When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.10But when you are invited, go and sit down at 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 the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
Translation: And it happened he went into a certain house of the leaders of the pharisees (on the) sabbath to eat bread, and they were watching him closely.
And he said a parable to the ones who had been called. He held forth (about) how they were choosing the first places at the banquet, saying to them, "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline into the first places, not when someone (more) honorable (than) you has been called by him, and coming to you and him he called to answer you, 'Give to this one a place', and then you will rank first with shame to hold the last place.
But when you are called, go sit down into the lowest place so that, when the one who called you comes, he will say to you, "Beloved friend, go up higher". Then he will (give) you glory before all of the ones sitting at table with you. For anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one humbling himself will be exalted."
And he said also to the one who had called him, "When you might make a dinner or supper, do not call your beloved friends, nor your brothers, nor your kinsmen, nor your rich neighbors, in case they invite you back, and a recompense be made to you. But when you make a feast, call the destitute poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed for they cannot repay you for you will be repaid in the resurrection of the just."
Background and situation: The passage appears only in Luke. Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem ever since 9:51. Along the way, he does healings/exorcisms, and teaches the disciples and the crowds. (The long teaching section goes from 12:1 to 13:9.)
Immediately preceding our lection, some pharisees come to Jesus to warn him about Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Jesus informs them that his schedule will in no way be affected by "that fox" Herod. Then he offers lament over Jerusalem (13: 34-35).
Having Jesus for dinner? What could go wrong?: The scene opens with Jesus at the home of a pharisee to eat a meal on the sabbath. "Jesus...pharisee...meal...sabbath" is a formula for controversy so, right off the bat, you know that something strange is likely to occur. Invite Jesus to dinner and who knows what might happen? (One thing for sure: The local Walgreen's will have a run on Maalox when it's over.)
Many commentators see a connection between this kind of dinner and the Greek symposia, which was dinner followed by discussion and debate (and often, much drinking). Hellenization had been an on-going process ever since Alexander conquered the region c. 330 BC. and it is certainly possible that Greek traditions of dining could have spread through the region.
It is unlikely, however, that the pharisees would consciously have adopted these customs. The pharisees generally opposed hellenization. In any case, a dinner followed by discussion and debate (and much drinking) was hardly limited to the Greeks, or to the first century.
First century middle-eastern dinner parties were political, social, and class affairs. One would invite those considered one's social equals or superiors. Accepting an invitation to a such a dinner carried with it the expectation that the one invited would return the favor. Obviously, in the unlikely event they would get an invite, poor people would not accept since they would not be able to repay.
In this particular dinner party, we may assume that the host has invited others of the same social class, i.e. upper-crust pharisees. This was slightly unusual all by itself. Pharisees tended not to be particularly wealthy. Demographically speaking, pharisees tended to be slightly better off than the destitute poor, but it would have been somewhat unusual to encounter a rich one. (This would have been the case during the lifetime of Jesus. By the time of Luke's writing, c. AD 85, the pharisees' lot had probably improved.)
The setting seems hostile. Sabbath controversy stories in chapters 6 and 13 had both ended with pharisees on the defensive (6:7; 13:17). Chapter 11 had ended with the pharisees "lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say" (11:54). We have already clearly been warned about the intentions of Jesus' opponents. This heightens tension, and we are not surprised when told that "they were watching him closely" (14:1).
Verses 2-6 tell of the healing of a man with dropsy, or edema. This follows after the healing of the "bent woman" in 13: 10-17, which was also on the sabbath. There are a number of similarities between the two stories. They both occur on the sabbath and in the company of important people--the ruler of synagogue in the case of the "bent woman" and a "ruler of the pharisees" in the case of the man with dropsy.
Also, the healing of the man with dropsy forms a "male counterpoint" to the story of the "bent woman". First a woman was healed on the sabbath, then a man. In the synoptic gospels, and particularly in Luke, healing stories are quite often "balanced" between men and women, a device which Luke uses to highlight the gender equality of God's kingdom.
Dropsy is characterized by retention of fluid along with, ironically, great thirst. (Tannehill notes that the Greek word translated as "dropsy"--hudropikos--is based on the word for "water." It means something like "water-logged.") Dropsy, or edema, is not a disease itself, but is a side-effect of other problems, such as, for example, congestive heart failure.
Symbolically speaking, the man with dropsy was craving the very thing that was making him ill. Joel Green cites Diogenes' comparison of money-lovers to those suffering from dropsy. Even though full of water, the person with dropsy wants more. Similarly, even though they already have money, the rich person craves even more. (John D. Rockefeller was once asked what he wanted in life. His answer? "Just a little more.")
This is not unlike the guests choosing "places of honor" in verse 7. They have a "thirst" for status which apparently cannot be quenched. Jesus portrays them jockeying for position in verses 7-9, angling for seats which will indicate the high regard in which they are held by their host. In the first century middle-eastern world, as in some cases today, great banquets were all about protocol and social rank.
Observing all this, Jesus tells them a "parable":
"When you have been called by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit in the first place lest someone more distinguished than you may have been called by him, and the one who called will come and say to you, 'Give this one place' and then you will begin, with shame, to hold the last place.
But when you might be called, go sit at the last place so that when he who called you comes, he will answer you, "Friend, go up higher." Then you will have glory in the presence of all the ones sitting together at table with you, for whoever exalts themselves will be humbled, and the ones humbling themselves will be exalted.
This is not, strictly speaking, a "parable." In fact, it would seem to be strategic advice on how to game the system. Play your cards right, Jesus seems to be saying, and you can manipulate social situations in your favor.
Don't promote yourself, and be made to look like a fool, he seems to say. If you plop yourself down in a good seat, it'd be just your luck that Barbara Streisand might show up, be given your seat, and you may be asked to move to a table back by the kitchen. This would result in your "shame," a serious fall in status, especially in a culture where issues of "honor" and "shame" were paramount.
Instead, use humility as a cover in order to advance your own interests. Play the humility card, and you might come out on top. Humility can be faked!
Jesus now turns to his host and makes a similar case. After they got to the banquet, the guests had angled for seats in order to enhance their status. Before they got to the banquet, the host had made similar calculations in his invitations. The host had invited friends, relatives, and rich neighbors--people the host either wanted to promote or impress.
Jesus had accented themes of "the great reversal" with the guests--the humbled will be exalted, and vice versa--and does so again with the host. He encourages the host not to identify with one's own social class, but rather to embrace the poor.
But when you make a feast, call (the) destitute, (the) maimed, (the) lame, (the) blind, and you will be blessed for they have nothing to repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."
From a conventional wisdom point of view, Jesus is encouraging his host to dishonor himself and his family. If you invite the poor, you have no prospect of using that in your favor, and, therefore, you are humbling yourself.
"You will be blessed," Jesus says. Doesn't this indicate another strategy for getting ahead? Doesn't this indicate--gasp!--a prosperity gospel whereby you do good, like helping the poor, and you get something for it?
No. You will be blessed precisely because, in this world, embracing the poor is of no social use or utility. The poor cannot afford to repay. There is no way the poor can promote your own self-advancement. Your "blessing" is the total removal of social rank in the reign of God. In God's eyes, this is justice, and you will be rewarded at the "resurrection of the just."
Image: Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Wedding