“When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: 8 ‘When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ ” (Luke 14: 7-14)
This is set in the context of 14:1, when Jesus was invited to the house of “a prominent Pharisee ” for a Sabbath meal. We have already had the tense silence ensuing from Jesus’s insistence on healing someone, so perhaps the conditions are somewhat frosty just now. But Jesus appears unfazed and unflappable, and despite the awareness of being under intense critical scrutiny, he calmly considers the scene unfolding as people jockey for position around the table.
It would be good to think that this jockeying belongs to a bygone age, but that just ain’t so. We have top tables, class distinctions, posh restaurants and greasy diners. Social distinctions matter far too much.
And so it was then. And Jesus speaks into it, forcefully and challengingly. He notes “how the guests chose the places of honour” (v 7), and tells an off-the-cuff anecdote about grabbing a top seat and then being asked to vacate it. The embarassment still plays, doesn’t it? So why not take the lowest seat and offer the host the opportunity of honouring you? “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v 11).
Shameless self-promotion is always a bit icky.
Jesus speaks of a heart-humility that cuts through all the me-first mentality of all our grabby self-obsession. And not just a fake, self-deprecating pretend modesty either. “I am among you as one who serves.” When Jesus wanted to show “the full extent of his love,” he took up the dish and towel and took the role of the lowliest servant. (John 13) And all this in the teeth of some very explicit Etiquette rules about social distinction. In the first century world, meals were precisely the place where these rules of social disparity were lauded.
And yet Jesus doesn’t trash the whole system. He rather assumes it, since highest and lowest seats figure into his answer (v 10)! But in vv12-14 there is a massive, surprising twist. Jesus, without using a parable, speaks directly to his host–the one who holds a greater measure of control over the ‘rules of the game’ for this particular meal. His advice to this figure of power in the story works to undermine the very system that upholds status difference at meals. Jesus exhorts the host not to invite friends, family, or the rich to meals, since they are able to repay with a corresponding invitation. Such social reciprocity was the backbone of the patronage system endemic to the first-century world.
Instead, Jesus calls for inclusion of those who cannot return the invitation: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (v 13). This connects with the Isaiah-shaped mission of 4:18. This is what Jesus is about!
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
So how can social payment and repayment govern life in God’s kingdom community? God will sort it at the “resurrection of the righteous” (v 14).“Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid…”
As for you kingdom people, what have you got to do with such foolish social niceties? You have more important things to do.
So what do we do with our guest lists and our black lists (not to mention the hit lists)? How do we cope with the concept of “honour due,” of bigwig occasions, blacktie gala events, charity functions, top tables. I get a bit of this, you know, with being a “Doctor” and a “Reverend.” Sometimes it’s kind of nice, but most times not. I squirm under well meant introductions before I get up to speak, wondering where the weird paragon is that they’ve just been talking about.
Well, Jesus is tough, -radical even- and cuts in a totally unexpected fashion. It’s like watching a gardener about to prune a rose bush who lays down his secateurs and picks up a chain-saw.
(True story: ask me about it some time)
And n the very next passage, the meal story continues with Jesus reemphasizing the notion of inviting the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind (v 21), this time in a parable representing the Final Big Party of God, which will include just such marginalized ones, with the “invited guest list” being left out (v 24).
The thing is: as God’s people humble themselves and seek to live by a different social system marked by radical inclusion, they can trust God to be faithful and to reward their right ways of living in that final day.
And second, we just have to consider the cut of that chainsaw. The kingdom Jesus inaugurates already subverts human social systems that so often reward the “haves” and further disadvantage the “have-nots.”
But we are called to live out the counter-cultural value of inclusion for the most marginalized, with our actions mirroring Jesus’ own inclusive kingdom agenda to fill God’s house and offer that Big Party to all (vv 21-23).
And who said it would be easy?