Luke 14:1-2, 7-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy.
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 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 honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Proverbs 25 offers a brief but pointed piece of wisdom: “Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or stand in the place of important people” (Prov.25:6-7). In a hierarchical society where the king was viewed as being close to divine if not divine, this is definitely a word of wisdom. Even in a modern democracy such as the United States, a person doesn’t just go up and start talking to the President. If the President, or a member of the staff, invites you to join in conversation with the President, well that’s a different story, but you can’t just jump into the front of the line and expect to be well-treated by the President, staff, or the folks around you. It is wise to know one’s place!
Jesus speaks to the issue of social hierarchy in two parables found in Luke 14. The context is a meal hosted by a leading Pharisee on the Sabbath. While he was there a man suffering from dropsy sat down on the front porch of the home where Jesus was present, and the people watched to see if he would heal the man. It was a trap and Jesus emerged from it, while the man was healed. That part of the story is omitted from the lectionary, but it does illustrate Jesus’ ongoing concern for those who are often set aside by society, even using religious rules to enforce social boundaries.
After the encounter with the man with dropsy Jesus sat down and began to watch how the guests behaved. He noticed how the guests were jockeying for the best seat in the house. Your social status was marked by where you sat. Seeing this Jesus offered a word of wisdom. As was his custom he did so in the form of a parable.
He told the gathering a parable about proper etiquette at a wedding banquet. Because parables often illustrate the nature of God’s realm it’s good to know that a wedding banquet is a symbol of the realm. He told his fellow guests that when you go to a wedding, you shouldn’t try to sit in the seat of honor (unless you’re the party getting married!). Don’t go sitting at the head table, because a more important guest might be coming (the party getting married!) You don’t want to do this because if the host or steward comes and reseats you, you will suffer humiliation. It’s quite likely you’ll get seated at the back of the room, and that’s not a good situation. Wouldn’t it be better to start at the back, and perhaps the host will come and invite you to move forward to a seat of honor? As Jesus said: The last shall be first, and the first last (Lk 13:30). This is a key point that appears throughout Scripture—God will bring down the proud and lift up those on the margins. It is a message that Mary sang of and which Jesus lived out on the cross. As we read this text, we should do so in light of the cross, for Jesus humbled himself and died on a cross. He suffered humiliation, but God lifted him up in the resurrection. Now, we needn’t take this to extremes. We needn’t brutalize our bodies in order to please God, but in this story Jesus makes it clear that God does stand with those on the margins.
But Jesus isn’t finished. He also talks about the meaning and purpose of hospitality. Then as now we tend to think of hospitality in terms of reciprocity. I invite you and you invite me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with reciprocating, as it is good manners, but Jesus wants to push us beyond our own self-interest. He wants us to think about why we invite someone to dinner. Is it because we expect something out of it?
Instead of treating hospitality as a means to an end, Jesus encourages us to invite those who cannot reciprocate. Invite to your banquet “the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid in the resurrection” (Luke 14:13-14 CEB). This is a difficult word to hear because we seldom live in accordance with this directive. We don’t do this in our personal lives. We don’t do this in our congregations. And it’s clear from the political sentiment of the age, that we don’t want to do this in public life. The current mood, even among church people, is “I’ve got mine. You’re on your own.” We don’t want to pay taxes to support education, public transportation, health care, and more. If we were to stop and ask: What would Jesus do? What do you think the answer would be? If we are people of God’s realm, how should we live?
Note: I preached on this text this past Sunday, though with a stewardship theme. This may be consulted as well. On the picture, note attribution: JESUS MAFA. The poor invited to the feast, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48397 [retrieved August 22, 2016].