embrace compassion for each other. That will lead to a feast, a society, worth attending. One where arrogance is outside, while fairness and respect take their place at the table. A feast where we all get a seat next to God, the host of this party, thrown for all.
 https://cathstan.org/posts/what-were-weddings-like-in-jesus-day-2  In the U.S., the revelations came to light in 2002 with a series of investigative reports by the Boston Globe. https://www.cnn.com/2017/06/29/world/timeline-catholic-church-sexual-abuse-scandals  https://www.christianpost.com/news/the-15-largest-protestant-denominations-in-the-united-states.html  https://religionnews.com/2021/10/02/why-are-southern-baptists-fighting-over-sexual-abuse/  https://religionnews.com/2022/06/13/canadian-megachurch-discloses-38-reports-of-sexual-misconduct-by-4-pastors/  Statistics Canada, “In 2020, one in four women and one in six men reported having experienced inappropriate sexualized behaviours at work in the previous year” 2021-08-12 https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210812/dq210812b-eng.htm  https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf