One of the consequences of lockdown was that dinner parties could not take place. Suddenly friends and family were no longer able to share a meal and fellowship together. Many of us would not have been bothered where we sat, just that we could be together. So it is difficult for us nowadays to understand quite how important seating arrangements at dinner were in the Ancient World. Where you sat mattered. The closer you sat to the host the greater your importance. This morning’s Gospel begins with Jesus having been invited to a Friday night dinner by a senior Pharisee. Luke’s comment is instructive:
‘they were watching him closely’ (Lk 14:1)
Jesus is on display. He is being studied by the people at the dinner, presumably other leading Pharisees. They want to see if Our Lord will do or say something that they can find fault with. They want to catch Him out, and complain about it. Thankfully Jesus is observant, and uses his observation as a teaching opportunity:
‘Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour,’ (Lk 14:7)
The self-important dinner guests are all trying to get as close to the host as possible, they want the best places, the best food, and to be seen being superior. So Jesus tells the following parable:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, 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 honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” (Lk 14:8-1o)
In practical terms, what Jesus is advising is sensible, and wise, because it removes the possibility of losing face. In the Middle East and elsewhere, to this day, the situation envisaged in the parable would be seen as a source of shame, or honour, depending on whether you were promoted or demoted. We are generally not so aware of such considerations. The parable makes the point that humility is better than pride.
“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)
One is a virtue, the other a vice. To have an attitude which does not seek out the place of honour contrasts strongly with the guests who have done exactly that. Our Lord is pointing out that humility is the better way.
Christianity is a religion of humility, which starts from the premise that we have to rely upon God’s grace to save us, through faith. God takes the initiative, we respond, we do not save ourselves. The point of salvation is that God is the host who says, ‘Friend come up higher’. We don’t deserve a seat of honour, nor have we thought ourselves worthy of it. Yet a loving and generous God says to all who turn to Him, ‘Friend come up higher’. This is the Good News of the Kingdom, and it turns our human expectations on their head. Jesus then develops His teaching:
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 neighbours, 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.” (Lk 14: 12-14)
People were having parties to display their wealth, social status, and connections. This still happens today. But God has a different understanding of hospitality: it’s not about what you get, but what you can give to others. Generosity is what really matters. By inviting those who cannot invite you in return, you are being generous to those in no position to repay you. Jesus’ teaching here is also about the banquet of the Kingdom of God, the Eucharist. Jesus, as God, invites the poor, those in need of healing, in other words all of humanity, you and me, to the feast of the Kingdom. The purpose of the Eucharist is so that God can feed us, with His Body and Blood, to heal us, and to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, to give us a foretaste of Heaven. We cannot repay God, but we can be thankful, and accept what is offered, allowing it to transform us.
Christ has an important and strong message for His host. We see Our Lord advising people to be generous and not to seek a reward. Human Society is complex. The giving and receiving of gifts is a crucial part of how society works. It creates networks of obligation: if you give someone something, they may feel obliged to return the favour. That is fine in human terms, but when we transfer it to the divine realm we are faced with a problem. What can we give God? Does God need or want anything? No! Because God is by nature, perfect, complete, and self-sufficient, God cannot want anything, or need anything. As a result of this God is able to give the purest form of gift, which does not require anything in return. There can be no obligation, because humanity cannot give God anything. God is able give without expecting anything in return. This is what happens in the Incarnation when Our Lord is given to us. Throughout His life and ministry, to His Passion, Death, and Resurrection all He is and does is for us. All is for our benefit. God is generous to us, not so that we can be generous in return, but simply for our own good. Likewise our sacrifice of praise is not for God’s benefit, but ours, demonstrating that we are living the way we should: flourishing, loving and generous.
Instead of the norms of human interaction and obligation, Christ presents us with a completely different paradigm. The dinner invitations in the Kingdom are for the ‘poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ (Lk 14:13) That means us! God longs to lavish His riches upon us, heal our wounds, and restore our sight. In our care for those who are weak, outcast, or deemed socially undesirable, we in our actions proclaim the Kingdom of God. We are called to the banquet here and now, in order that our souls may be nourished with Word and Sacrament. The Eucharist is the banquet of the Kingdom, which heals us, and transforms us, more and more into God’s likeness.
God gives Himself, so the we might live in Him. This is true generosity, a generosity which expects nothing in return. All that we are or do is for our good, and for the good of all humanity, that all may flourish in the Kingdom, living lives of love. Christ is the model of humility and loving service that we should imitate. Christ takes the lowest place, bearing the weight of our sin, on the Cross. There He dies that we might live. There He dies to make us free.
May we, in humility, recognise our need of God, and respond to His invitation to the banquet. May God heal us, restore us and strengthen us to live lives of humility and love, so that we may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.