One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “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, 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. 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. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
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 or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:1 & 7-14 – NRSV)
This text is unique to Luke with the exception of v. 11 which he shares with Matthew: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt 23: 6 & 11–12).
“One of the common settings for philosophical discussions in Hellenistic literature was the banquet. From the time of Xenophon and Plato, the Symposium became in effect a literary form; the eating and drinking provided only the context for sometimes serious and sometimes frivolous discussions of life. The tradition is carried on in the six books of Table Talk by Plutarch (Mor. 612C–748D). In Jewish literature the form is represented by the Letter of Aristeas, with this difference: that the sages are Jewish teachers and their wisdom is illustrated by their devotion to Torah. It is part of Luke’s presentation of Jesus as a philosopher as well as a prophet, therefore, to have him so often at table. The fullest expression of this presentation is in the present chapter, although the Lukan version of the Last Supper (22:14–38) also shows traces of the symposium tradition.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 225.) This dinner party is distinguished by the company –
One Sabbath: This immediately suggests tension! The Sabbath is a common point of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities – see for example Luke 6:1-5. And this gathering is “at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees”. The reader feels the tension even more acutely when Luke tells us “they were watching him carefully”.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited: This is an important point because what follows looks more like a straightforward narrative, a sort of instruction in table etiquette – an etiquette with which all present would have been very familiar. For example in Proverbs 25:7 we read: “It is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble”. And the references to “shame” and “honor” would have been very familiar to those present – all rather banal and hardly worth saying. Jesus in fact finds in their behavior a parable. Johnson writes: “It is only when we come to the concluding line that we recognize the subversive and indeed ‘parabolic’ character of Jesus’ words: when read in the context of Luke’s Gospel as a whole, with its consistent theme of divine reversal, they take on a much more powerful significance: all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all those who humble themselves will be exalted. It is not the appropriate way to get exalted that Jesus addresses, but the frame of mind that seeks exaltation in any fashion. His advice therefore is ‘parabolic’ because it parodies the ‘good advice’ of worldly wisdom only to subvert it by the more radical demand of the kingdom. His advice to these Pharisees (whom Luke has already identified as ‘seeking to justify themselves’ in 10:29 and will do so again in 16:15) is parabolic/parodic precisely because it issues only in ‘respect in the eyes of all your fellow guests’. But the passives of ‘will be humbled’ and ‘will be exalted’ indicate the action of God, not of other humans”. (Johnson, op cit, 226-227.)
For all who exalt themselves will be humbled ….: The idea of being “humbled” was shameful in the Greek world. Johnson writes: “Lowly mindedness or humility (tapeinophrōsynē) was regarded by Hellenistic moralists as a vice not a virtue (e.g., Epictetus, Discourses 1, 9, 10; 3, 24, 56). It is a distinctively Christian virtue widely attested in the NT writings (cf. Matt 11:29; Rom 12:16; Eph 4:2; Phil 2:3; Col 3:12; 2 Cor 11:7; Acts 20:19; Jas 4:6), reflecting the experience of a lowly Savior (Phil 2:8). Some version of this idea of ‘being humbled in order to be exalted’ is found in Matt 18:4 and 23:12; Jas 4:6 and 10; 1 Pet 5:6. It has particular thematic force within Luke-Acts as part of the divine reversal (Luke 1:48, 52; 3:5; 10:15; 14:11; 18:14; Acts 2:33; 5:31).” (Johnson, op cit, 224.)
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends ….: “Put thus bluntly, the saying is alarmingly open to misunderstanding. It can surely not be Jesus’ meaning that one is never to have a party for one’s friends, especially since this goes counter to the spirit of his own way of life. What, however, is stated as a plain ‘not X … but Y …’ really means in Semitic idiom ‘Not so much X … as rather Y …’. Again, it can surely not be Jesus’ meaning that one is to do good deeds simply because they bring a better and more durable reward. The point is rather that one should seek to do good to those who are so needy that they cannot do anything in return, and leave the whole question of recompense to God; (cf. 6:32–35). The teaching is doubtless to be taken literally, but it forms the prelude to a parable in which it is seen that the attitude recommended to men is in fact that which is taken by God.” (I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: a commentary on the Greek text, Paternoster Press, 1978, 583.)
when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind: Here is the punch line, as it were. Jesus’ ‘parable’ recalls his response to John the Baptist’s question – “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” – and the reply: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7:22-23 – ESV). “Be compassionate as your father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). Jesus has not come to give lessons on etiquette or even ethics. He has come to establish the Kingdom. The sure sign that this is happening is that the outcasts, the marginalized, the poor, the sick and the rejected of the world – the “lost sheep” – are tended and cared for. And a sure sign that it is not happening – that the Kingdom is being resisted – is the kind of behaviour Jesus has witnessed at the dinner and which has given rise to the ‘parable’.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just: There is an eschatological note here that probably raises more questions than it answers. A belief among many Jews of Jesus’ time is found in the account of the dying words of the second of the seven brothers tortured to death in the Second Book of Maccabees: “And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws’” (2Maccabees 7:9). Luke comes back to this theme of final judgment several times. See for example Jesus’ statement concerning marriage: Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:34-35). See also the parable of the two debtors (Luke 7:40ff) and the exhortation to fearless confession (Luke 12:4ff); Luke tells us of St Paul’s words to the Roman governor: “I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore I do my best always to have a clear conscience toward God and all people” (Acts 24:15-16).
In his book, Being and Nothingness, Jean Paul Sartre describes a man bending down to peer through a keyhole to see what is happening behind the closed door. Suddenly he realises that someone is watching him. He immediately stops looking through the keyhole and straightens up. The “look of the other” has determined his behaviour. Is it possible that our lives – our sense of identity – can be determined by the “look of the other”?
The Hasidic master, Rebbe Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) said: “If I am I because I am I and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” (Cited by Abraham Twerski, Successful Relationships at Home, at Work and with Friends: Bringing Issues Under Control, Shaar Press, 2003, 89.)
In today’s Gospel we see a microcosm of the “look of the other” at work. It typically occurs as a common, mundane thing but it can play serious tricks with our sense of identity: “do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 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 ….” It does not take much imagination to see how such experiences, repeated time and time again, can shift me from being I “because I am I” to being I “because you are you”. This latter situation may be rewarded and confirmed by the group but it is unreal. Seeming can slowly replace being.
Does this mean we should do away with culture and society, manners and rituals? Not only would that be an impossibility, it would be a disaster. Jesus’ point is that it is my fundamental human task to ground myself, not in what others think of me, but in who and what I am. My task is to discover my true self in God. Yes, there will always be the shaping of culture and ethnicity and all sorts of human experiences. The core truth is that God created me – the real me – not culture or society or family or my ego. Will the creation of God ever emerge?
This requires persistent application of effective listening to and facing what is going on – what is actually going on – within me and between me and others. Without such a deliberate and ongoing effort to listen and face the truth emerging in our experience, we will tend to construct such a thicket of unreality in our lives that we may eventually start believing that the seeming is in fact being.