Fr. Pako Gabriel Rantutu, Diocese of Gaborone, Botswana.
A call to humility (Luke 14: 1, 7-14)
The first verse (14:1) in today’s gospel gives the setting of the story. After an interlude in which Luke narrates Jesus healing a man and defending that Sabbath healing, Luke focuses on the meal scene, a setting he strategically employs in his gospel. It is on a Sabbath day and Jesus is invited to a meal at the house of a leading Pharisee.
At the meal, he observes “how the guests chose the places of honour” (14:7). His response, according to Luke, is two-fold. First, he tells a parable. The point of the story is to discourage us from seeking the most prestigious seats at the table to avoid the humiliating situation of being displaced by someone of greater prominence (14:8). Instead, we are to take the lowest places so that we might be elevated to more honourable seats by host (14:10). Jesus’ summary comment to the parable is the well-known aphorism: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (14:11).
Social ranking was commonplace in Greco-Roman society. In fact, meals were situations that particularly highlighted social disparities in the first-century world. Such social distinctions do matter far too often in our Christian communities, as those who experience less privilege would easily attest. What was quite explicit in the ancient world may express itself in more implicit fashion in our contexts.
Jesus goes further in warning against seeking out the most honourable seats. His exhortation is to pursue humility, a concept with significant status connotations. Humility was very rarely considered a virtue in Greco-Roman moral discourse. Yet, humility is to mark the followers of Jesus. For us Christians, humility is a virtue that we all have to embrace. We are called to be humble.
When we move to 14:12-14, we hear a more counter-cultural message–one that addresses the fabric of the honour and status structures of the ancient world. Jesus, without using a parable, speaks directly to his host–the one who holds a greater measure of control over the ‘rules of the game’ for this particular meal. His advice to this figure of power in the story works to undermine the very system that upholds status difference at meals. Jesus exhorts the host not to invite friends, family, or the rich to meals only, since they are able to repay with a corresponding invitation. Such social reciprocity is the backbone of the patronage system. Instead, Jesus calls for inclusion of those who cannot return the invitation: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13). This group of persons resonates with the Isaiah-shaped mission of Jesus in Luke 4:18, with the poor and the blind mentioned explicitly there as recipients of Jesus’ ministry. For Luke, Jesus subverts expectations that social payment and repayment should govern life in God’s kingdom community. His promise is that God will repay such hospitality at the “resurrection of the righteous” (14:14).
The theological truth that undergirds this passage and its very tangible social networks and exhortations is that, as God’s people we should humble ourselves and seek to live by a different social system marked by radical inclusion, trusting that our God is faithful, he will reward our right ways of living in that final day.