John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke
1 One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. 2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus responded to the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 5 And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” 6 And they could not reply to these things. 7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers[b] or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”Luke 14:1-14
The Gospel of the Lord.
The New Testament’s pantry is full of food and eating in social, religious and family settings. Routinely Jesus’ teaching references everyday food items, e.g. salt, seeds, bread, fish. In some of his miracles, multitudes are fed with bread and fish. And, famously, there are his interpretive words about bread and wine at his last Passover meal. But meals aren’t always about the menu. In his dining with “tax collectors and sinners” Jesus came to be viewed skeptically. Careful reading of the later Jesus movement, reveals how meals unite believers and promote a distinctive identity for this newly forming group, although, not without some controversy (Gal. 2.11-14, Ac. 10-11, 1 Cor. 11-14)
This morning’s lectionary scene features a Pharisaic leader who invited Jesus to a Sabbath meal. Theophilus already knows from Luke “Jesus…Pharisee…meal…Sabbath” is a type-scene for controversy. The Sabbath meals in chapters 5 (vs. 29-32) and 7 (vs. 36-50) ended with Pharisees on the defensive. The Sabbath meal in chapter 11 ended with Pharisees “lying in wait for Jesus, to catch him in something he might say” (11:37-54). So we shouldn’t be surprised when we read here: “the Pharisees were watching him closely” (vs. 1). Right from the start of this scene, we suppose something provocative, at least from the Pharisaic point-of-view, is likely to occur. On the other hand, by the time Jesus gets to Jerusalem’s temple, he will be skilled at flipping tables (cf. 19.45-46).
This meal in addition to being a religious gathering is also a political-social event. In the Second Temple period and the Roman world-at-large, a banqueteer would usually invite one’s social equals or superiors. Accepting an invitation to a dinner carried with it expectations the invited would return the favor at some future time. More about this in a few minutes. Obviously, poorer folk would never give/accept an invitation since they would not be able to pay/repay in kind.
In Luke’s Gospel, then, Jesus’ frequently open-ended dinner is a kingdom strategy calling “correct” rules into question. This helps readers understand why Jesus is viewed as a threat. This scene also has an unstated tension involving the unnamed but “prominent” Pharisee. Pharisees tended to be only slightly better off than the destitute poor (Josephus, Ant 13.171-173). So beginning with the appetizers, the “hosting” of this meal would have been somewhat tenuous. Since a garden variety Pharisee, although prominent, might not be able to pull it off financially.
Time to pile on the tension. Into the scene comes a man with edema (vs. 2). The man is clearly out of place in this socially networked dinner. Considering the theological pattern Luke has been constructing, it might not be far off the mark to suppose this apparently abrupt intrusion is a setup to back Jesus into a theological corner. After all it’s the Sabbath and the room is filled with folk for whom “meticulous auditing of Sabbath Oral Tradition” is of paramount importance. Consistently in Luke, Jesus’ healing on Sabbaths demonstrates valuing Sinai Torah over Pharisaic Oral Tradition. Jesus under intense Pharisaic scrutiny is able to see who is in front of him – a man his scrutinizers are unwilling to see. Jesus questions them “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” (vs. 5). His question exposes their field of vision has narrowed through the binoculars of Oral Tradition. They no longer see the Torah’s landscape – the greater needs of individuals on the Sabbath. They’re silent. Without comment Jesus heals the man and sends him away, perhaps, back to his own family meal!
And now back to the banquet and who Jesus sees “in front of him…”. Jesus has been noticing how the religious authorities are working the tables like wily, campaign shoutin’ politicians (vs. 7). Here’s the background to Jesus’ parable in vss. 8-10. The place of honor reserved for the most important guests at banquets was around the head end or middle of tables . It would be public embarrassment for someone to take a prominent place assuming they were an important guest only to give it up to a more honored guest. That person’s “assumed” view of himself/herself would be on public display. So being reseated would be a source of shame.
Jesus’ parable leads into a teaching moment. Luke has seated Jesus as a sage among these sages at dinner. Wisdom in Israel has advice about how to act when someone is on the receiving end of an invitation to a banquet. In Hezekiah’s collection of Proverbs (Pro. 25:6, 7) there is cautionary advice to young princelings about how to behave, where to sit, stand,and eat in the king’s court. Even down to the Second Temple Period, Sirach still advises invitees to be deferential at such meals (Sir. 31:12-18). So formed in Israel’s Wisdom teaching, Jesus’ truism on conventional table manners “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (vs. 11) focuses on more than just “choosing” one’s seating.
How are disciples to behave in the Kingdom? Certainly, proverbial advice can be misdirected, such as, play your cards right, and you can game the system’s social situations to your advantage. Neither is Jesus supporting conventional etiquette advice in a Dear Abigail column of his daily Judean Gazette. No, this is kingdom teaching: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (vs. 11). If you’re going to undo the thirst of status seeking then you can’t go to the best seat at the banquet. You have to go to the human heart. You have to go to the guest who is least likely to belong there in the first place. Jesus is pointing disciples in the direction of choosing to pursue humility. This kingdom virtue marks disciples with honored status. His truism indicates humility turns the social world upside down. No doubt, humility is a tricky thing. It eludes us even when we try to define it in healthy ways. Very little in our culture recognizes, rewards or supports humility. Entertainment, politics, sports, and, regrettably, religion, have an unhealthy admiration for the loudest, the biggest, and the greatest. Whether we recognize it or not, Christians too often idolize the superlatives “awesome” or “cool”. Yet the discipleship thread Luke repeatedly turns to is: status in the kingdom is recognized not in social positions of power but in being a “servant” (cf. Luke 22:24-27).
Building on the truism’s reversal of social order, the scene’s narrative closure (vs. 12-14), narrows the focus from the banquet-at-large to the host – the one who holds the greater measure of control over the “rules of the table”.
In a second teaching moment, Jesus speaks directly to his host- the prominent pharisee. He will undermine one of the facets in the social system – patronage- that keeps the system on life support. In the ancient world, society was strongly hierarchical. One’s place at dinner was guarded jealously. It seems for most it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were. Position was a matter of individual achievement and community value. Self esteem was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your seat publicly. Losing face was almost like losing one’s life.
Jesus challenges the Pharisee not to bolster his social status with friends, family or the famous. Instead, Jesus writes up a list of four guests “the poor and crippled, the lame, and blind” (vs. 13) and by implication the “uninvited” man with edema in the beginning scene (vs. 7). They’re of no social utility in the Second Temple banquet. Jesus is encouraging his host to “dishonor” himself and his family. If he invites the poor and others, none of them can repay in kind. Through this guestlist, Jesus publicly disapproves of, at the very least, one Pharisee’s worldview.
We don’t know if the host responded to Jesus one way or another but this kind of censure and reversal of expectations and status is thematic in Luke. Turn back with me to a couple of sentences frequently read in evening prayer – Mary’s psalm “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (e.g., 1:52-53; also 6:20-26; 18:14). As disciples we are to hear a message unraveling society’s fabric of honor and status. Jesus has rewritten both the guest list and seating chart. In his teaching moments, Jesus subverts expectations disciples might have about social payment and repayment governing status in the kingdom community. His promise is that YHWH will repay Wisdom’s hospitality at the “resurrection of the righteous” (vs. 14). Because YHWH’s kingdom is not a kingdom of scarcity but of abundance: all are already welcome, already loved, already cherished. Because the status of that kingdom is humility not arrogance; compassion not indifference; service not self-promotion. For the time being disciples who eat and drink at YHWH’s table live in tension with pecking orders defining the society-around-them. That can be exhausting. But it’s what disciples are called to do — to humble themselves placing hope in a radically different kingdom. YHWH is a host who will faithfully reward servant behavior.
Now the scribes and Pharisees weren’t the only ones listening. There’s the disciples, Theophilus and the readers. Luke’s dinner scenes reveal some of the boundaries of human relationships. Tradition breaking discipleship, and/or “lower-end-of-the-table” discipleship is deliberate not accidental, especially when things like status are being used as exclusion or power. Discipleship is about leveling the playing field not about defending turf. Where we choose to sit speaks volumes about relationships. And/or the people who we choose to invite reveal the character of discipleship. One of the messages of this lectionary reading is: disciples can become so distracted, so busy looking for a place at the table, and/or maintaining a place, they have missed the feast altogether. Keep this in mind: Jesus is skilled at flipping tables. So it seems to me the questions the Gospel lesson puts to disciples about commitments are: Do you really still think you hold the greater measure of control over the “rules of the table”. If so, then where have you seated Jesus at the table that is your life? For you see the actual discipleship issue is “If I’m going to sit at a table it needs to be where Jesus seats me because it’s a matter of the heart”. So the commitment question still remains “How can I best serve”?.
May the Lord richly bless you, my Beloved.