So I missed last week because I was traveling abroad, but I am now back and ready to do a little bit to keep Fr. Sammy from having to do every single thing around here, and a good way to help out is to do a bit of preaching, which I am very happy to come back home to.
When I asked about the readings for this Sunday Jim Wood in our parish office gave me a warning about how we have been going through the “hard sayings” of Jesus, so I was bracing myself for the possibility of having to preach on some challenging material from our Lord, more of the “hate your parents” variety or “cut off your hand if it gets you into trouble” or that sort of thing.
When I first read today’s Gospel reading though it didn’t seem like a hard saying. Nope, today’s Gospel reading from Luke feels more like I got one of Jesus’s easy sayings. The easy sayings of course are not as famous as the hard sayings, not as controversial or easy to sink your teeth into if you’re a preacher, but I’ll see what I can do.
There are two parts to this reading, the first half is about being a guest, and the second part is about being a host. The first part at least, about being a guest, seems more like etiquette advice than anything else, as if Jesus is contributing to Helpful Hints from Heloise. Normally Jesus has somewhat weightier things to say than offering advice as to how to behave at parties, so we have to dig a bit deeper here to see what the significance is of this apparently rather harmless advice.
The thing to keep in mind is that a banquet in the culture of the time was not just a social gathering or an occasion for amusement. In the ancient world, from Greece to Rome to the Near East, a banquet was the primary way for families to maintain and improve social standing. A banquet was not just a matter of getting together with friends; it had significant social implications. The kind of person you invited, the class of individual who would feel compelled to accept your invitation, the prominence of your guests were all indications of how high on the social ladder you were currently standing. A banquet would be carefully organized to showcase your wealth and accomplishment for the purposes of impressing guests and forging relationships that could mean future prosperity through the granting of favors, the promotion of plans and projects, and brokering marriages. A banquet of the sort that Jesus is attending was not just a dinner party but a sign of social standing and an investment in the improvement of social standing.
Luke’s gospel has Jesus attending banquets of this kind all the time. Jesus was forever a guest at banquets apparently. This is the third dinner he has been to so far in Luke’s gospel and the second at the house of a Pharisee. But this banquet might be the fanciest yet, for the host is not just any Pharisee but a ruler, a man of some prominence. And Luke tells us they were watching him. Not without reason. It’s the Sabbath after all, and the Pharisees have already busted Jesus once on the Sabbath, in Luke chapter 6, for letting his disciples pick grain. In Luke chapter 11, the last time Jesus was at a banquet with the Pharisees, he went completely bananas on his host, excoriating the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law for being a bunch of hypocrites. So little wonder they are watching him now: They probably want to see if he will break a Sabbath prohibition again or whether he goes nuts again and insults the host once more.
This time though there are not many fireworks, but Jesus’s teaching turns out to be pretty challenging when we understand it correctly. Instead of going on a rant against the Pharisees, Jesus tells them a parable. The first part of the reading, the part about being a guest, is not advice after all. It’s a parable. And a parable is a simple story that tells us about spiritual truths. A parable does not give advice; it reveals the truth about how matters stand with God, so we should be reading this as teaching a deeper lesson than tips on good manners.
Notice too that the parable is not about any old banquet, certainly not about the banquet that Jesus is attending. It’s about a marriage feast, and that little detail may also be important. According to this parable, a guest at a marriage feast should not sit at the place of honor, since there is a danger that a more eminent guest will arrive and the first guest will be demoted. No, a guest at a marriage feast should sit at the place of least esteem, since there is a chance then that the guest could then be bumped up. Again this seems pretty commonsensical.
Keep in mind though that the ancient world was obsessed with honor. Standing, reputation, these things mattered desperately to the upper classes of Roman society, and no one would be shocked if a person deserving of honor insisted upon being honored. There was nothing taboo at all about a person of standing reminding his inferiors of that very standing. We find it commonsensical and just plain polite to decline the place of honor, but in Jesus’s time and place nothing at all would be wrong with the guest of honor seizing the place of honor for himself. The great pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that the ideal man, the man of the highest virtue, would be one who knew he was entitled to be honored and would welcome being honored in accordance with his greatness. So the ancient world was not embarrassed about assuming the place of honor if a guest thought he deserved it.
Jesus’s teaching then is actually not commonsense advice at all. It’s a radical overturning of the values of his time and place. Don’t exalt yourself, humble yourself, for “everyone one exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke is crazy about these reversals. They start all the way at the beginning of his gospel with the Virgin Mary’s Magnificat hymn of praise to God. Remember Mary says of God that “he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”
This parable is not about polite behavior or good manners. It’s about the kingdom of God, the kingdom that Jesus has been preaching. Remember it’s a marriage feast we are talking about, and it may be that Jesus has in mind here the marriage feast, as in, the marriage feast that takes place eternally in heaven between Jesus and those he has sanctified to be his bride. At the marriage feast what gets honored is not what the world finds important. What gets honored is not social standing or reputation or wealth. God honors what is righteous in his sight, not what the world values. Jesus is taking the banquet, a foundational element of his society’s striving for advancement, and he is turning it upside-down.
That’s what the second half of his teaching is really about. Notice now the parable is over. In verse 12 we get the beginning of a new bit of teaching, and again, there are no fireworks here, but this is pretty pointed stuff. Jesus stops with the parable, stops talking about guests, and starts talking about hosts. In fact, he starts talking to the host, to the very ruler who has invited him over to feast. In effect, he tells the host, “You’re doing it wrong. This is not how to hold a banquet.” “Do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid.”
So don’t invite your friends or relative or rich neighbors. That is the entire point of having a banquet. The whole point is to impress friends and relative and rich neighbors so that they will do you favors in the future. The whole point is to get repaid. No, Jesus again turns the entire societal convention of banqueting on its head. “Invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” Once again though I think there is a deeper level to this teaching. This is not just about how to put together the guest list for your next party. Again I think this is ultimately about the kingdom of God and God’s priorities.
Jesus is a guest at this party. It’s a fancy party, like I said. But he presumes to dictate to the host how a banquet should be held. He acts as if he can tell a ruler, a Pharisee, a religious leader, that he is doing it all wrong. Jesus acts as if he has the authority to be in charge.
And he acts that way because he is in charge. In Luke’s gospel Jesus is forever a guest, but he really is the host. He is the host of the great banquet, the one to which all are invited, even those who can never repay his generosity. And that’s all of us. We can’t repay the favor that Jesus does for us.
I am reminded of the famous wit of Oscar Levant, the musician, actor, and all-around wisecracker whose family were invited to the White House for dinner. At the close of the evening he grumpily complained to his wife, “I suppose now we’ll have to have the Trumans over to our house for dinner.” But of course the joke is that the president doesn’t expect you to repay him for dinner at the White House. Nobody expects the servant to invite the king over because the king is the king. He doesn’t need his servant to invite him over. He’s the king. He’s happy to host. And that’s what Jesus is doing right now, in Luke 14.
He’s issuing invitations, and they are going out to the poor. To the maimed. To the lame. To the blind.
To people who don’t get invited to banquets because they’re just not important enough. To people who just don’t rank very high in the eyes of the world. To people who will never be able to repay him.
In other words, he’s inviting you and me. And all we have to do is graciously accept.