an exposition of Luke 14:1,7-14
We’ve got some fun stuff today! While all four gospel books touch upon many of the same points in the life and teaching of Jesus, and there is a great deal of overlap, there tends to be a different emphasis taken on by each author, shining a different light on what our Lord had to say. St. Luke has a particular emphasis on humanity – one could say he is the humanist among the Evangelists – concerned as he is for the poor, for the sinner, and for justice among God’s people.
Our Gospel reading today contains yet another “banquet feast” image – it’s a theme that shows up quite a lot. And what he has to say in these two paragraphs can be read in several layers of meaning.
I. Practical Advice for the Dinner Table
The first layer is just plain practical advice: When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him. And, when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. Our society isn’t stratified in the same way today – where you sit as a guest at a table is not as symbolic now as it might have been then. And when you go to a wedding reception, the hosts typically have everyone’s Table Number assigned already, so you don’t have to worry about this. Still, the principle of expecting a lower position for yourself and allowing for subsequent promotion is a good social grace, a courtesy, potentially even good business practice. Jesus provides a “spiritual” lesson to this which we’ll return to in a moment. The second part, about inviting the poor and needy to your table, is perhaps the less intuitive piece of advice. When we celebrate, we like to celebrate with friends, family, and other associates. But Jesus specifically says we should invite people who can’t pay us back. This demands an explanation beyond the level of mere practicality – something spiritual is going on here.
II. As Christ as has done unto you…
A similar passage can be found in the book of Tobit, where the righteous old man Tobit is giving some last advice to his son Tobias who’s about to leave on a long journey. Among his several teachings he says: Do deeds of mercy from your possession to all who practice righteousness and do not let your eye begrudge the gift when you make it. Do not turn your face away from any poor man, and the face of God will not be turned away from you… Give some of your bread to the hungry and some of your clothing to the naked. Give all your surplus to charity and do not let your eye begrudge the gift while you are making it (Tobit 4:7,16). In the same way that Jesus would draw a connection between our forgiving others and God forgiving us, Tobit also drew a connection between our mercifulness toward others and God’s mercifulness toward us. Indeed, one of the Offertory Sentences in the Prayer Book comes from this same chapter in Tobit: If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. And Tobit adds, For practicing mercy delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness (4:8-10). This isn’t a case of salvation by works, it’s a case of what “saving faith” looks like in action. Knowing what Christ has forgiven in us, we forgive others; knowing how Christ has served us, we serve others.
This begins to explain why our Lord says it is a blessing to invite the poor and lame to dinner, but doesn’t complete the picture. Nor does this entirely account for the first part of the Gospel story – about where to sit when you’re the guest. To finish putting this together, we need to look at today’s actual Old Testament lesson, from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 10.
III. The spiritual benefit of all this
I’ll just re-read a little bit of it from the beginning, middle, and end: Arrogance is hateful before the Lord and before people, and injustice is out of tune to both. Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence and wealth… The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers and has seated the lowly in their place… Pride was not created for human beings, nor fierce anger for those born of women (Sirach 10:7-8, 14, 18).
The big idea in this passage is pride. “Pride,” we read, “was not created for man”. Many consider pride the chief sin and the heart of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. Pride, in many ways, is the clearest example of how all sin is ultimately a rebellion against our Creator God. In this passage of the great wisdom book of Sirach, pride is also linked to arrogance, injustice, and miserliness. This is helpful because in a lot of current political and theological debate, liberals tend to talk about sin as societal, systemic, or other sort of group problem, while conservatives tend to talk about sin as a problem in each individual’s heart. The reality, though, of course, is that when you put a bunch of individual sinners together you get a sinful society, system, or group! And so when we, like Sirach, talk about pride and other sins, we must refer both to the individual sinner and to the corruption of entire peoples and nations.
This informs our Gospel lesson by identifying what Jesus was driving at. His first lesson ended with For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted, and his second with you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. When we hold dinner parties and invite the wealthy, we show off our status – how important we are to have such important guests! That Jesus adds the possibility of being “repaid” with a dinner invitation from them only adds to the painful reality that even such a simple social grace can turn into a case of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.
When we invite the poor, the unimportant, we throw away pretense of self-importance. We aren’t doing this for show, we’re doing this because it’s what Christ has done for us. As both Sirach says in this text and the Virgin Mary says in her song in Luke 1, The Lord has cast down the thrones of rulers and has seated the lowly in their place. We know that our God is a God of great reversals, that he has a special love for the poor and disenfranchised, that Jesus frequently stopped to help the sick and the demon-possessed and bless the children. If we are to learn to love as he loves, we have to fight against the pride that pollutes the soul and corrupts the culture, and sometimes that means hanging out with people that might otherwise disgust us. If that makes us look foolish and “wasteful” of our surplus possessions and wealth, all the better for the spiritual benefits of beating back pride.
IV. Take this prayer home
Let’s wrap this up with a little take-home resource. Today’s Collect is exactly about good works like this. O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us after us, that we may continually be given to good works… all our good works must be clothed in God’s grace. Tobit said, after all, not just to give food to the hungry, but also to do so without “begrudging the gift.” If we really are going to pursue such good works as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, without grumbling about the cost to our finances or our pride, goodness knows we need the grace of the Holy Spirit strengthening us for the task! “God loves a cheerful giver,” Saint Paul reminds us, and certainly do we need God’s grace both to precede and follow all such undertakings. So, please, do take this prayer home with you, and keep it before you throughout the week. It will help you remember and internalize what the Scriptures have taught us today – that we must curtail the advance of pride as we amend our lives to conform to the way of Christ. Amen.