TWENTY-SECOND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully.
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then he said to the host who invited him, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
As I continue to read Joel Green’s translation and text of St. Luke’s Gospel this year for the Tuesday posts, I am becoming aware of this Gospel’s revolutionary nature and its apocalyptic or future outlook to the “end times.” This weekend’s Gospel combines the two qualities impressively. It is important not to read this Gospel passage too literally as common sense advice, like wisdom from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” For Jesus takes the hard and fast rules of social etiquette in Roman times, turns them on their head, and makes another profound statement about the difficulties of entering the Kingdom of God.
This is text rich in irony. In verse one, Luke records that the dinner was held in the home of a “leading Pharisee,” and that the people were observing Jesus closely. Strange, then, that when Jesus opens his mouth, he for his part has evidently been watching the guests, too. He is observing banquet etiquette, which in Jesus’ day was enforced by strict if unwritten rules. Green quotes the sociologist Marshall Sahlins when he writes that “the sharing of food is a ‘delicate barometer’ of social relations.” (p. 550) There were in place “behavior codes” to enforce rank. Where one would sit at a banquet was a mark of one’s relative importance—and in fact the act of being invited or not invited was itself another “sacrament of status,” so to speak.
There are hints in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus was not unaware of the pride and “social climbing” of Pharisees, as here in the case of the competition for seats of honor. In Luke 18: 9-14 Jesus describes a Pharisee and a tax collector praying together. The Pharisee extolls to God his advanced observance of the Law, while the tax collector seeks mercy for his sins; Jesus observes that only the tax collector went home justified. So there is, in this Gospel here, a rather strong rebuke in Jesus’ words about seating a not-so-subtle warning to Pharisees about strict observance of the Law without an accompanying purity of spirit. Groveling for honor was a problem for the disciples, too, as in “arguing among themselves as to who was the greatest” in another text.
Prestige was the coinage of the social realm, and Jesus was indeed asking a lot when he talked of the exalted being humbled, and vice versa. Green points out, though, that Jesus raises the discussion to an even higher plane in Luke 14:12 when he segues into the thinking of the host of a banquet. In our own time one of our presidential candidates has written about “the art of the deal;” in the first century the “art of the invitation” would have been a best seller, too. For the host of a feast (wedding or otherwise) would gain or lose social rank by the number of powerful and influential people he could entice to his dinner. Then, of course, the attendees would hopefully reciprocate, confirming the host’s treasured position, not to mention the exchanges of indebtedness or “chits.”
In his observations about the invitational practices, Jesus again stands contemporary logic on its head when he expressed a preference for the blind, the poor, the lame, those who would be unable to reciprocate by throwing their own banquets. Moreover, holding a public banquet of down-and-outers would cause the host’s own social status to decrease, something along the lines of “the company you keep,” etc. Jesus’ statements here are a call to charity, pure and simple, one of the primary themes of both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. It is giving without measuring the cost.
But Jesus takes the discussion further. He moves into the apocalyptic world of judgment. Charity for charity’s sake is good. Charity rewarded by entrance into the Kingdom of God on the last Day is another thing. I have not talked much this year about the image of the Eschatological Banquet, but the term is a staple of Bible studies. In both Testaments the coming of God at the end of time is portrayed as a magnificent feast of the faithful that will never end. Recall last Sunday’s Gospel, “Lord, Lord, open [the banquet] for us.” The symbol of the Eschatological (or final and ultimate) Banquet is used liberally in St. Luke, right on through the Last Supper and the Resurrection appearances at Emmaus and the upper room.
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus explains that a faithful banquet host who invites the poor and the crippled will indeed receive an invitation in return—at the resurrection of the righteous. The unstated promise is a place at the Messianic or Eschatological Banquet at the end of time. If you are reading the Gospel of Luke at home, I suggest you continue with Luke 14: 15-24, which continues the banquet theme. In that text a wealthy householder spreads a banquet to which none of his rich friends attend, sending instead a stream of excuses. And, in Chapter 15, we find the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, whose repentance is met by his father’s killing the fatted calf for a feast which the hard-hearted, unforgiving son fails to attend.) Luke, it seems, likes his meals.