On a sabbath Jesus went to dine
at the home of one of the leading Pharisees,
and the people there were observing him carefully. ...
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
'Give your place to this man,'
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
'My friend, move up to a higher position.'
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
For every one who exalts himself will be humbled,
but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
Then he said to the host who invited him,
"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."
The Pharisees are always playing games with Jesus, always trying to trap him and prove his untrustworthiness. This week’s Gospel recounts a story that takes place on the Sabbath ― the day of rest. Before this day, the Pharisees had clashed three times with Jesus over the correct way to live out the Sabbath. So the tension is high when, on this particular Sabbath, Jesus is invited “to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees.” It’s anything but cordial; the text says they were “observing him carefully,” waiting for him to do something objectionable.
Jesus, ever the controversialist, immediately obliges them. Though it’s left out of the Mass reading, as soon as Jesus arrives at the Pharisee’s house, he heals a man there with dropsy ― a disease that causes painful swelling. Now, according to the overwhelming majority of ancient rabbis, healing on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden. But think about what the Pharisees have done: in order to catch Jesus contradicting Jewish law, they’ve used a very ill man as bait. Let’s note that the man was not invited to the dinner ― the text says that, after he was healed, he left the party and went home. He was bait and nothing more. Immediately after this scene, the Pharisees begin to take their seats for dinner. And this is the moment ― when he sees them all taking “places of honor at the table” ― when Jesus offers his teaching about humility.
Let’s look closely at Jesus’s words. As he watches the Pharisees file hierarchically into their places of honor, he suggests they do otherwise. But why? Here’s the reason he gives: “A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited… and the host … may approach you and say, ‘give your place to this man.’ …. Take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, “my friend, move up to a higher position.’” This is actually a common bit of advice within the Jewish tradition. In fact, Jesus is alluding to a passage from the Old Testament that every Pharisee at that dinner would have known. It’s a passage from the Book of Proverbs that outlines the proper etiquette should you find yourself dining with a king: “do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence…. It is better to be told, ‘come up here’ than to be put lower (Pr 25:6-7)....” For the Jews, these are simple manners, and up to this point, Jesus has not really said anything provocative. He’s simply reminding the Pharisees that there are certain counsels that mark a wise person. They would not have been too offended.
The original and more interesting teaching Jesus offers at this dinner comes near the end of our reading: “When you hold a ... dinner, do not invite your friends, or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors.... Rather … invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Think about the context of this very dinner! Now things have become provocative! Who was the one person whose lack of an invitation to this dinner stands out vividly? The poor, disabled, broken man with dropsy who ― not invited to the dinner ― had been called upon to entrap Jesus! The Pharisees would very much have grasped the message.
So what, in total, has Jesus done with this little teaching about inviting people to dinner? He began by reminding the Pharisees that there are certain manners that mark proper Jewish dinner decorum. You should be careful not to overestimate your place in the hierarchy, lest you be embarrassed and are asked to step down. The Pharisees know this and would not have been provoked by such a comment. It’s what Jesus said next that was revolutionary: he reversed the order of the hierarchy. Instead of honoring the leaders among the Pharisees, the people who get seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” those who are not even welcome to stay on for dinner in the world of the Pharisees. Over and over Jesus insists that, in the Kingdom of God, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” At this dinner party, he provides a concrete example of what he means.
Jesus has reordered the universe. He has instituted “manners” for the Kingdom of Heaven. For Christians, it must be the last who come first. Even if this doesn’t always literally refer to seats at a dinner table, it’s the broken who get places of honor in our lives. The poor, the displaced, the forgotten, those who have nothing with which to repay us, are the privileged recipients of our honor and our generosity. This is Christian “etiquette” ― simple manners. The modern world has been profoundly interested in overturning hierarchies, in flattening out social strata so that everyone is equal. Jesus’s vision is far more radical. He keeps hierarchy, but insists those at the bottom — the poor, broken, and disenfranchised — are the elites. Can I ask you to visualize for a moment the most broken person you know? Visualize the person in your life you’d most readily describe, to use Jesus’ words, as “poor, crippled, lame, or blind.” More than likely their poverty is not monetary. Perhaps it’s someone with an eating disorder, someone with acute depression, someone who’s terminally ill. Perhaps it’s someone who’s lost their job, or lost their family, or has been alienated by those around them. Hold this person in your mind for a moment. Where are they as you’re reading this? What is your role in their life? At what tables do they have seats of honor? Where do they sit at your table?