Text: Luke 14:1, 7-14
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lou and I have just spent a wonderful couple of weeks in the Mediterranean, spending some fabulous time in Italy: Rome, Naples, Sorrento, Milan, Florence, Pisa – you know, small and unassuming places. Everywhere we went, the Italians were most insistent that Jesus was Italian – the reason for this was that firstly, he talked a lot with his hands, and secondly because he enjoyed a lot of wine with every meal!
Meals are central to our story, both as a way of reaching out and sharing with people and as a foretaste an hors d’ouvre of the future in heaven which portrayed as a long, wonderful banquet, a wedding feast, a celebration, but always at table, and always with God as the host, to which we are all invited.
More than any other Evangelist, Luke portrays Jesus at meals. He eats not only with tax collectors and sinners, as in Mark and Matthew, but with friends like Martha and Mary; and he dines frequently with Pharisees.
In antiquity, meals were important community events with their own rituals governing social status and seating. (Every mother of the bride may appreciate this as she struggles with seating for the wedding reception.) Pharisees were especially noted for their careful attention to banquet rules, since they were concerned about purity and formed “eating clubs,” where they could feel at home and reflect on the Scriptures.
Jesus shares a Sabbath meal with a “leading Pharisee”; but the story has an ominous note, since people are “keeping an eye on him.” Unfortunately, by omitting verses 2 to 6 the text in the Lectionary eviscerates the drama and meaning of the whole section (another reason why I wish we had bibles in each pew for you to study – maybe we should get into the habit of bringing them!). A man afflicted with dropsy appears, interrupting the banquet much as the “sinful woman” does in Luke 7:37.
Jesus then asks the lawyers (the scribes) and Pharisees if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath—perhaps a topic discussed at their banquets. In the face of their silence, Jesus heals the man and then asks whether they would save a child who falls into a well on the Sabbath. Again he receives no answer, even though Jewish law allowed life-saving activities on the Sabbath. Jesus views the man’s debilitating illness as living death.
Today’s Gospel picks up the story at the point where Jesus expresses the common wisdom about dining etiquette (see Proverbs. 25:6-7 ; and Sirach. 3:17-20 ). Instead of seeking places of honour his listeners are advised to go to the lowest place to avoid the humiliation of being asked to move down, with the chance that the host will notice their proper deference and invite them to a higher position. (The injunction not to seek places in the front seems engraved in every Anglican’s imagination, as they huddle in the back of church.)
Then Jesus makes another turn. Echoing Mary’s vision in the Magnificat, he again invokes the theme of reversal—those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while the humble will be exalted—and goes on to shatter those very dining rituals that he seemed to support.
Reciprocity and the practice of inviting people of equal status were the twin pillars of ancient dining customs. Jesus rejects this and says that you should instead invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” groups of no status who, Jesus notes, will not be able to pay you back. These groups were not simply economically poor and social outcasts; they were often considered unclean.
Since the meals of Jesus throughout Luke all have Eucharistic overtones, this Gospel can suggest proper “etiquette” for our celebrations. Eating with Jesus should be a time of healing, which can shock even customary religious sensitivities. Liturgy should be inclusive of those whom our society today views as unworthy or unclean.
Such invitations are the prelude to admittance to the banquet of the just (righteous) who humbled themselves by associating with those very people to whom Jesus announces the benefits of God’s reign (Luke 4:16-19).
Bishop Tom Wright has suggested recently that the previously given interpretation of the Last Supper as a Passover Meal is somewhat simplistic. Previously I had hinted that there is some differences between the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the later Gospel of John over the timing of this most significant event; but Bishop Wright suggests that Christ may have been celebrating a Passover meal not on the Passover – on a different day – indicating that the significance of the Jewish salvation meal was not based on a single point in the calendar but in the memorial of redemption, in the anemnesis of salvation, which brings Passover, Last Supper and the Mass together in one significant event – when we celebrate the Mass here, we are in the same table fellowship not only with the Upper Room, but with those in today’s Gospel; and all it that has to teach, applies directly to us today.
Come, one and all. Come and share. Come and be a part of the welcome to this special table which Christ extends to each and every one of us.