In context, the previous passage from St Luke for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, was describing those who are the friends of God, and reminding us of the trials and tribulations they went through to get their seat at the banquet of heaven.
Luke Chapter 14 opens with Jesus accepting a dinner invitation at the home of an influential Pharisee. However, the missing verses 2 to 6 tell us that this dinner was far from a meeting of hearts and minds assisted by good food and drink. It begins with a man with dropsy being presented to Jesus, and since this dinner fell on a Sabbath, controversy was expected. Hence it feels like a well thought out trap, and that Jesus is more their entertainer than their guest.
Jesus, of course, heals the man. But before and after the healing He asks the assembled group of scribes and Pharisees a different question as an entry way for discussion about the Law and the Sabbath, and about normal emergency situations where the Sabbath Law gets bent (e.g. a son falls into a well).
Jesus gets met with stony silence. None of them wish to engage with Him on this issue, and Jesus must have been deeply disappointed because it should have been quite a fascinating discussion with so many learned minds in the same place. He would have been grieved too, because these men more than most knew that a rabbinical question was the starting place for learning, and this refusal indicates that there was nothing they wanted to learn from Jesus, and that their hearts were quite closed to Him.
Not deterred, as a good guest Jesus gives them something else as a discussion starter, in the form of a parable. Now a parable is a bit like a riddle, except that it uses everyday situations and includes an unexpected twist, and from that twist people could begin to fathom the purpose and meaning of the parable. The thing is, we often think of this part of scripture as pure teaching, and not a parable at all.
Perhaps, you, like me, have always envisioned a long straight banqueting table with at least 20 chairs or more, when this Gospel gets read out. But the Greek is very clear that at this dinner they were all reclining in the ancient manner. If so, please do yourself a favour, and go and read this blog post about the dining customs of Ancient Rome, and in particular how the couches were arranged in a Triclinium, and where the hosts reclined, where the higher valued guests reclined, and where the lower valued guests reclined.
The best positions had both proximity to the host, and the best uninterrupted views. The worst positions had less proximity to the host, and the worst views, and needed head swiveling when anything important took place eg. new food arriving, new guests arriving, entertainers arriving and performing.
The Romans based their practices on the Greeks, and the Greeks based their practices on the more ancient cultures of Egypt, Persia and Israel. Due to the Hellenistic era in Israel (see Maccabees), and due to the Roman occupation at the time of Jesus, everyone was familiar with this dining arrangement – and it is highly likely that the dinner Jesus went to was arranged upon similar lines.
In this parable Jesus sets two scenarios before His dining companions.
In the first scenario, a more distinguished guest arrives.
In the second scenario, Jesus suggests that the best place to aim for is the lowest place.
Most of you have had a share in arranging wedding receptions or other sit-down dinner events. Quite a lot of time is taken in working out the best seating arrangements for the guests to try and maximize everyone’s enjoyment of the occasion. Anyone at enmity with each other you wanted seated far apart from each other. Often you even work out place cards, or at least make sure all the family knows where you want each guest to sit.
The only time this apple cart gets overturned is when an uninvited guest shows up, or when someone who didn’t think he could make it suddenly finds that he can.
With the Jewish emphasis on hospitality, and the necessity of finding lodgings on a journey of several days, having an uninvited guest, or a guest added at the last minute, was far from uncommon.
In fact, this parable could easily be called the parable of the uninvited guest, or the parable of the extra guest.
The context in which Jesus placed this parable was the jockeying for the best reclining positions that went on as they entered the dining area, and this jockeying had probably even begun as each one arrived and had a guess at where he fitted on the pecking order of influence.
For them this dinner was more about enhancing or maintaining their power and influence than anything else. At such dinners among influential scribes and Pharisees lots of insider deals were done, or sensitive information shared.
Can you get the image of a group of men playing a game of one-up-man-ship among themselves to decide who is the most important person to take the best dining position near the host? Can you see that such a masculine gaggle completely ignores whatever the host may want? Can you perceive the underlying assumption that the host plays these games too, and that for them this group of men such behaviour is quite normal?
Now look back at the parable of Jesus, in the first part the host says, ‘Give up your place to this man’. It’s rather brusque, isn’t it? And it is more likely said to an acquaintance or to an unknown, than to a friend.
In the second part of the parable of Jesus, the host says, ‘My friend, move up higher’.
Therefore, it is friendship with the host that determines your table place far more than any power and influence you may wield.
To some extent, the advice of Jesus is practical, since if you are an uninvited guest or a latecomer, then it is pragmatic to take the lowest place, and not earn everyone else’s wrath for dislodging them from where they were. Far better for the host to initiate that rearrangement. The advice of Jesus also contains a revelation; because if you take His advice, you will learn whether how close you think your relationship with the host is matches how close the host thinks your relationship is – especially if your host leaves you in that lowest place.
When we think of the heavenly banquet to come, and Who the divine host will be, perhaps we will now put a lot more effort into our relationship with God, and a lot less effort in comparing ourselves to others.
Jesus also leaves us clues about how to improve our relationship with God.
Remember that He said, ‘Which of you, if his son falls into a well, or his ox, will not pull him out on a Sabbath day without any hesitation?’
What did Jesus do? He healed the man with dropsy without hesitation. This man, despised by the dinner group, was considered as important as a son or an ox to Jesus.
Let that sink in.
Consider that the vast number of recipients of the miracles of Jesus were poor, or crippled, or lame, or blind…. Consider how many miracles were worked for scribes and Pharisees.
Who was the one excluded from the dinner? The man healed of dropsy.
Who would Jesus have included, if He were the host for this dinner beyond all the others? The man healed of dropsy.
What else did Jesus tell us? ‘When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind’.
He is inviting us to get to know the people who are special to Him, and the ones He highly values. Doing good towards whom Jesus accounts as His friends is the path of wisdom. Even on earth, if you help a friend that I care about, my heart is going to be extra kindly disposed towards you, yes?
Is any of this about humility?
Is all of this about friendship with Jesus?
May the Lord Jesus grant us the grace to act upon this. Amen.