Meals are important in Luke-Acts. There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table, in Luke than in any other Gospel. Meals are about feeding the soul as much as about feeding the body. Sharing a meal creates relationships and prepares disciples for the day when “..people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south, and will recline at table in the kingdom of God” (last Sunday’s Gospel).
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage from Luke, we are told that Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath dinner in the home of a prominent Pharisee. Jesus often had harsh words for Pharisees, so we might wonder why a leader of the Pharisees would invite him to dinner. Jesus had a growing reputation as an effective prophet, and that might be the reason however, Luke also tells us that “they were observing him carefully”. It is more likely that the Pharisee and his guests hope Jesus will make a mistake they can exploit. Every leader is subject to scrutiny, and Jesus is a leader. His followers look to him for direction and his enemies probe him for weakness.
As such, it is not accidental that Jesus encounters a man with dropsy; remember they are watching him closely—will he cure on the Sabbath? (This story is found in verses 2-6 which are not part of the lectionary reading for Sunday, but it is helpful to be aware of them. In this Chapter (14), verses 1-24 form one narrative cloth and Sunday’s passage is cut from them.)
Jesus sees this man with dropsy and asks those gathered for dinner in the home of the prominent Pharisee, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” (v. 3). Note that he does not ask if it is lawful to do work on the Sabbath, but instead asks if it is lawful to heal people. They fail to answer; he heals the man and sends him away. Jesus then says, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” (v. 5). Again, they do not answer.
When it is time to be seated for the Sabbath meal, Jesus takes note of the jostling that begins as this guest and that guest angles his way toward the seats closest to the host’s chair. Jesus says to the guests, “When you are invited to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited 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.”
Jesus tells these guests that it is better to take the lowest place at table, then the host may come to you and say, “My friend, move up to a higher position.” Jesus concludes with the statement: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In today’s world, people vie for fame, fortune, power, and recognition. The people who have achieved any of these are typically held in high esteem. Jesus reverses this idea. Status-seeking is rampant in our society. This is the same thing as seeking the “better seat” at table. Taking our place at the lower end of the table, allows us to respond with joy when Jesus, our host for the heavenly banquet, the marriage supper of the Lamb, taps us on the shoulder and says, “What are you doing down there? Come up and sit by me.”
Jesus then turns his attention to the host who invited him.
“You’re inviting the wrong people,” Jesus tells him. “By including only friends, family, and those who can advance your status, you are no better than these guests who are fighting over the best seat in the house. You’re trying to make yourself look good by surrounding yourself with “important” people, while you ignore the ones who should be enjoying your hospitality.”
In the main, Pharisees thought they were the upper crust in God’s kingdom. They were the most religious, pious, and holy people, and if anyone deserved high places at God’s table, certainly it was them-at least in their minds. They had developed an attitude of distinction, but in this Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Not so fast! There are other guests who are just as important as you. They might not look like you, and they might not have all the right table manners, and they might not wear the best clothes or live in the best parts of the city, but I’ve invited them to the banquet as well.“
In this home, Jesus recognized both the guests and their host as social climbers, and he wanted to urge them toward humility, true generosity, and authentic hospitality that expected nothing in return. It was time to throw out the old guest list of relatives and members of the same social class, and replace it with a list of people who would never be the natural choice, people who could never return the favor. It was time to throw out the old order of self-promotion and realize that all are in equal need of mercy in the eyes of God. Treating others, such as the poor, the sick, the blind, and the crippled, as if they were our equals still places barriers between “us” and “them.” Only true humility can give us the right perspective.
Luke doesn’t tell us how that Sabbath-day dinner party ended. But you have the feeling that when Jesus left, his host did not smile and say, “Come again!” In fact, in the balance of Luke’s Gospel we will never again read that Jesus was the guest of a Pharisee or any other religious authority. The next dinner Jesus attends is noted in the beginning of Luke 15 but this time he is dining with tax collectors and sinners.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and we know what awaits him there. Along the way, he is showing his disciples who God is and how they are to live a life of humility and one that reflects our hospitable God. He is teaching us the same lessons today as we make our way to the heavenly Jerusalem.