At a dinner party, Jesus turns the rules for banqueting and table etiquette on their heads. Why?
By Gayle Somers
Gospel (Read Lk 14:1, 7-14)
“On a Sabbath Jesus went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing Him carefully.” In just one sentence, St. Luke communicates so much of the tone of this dinner party, doesn’t he? Immediately we sense that it was not an invitation inspired by cordial friendship. The “leading Pharisee” and his friends seem to be looking for Jesus to make a misstep. In verses not included in our reading (see vss 2-6), a man with dropsy appears before Him. Normally, a person with this condition would not be on the guest list of a party like this. Why had he been invited? Was he part of a trap for Jesus? Stepping right into the situation, Jesus challenges the “lawyers and Pharisees” with a direct question: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” We know that His critics regularly charged Him with breaking the Sabbath prohibition of work, because they harshly interpreted miraculous healing as “work.” Jesus beats them to the punch, however, by asking the question first. No one wanted to answer Him; “they were silent.” Jesus heals the man but pressed His point: “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?” What an easy question! All of us know the impulse of compassion we would experience in this situation. We would simply know that saving the life of a human or even an animal on the Sabbath doesn’t violate the prohibition against working. An act of charity can’t be confused with labor. Healing the man with dropsy was just such an act of charity. Still, He got no answer from these people: “And they could not reply to this.”
What prevented the dinner guests from answering such a simple, obvious question? They apparently did not want to give any ground to Jesus on this question of healing on the Sabbath. Their hearts were very hard. They preferred to say nothing rather than admit that Jesus was making sense. So, now we know what He was dealing with in our reading.
Just as the dinner guests were “observing” Jesus carefully, He was also watching them, “noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at table.” This behavior is consistent with people who think highly of themselves. After all, the host was “one of the leading Pharisees.” If he had invited them to his dinner party, their status as people of importance surely seemed secure. However, Jesus has a word for them: “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor.” This becomes a parable, because so far as we can tell, this occasion was not a wedding banquet. Why does Jesus refer to a wedding banquet to make His point? He does not want to talk just about table and banquet etiquette. This “wedding” reference elevates His teaching to apply to the joyous Messianic banquet that Isaiah prophesied (see Isa 25:6-9) would someday celebrate the salvation of all God’s children from Israel and the nations. God Himself is the Bridegroom; this celebration was always thought to be nuptial. So, Jesus is speaking about the kingdom of heaven, not just table seating. His advice to His fellow dinner guests is to “take the lowest place” at the table. If the host desired them to “move up to a higher position,” he would ask them himself. Then the guests would “enjoy the esteem” of their companions at table. Jesus was teaching the great wisdom of humility: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” For people with hard hearts, nothing is more important in life (or more difficult) than humility. Pride is perhaps the greatest impediment to entering God’s kingdom and celebrating the salvation He has won for us. It is better for us to think of ourselves as the lowly rather than the “leaders.”
Jesus also has a word for the host of this party, the “leading Pharisee.” He suggests that the guest list for “a lunch or dinner” ought not to include anyone who could repay the gesture of hospitality. In this, of course, Jesus uses Semitic hyperbole: He doesn’t mean that we are never to have dinner parties for family members or friends. He is speaking about the danger of using a dinner invitation as a means to an end—to advance one’s social status, to keep others in our debt, etc. That kind of party has a narrow, limited horizon. It is completely earthbound and has no eternal significance. It could even be a danger to the soul. Instead, the best kind of hospitality is that offered to the dregs of society, the ones who can never repay. In fact, their inability to repay or in any way advance one’s status will be a source of blessing to the host, because he has chosen to set his sights on heavenly, not earthly, reward. By inviting the unworthy to his table, he reflects the great love of Christ for us, Who has done exactly that for us in the Mass. If, when we look around our parish churches and are tempted to think about some we see, “Why is he here?”, perhaps we ought to remember this teaching.
We have to wonder if the host of this party had any idea what he was getting himself into when he put Jesus’ name on his guest list! If not, perhaps he is like us—when we invited Jesus into our lives, did we?
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I am sure I often exalt myself without realizing it. Help me see it and change course.
First Reading (Read Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29)
We can see from this reading that Jesus’ exhortation to humility at the dinner party in our Gospel was not new to the Jews: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” The “leading Pharisee” who had invited Jesus to his home would have done well to heed these words carefully: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” This is precisely the suggestion Jesus offered in His parable. Our final “exaltation” or “humiliation” is entirely in God’s hands; it is not something we can determine for ourselves. The constant biblical call to humility is sage advice we should never ignore: “an attentive ear is the joy of the wise.”
Possible response: Heavenly Father, I want to have an “attentive ear” to listen for Your call to stay small in life.
Psalm (Read Ps 68:4-7, 10-11)
The reason that the path of humility and dependence on God is always the right choice for us is because, as the psalmist says, God is “the father of orphans and the defender of widows… God gives a home to the forsaken; He leads forth prisoners to prosperity.” In other words, God is always on the side of those who have come to the end of themselves and have only Him as their hope. When our hands are completely empty, and we are powerless to change our situation, we can count on His “goodness,” for He provides “for the needy.” Only a humble heart, one that realizes its true poverty, can sing, “God, in Your goodness, You have made a home for the poor.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again carefully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a)
If we ask ourselves how we are able to let go of our earthly concerns, empty ourselves in humility, and live with a heavenly horizon that doesn’t expect or demand a reward in this life, our epistle reading can help. The author is describing the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (a major theme throughout Hebrews). In the Old Covenant, the people of God came into physical proximity with Him in worship at Mt. Sinai, and it was terrifying. In the New Covenant, our worship in the Mass brings us into heavenly proximity with God, and it is most glorious. Look at the details of what life in Christ has now accomplished for us as we approach God. Because this is true—because this is the reality toward which we are now headed and of which the Mass is our foretaste—what have we got to lose by letting go of our pride, our control, our will?
Possible response: Heavenly Father, thank You for the glory You grant us now, in the Mass, and into eternity. When I truly understand Your love, from which this flows, letting go of my pride, of exalting myself, becomes less of a struggle.