TEXT: Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. (Luke 14:1)
Sir Alec Guinness once said, “A person who is keen to shake your hand usually has something up his sleeve.”
Jesus had been invited into the home of a prominent Pharisee, to share a meal with a gathering of important people. Now, on the surface, this looks like a friendly gesture.
However, our gospel text hints that something else was going on—that at least some of the dinner guests were hoping for an opportunity to criticize this young, upstart rabbi.
Perhaps Jesus knew that. In any event, he quickly turned his attention to the motives of the guests as they sat down to eat.
Now, in order to understand what Jesus saw when he looked at them, you need to know something about the culture and protocol of that place and time.
At a meal like this one, people would recline on couches that were arranged in a “U” shape, with the host seated at the base of the “U”—the most prominent place. The most favoured guests would sit nearest to the host.
For a while, Jesus watched these esteemed men jockeying for position. Then he told them a story, to illustrate how pride and self-seeking can lead to humiliation.
“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; and 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.
“But 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. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In other words, remember that honour is not claimed—it is awarded. Jesus commends humility for two reasons.
One is an earthly reason: that grabbing the best seat—to which you are not entitled—could lead to humiliation. But sitting at the lowest place could well result in an invitation to “come on up!” Come up higher.
The second reason is a heavenly one. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The word exalt means ‘to lift up’. First, Jesus is referring to those who lift themselves up above others. He says God will humble them—“cut them down to size,” as we might say. Yet those who humble themselves will be lifted up to God through the work of the Holy Spirit.
As the great 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody put it: “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.”
Now, when Jesus spoke of humility, he was not saying that people have to belittle themselves, or consider themselves worthless. No. He meant that we should realize that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Every one of us falls short of God’s perfect will—and, therefore, no one of us is in a position to look down on our neighbours.
Or—to put it another way—God loves us and cares for us simply because we are his beloved children. Not because of our good behaviour. Not because of our intelligence. Not because of our achievements. Not because God has something to gain by loving us. And God calls us to love one another in just the same way—without regard for status, or gain, or advantage.
I heard a story once. It goes like this: An elderly man walking on the beach came across a magic lamp. He picked it up and a genie appeared!
“Thank you, friend,” the genie said. “I was trapped for ages inside that lamp! Because you have freed me, I will grant you a wish.”
The man thought for a moment and then responded: “My brother and I had a fight 30 years ago and he has not spoken to me since. I wish that he would finally forgive me.”
There was a thunderclap, and the genie declared, “Your wish has been granted!”
“You know,” the genie continued, “most men would have asked for wealth or fame or power. But you only wanted the love of your brother. Is it because you are old and near to death?”
“No way!” the man cried. “But my brother is, and he’s worth about 60 million dollars!”
The issue of motivation looms large in our gospel story. Obviously, the guests of the Pharisee wanted the best seats so they could see and be seen.
It’s also worth considering why these particular people were invited in the first place.
Some would be invited to impress the other guests. Many would be invited because they had already invited the host to their banquet, or because the host hoped to be invited to their next soirée.
Jesus lays bare these self-serving motives. He calls his host—and, indeed all his disciples, including us—to act differently. To truly give hospitality, rather than to merely exchange it. We are called to reflect the way of God by reaching out generously to those who need help. God has done this to everyone spiritually. Jesus challenges us to do the same thing materially.
But you may ask: just how are we supposed to do that? All of us tell our children to beware of strangers—and with good reason! The idea of going out to invite disadvantaged strangers into our homes for a meal would seem foolhardy to most people today. And again, with good reason.
This point was underlined for me recently when I read the results of a survey. It said that—when it comes to facing the risk of violence—police officers and clergy are about evenly matched. Of clergy who were surveyed, 70% had suffered verbal abuse in the last two years, 20% had been threatened with physical harm, and 12% actually had been physically assaulted.
Let’s face it: working with people on the fringes of society can be a dangerous enterprise. Nevertheless, we still need to answer Jesus’ call. Fortunately, there are still lots of things that we can do to act differently—to humbly serve the Christ who calls us.
We can offer hospitality to those who are outside our usual circle of friends. This applies within the church or outside it. Perhaps you could invite someone you don’t know very well for a cup of coffee or a meal. In every church, there are people who feel excluded, and such a gesture could be a tremendous boost to them.
Commenting on today’s gospel text, someone once said: “Moral likeness confirms parentage.” In other words, those who imitate God’s love, humility and generosity show that they are truly children of God. John Newton (1725-1807)—the former slave trader who composed the hymn, “Amazing Grace”—once wrote: “I am persuaded that love and humility are the highest attainments in the school of Christ and the brightest evidences that he is indeed our Master.”
Sacrificial giving will lead to a blessing. And most often, this blessing will be the knowledge that someone in need has benefited from our giving—that someone else’s suffering has been lessened by our gift.
The American evangelist and author Tony Campolo writes about how he and his wife—in order to set an example for their children—made a bold decision. They decided that each Christmas they would give a large amount of money to charity—and only give one gift to each family member. The charity they chose was an impoverished school in Haiti. The Campolo children resented this at first—but eventually, they got used to it. Or at least, they eventually stopped grumbling about it.
The Campolo family continued this practice for many years—and after the children became teenagers, Tony took them to Haiti to see for themselves the school they had been supporting. As they approached the school, dozens of children rushed out to greet them. Tony’s son turned to him and said, “Dad, this is the best Christmas gift anyone could ever get.”
What the Campolo children learned, I think, is that—in the economy of heaven—the act of giving becomes an act of love, and it contains its own best reward. The ability to bless those in need itself becomes a blessing.
“Although they cannot repay you,” Jesus said, “you will be repaid.”
When Mother Teresa of Calcutta reflected upon life and its meaning, she alluded to the picture of Judgment Day that Jesus painted for us in Matthew, chapter 25. She said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received; how much money we have made; how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was naked and you clothed me … I was homeless and you took me in.’”
Hungry—not only for bread, but hungry for love. Naked—not only without clothing, but without human respect and dignity. Homeless—not only for want of a room and a bed, but homeless because of rejection.
When Jesus spoke about these things, he told us to expect him to come in exactly this sort of disguise: “Just as you took care of my sisters and brothers, so did you care for me.”
May God make us ever mindful of who is seated at our bountiful tables—and mindful also of who is not.