Luke 14:1-24 begins with Jesus invited to share a Sabbath meal with a leader of the Pharisees – a group concerned with living life according to Torah, and a group who has been both challenging Jesus and warning him of political opposition to his movement from none other than Herod, Rome’s appointed King of the Jews. Jesus, it turns out, is a most unusual dinner guest. We are told that other invited guests are “watching him closely.” Little wonder. A play in four acts ensues.
Act One. Right away a man with dropsy, or edema, appears and Jesus immediately challenges his host and the invited guests, the very people who have been challenging his orthodoxy all along the way to Jerusalem: “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Surely, they have heard that he has been healing people on the Sabbath in local synagogues, and the controversies they have sparked. We are told they remain silent. He proceeds to heal the man while saying, “Surely if one of you had a child or ox that has fallen into a well, would you not immediately pull it out on the Sabbath day?” They still have no reply.
Act Two. Jesus notices how the guests are all choosing to sit in places of honor. He chides the guests once again with a parable: Don’t take the most important seat for you might find out that when someone even more distinguished than you arrives you will be asked to give up your seat and retreat to the foot of the table, which will be embarrassing. Rather, sit at the lowest seat in case the host comes and invites you to sit near the head of the table, and you will be honored by all who are present. Then comes the zinger: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Anyone paying attention at this point ought to realize that this is not about First Century Etiquette. It is a warning that a reversal is in store, and life’s rules and behaviors as we know them are due for a change.
Act Three. But, that’s not all. Now he challenges his host with instructions on who to invite and who not to invite. As we may expect, a proper list as Jesus sees it does not include the usual suspects who are already attending this Sabbath meal. “"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Put succinctly, who we choose to spend time with and honor at the meal table has eternal consequences. It becomes more clear that Jesus is not Emily Post, but rather is reshaping what it means to be a people of the God of the Sabbath. Do not presume to think you are the arbiters of what it means to observe Sabbath, or how to honor the Lord God of Creation, the Sabbath and the Passover-Exodus event. The discomfort of his host and guests, and most of us, is becoming palpable.
Act Four. One guest appears to catch on and says, “Blessed is the one who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God.” Guessing that the rest are still scratching their heads at all of this, and asking themselves just why the host has invited this rude guest to share the Sabbath meal in their presence, Jesus tells another parable. Someone gave a dinner and invited many. He sends his slave to each of those invited to proclaim, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all have excuses: one has to go and see a piece of land he has just purchased; one has just bought a team of five oxen and is going to try them out; another has just been married, “and therefore I cannot come.” I cannot come to the banquet. The slave reported back to his master the excuses. The master of the house says, “Then go out into the streets and lanes and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” The slave does so and says to the master of the house, “I have done this, and still there is more room.” The master then says to the slave, “Go out into the streets and the lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” That last line, “For I tell you…” in Greek is plural – that is the master of the house is addressing everyone, not just the slave. “For I tell y’all, none of those invited will taste my dinner.” The humble will be exalted, the exalted will be humbled; the first will be last and the last will be first; come, for everything is ready now. Now, not later. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next year. Not after you are dead and gone. Now, not any time later. There is no time to delay. There are no excuses. Here endeth the reading. The Word of the Lord.
Perhaps one hears echoes of the Song of Mary way back in the first chapter of Luke:
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Or, perhaps echoes of his first sermon in his home town synagogue in Luke chapter 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Today. Now, not later, but today.
Those first invited were people who owned land, participated in commerce and customs of society on the assumption that those rules might always be counted upon. They learn that for this particular banquette, such socially guaranteed privileges no longer count. On the other hand, the new guests, both urban and country marginalized peoples of all kinds, people with no social position whatsoever, see this invitation as an unexpected gift. What one might call Good News!
The master of the house (house is oikos in Greek, from which we get words like economy [law of the household] and ecology [the study of how to be good stewards of the household]), in this telling can be assumed to be none other than YHWH – whom Moses learned at the burning bush is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of hope and promises kept. In this story he addresses all those present, for all have a role to play in bringing everyone, all kinds of people, most especially those who cannot reciprocate, into the banquet feast of the Lord. This whole episode is about the reign of God that begins today with Jesus and those who follow him. It is a story about what is truly holy and appropriate behavior in the Sabbath setting. The healing makes clear that in God’s reign, not ours, not Herod’s, not Caesar’s, that holy times are times for life, health and wholeness that stretch the boundaries of social, civil or religious law. All presumptions of privilege and social status, all business as usual crumbles in the face of the invitation to drop everything that contributes to one’s system of security, and join the party. For those who come it is, is, not will be, but is a splendid feast indeed! [Luke, Sharon Ringe, Westminster Bible Companion, p 199-200]
Jesus is a most unusual dinner guest indeed. As guest he always becomes the host – and the very bread of the kingdom of God. Who knew one’s behavior at meals and choice of dinner guests has such eternal consequences! Come, for everything is ready now! The reversal begins here!