Many years ago I was traveling with a friend. We had spent the day walking around the center of the city we were visiting, and stopped for a meal at a sidewalk restaurant. A young couple sat down at the table next to us, and struck up a conversation. After a few minutes they turned their attention to the restaurant menu, and excused themselves, saying that they wouldn’t be staying to eat.
I was curious about their sudden change of heart, and asked if the food wasn’t what they were expecting. They responded that it wasn’t the food or the atmosphere, but rather the prices that discouraged them. They were recently married, and on their honeymoon, but on a very limited budget. I invited them to stay, and eat with us, but they declined. I understood their reluctance; they were a little embarrassed by their lack of means. This Sunday’s Gospel refers to a similarly embarrassing social situation.
In Jesus’ time public meals and banquets were essential to people’s social lives and the economy. The meal described in this Sunday’s Gospel is a good example. It was routine for people to throw dinner parties, and all of these parties followed strict rules. One of the rules alluded to in this Gospel passage was the requirement that one invite only people of one’s own social class. (Luke 14:12) To accept a dinner invitation meant to accept the obligation to issue a reciprocal invitation to one’s host. All social relationships were governed by this rule of reciprocity.
In addition to exchanging invitations with one another, it was required that one never invite to dinner someone of a higher social status, as this would be seen as a sin of pride (something like social climbing). Neither was one to invite someone of a lower social status; this would cause the less fortunate person the embarrassment of not being able to respond in kind. The strict rule of reciprocity maintained stable relationships in which no one was obligated to do more than they were able. It also supported the economy by promoting a constant exchange of favors and goods.
Jesus’ comment to his host would neither have made sense, nor would it have been practiced by anyone. “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12-14)
This would have been a formula for failed and messy social relationships. It would have placed burdensome obligations on those who attended the banquet. A poor person who was invited to dinner by a wealthy person would have been required to decline the invitation because they could not have repaid the favor in equal measure. A literal application of Jesus’ words would have brought ruination to people’s social and economic lives.
Like all of Jesus’ teaching and parables, this is instruction about God’s Kingdom; it was meant to be taken figuratively rather than literally. This is another example of teaching about the nature of God’s universal offer of salvation. God’s offer of salvation is issued to all, but under very specific circumstances. All are called to accept God’s offer of mercy, but accepting the offer requires a complete change of heart, a conversion experience that is represented here by the inversion of commonly accepted values (i.e., the reciprocity of social relationships).
Although this is primarily about God’s Kingdom it is, in a tangential way, also about Jesus as a person. Our actions and values say a great deal about who we are as persons. In this case, Jesus professed values that were extremely humble, values that speak volumes about his character. He said, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor . . . Rather, when you are invited, go and take the lowest place . . . For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:8,10, 11)
These are the words of someone who was not concerned about others’ perception of him, not concerned about asserting his own importance and not concerned about his personal pride. His very casual attitude toward a social institution that was completely oriented to bolstering personal status demonstrates the mind of a man whose first choice in a situation was to put others first. I think there’s a lesson for us about knowing God, and living holy lives.
There are almost as many images of God as there are people who embrace those images. Some images of God are more adequate than others, and adequacy in this case is determined by correspondence to what the Scriptures say. How do you imagine God? Is God old, distant, vengeful or judgmental? These are common images of God from a time in which society and individuals were obsessive and legalistic. Is God generic, nondescript or difficult to imagine? These are common images from contemporary society; our society is very focused on subjective, feel-good spirituality, but very opposed to any religious practice that entails obligations or duties to God or people.
Jesus, in his actions and values, offers us an image of God as infinitely humble. In Luke’s Gospel the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus are portrayed as a divine act of self-humiliation and self-emptying. God is portrayed as acting in a surprising and counter-cultural way for the sake of human nature. God grants undeserved favors to humanity, not in order to be repaid in kind, but rather because humanity is always in need of divine favor.
Jesus’ actions and words speak volumes about his character, and about his relationship to God the Father. Jesus reveals to us an image of God who is both loving and respectful toward humanity. If we can appreciate the depth of this divine humility, we are obliged to treat God and others in a like manner – such a life would speak volumes about our character.