Sometimes I think Catholics seem to take this reading too literally when they look for a seat in Church; they don’t want to ‘exalt’ themselves by taking the front pews, preferring instead to be very humble, sitting at the very back, perhaps waiting for the celebrant to shout out, “my friends, please come up here and sit in a place of greater prominence!’ (okay, okay; I’m trying to be charitable here…)
In the first century, during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry; the place at which one was seated at a formal dinner was revealing of your social status; in fact, the place you sat would even dictate what quality of food or wine you would eat. – we have examples of historical writings from Roman feasts, where the guests of greatest importance had the best wine and the best cuts of meat; and as the importance of the guests descended, so did the quality of food they were served. It was common in Jewish society that after these grand occasions, the ‘leftovers’ or ‘scraps’ were then distributed to the poor. But we can imagine how, if the best started with the most prominent guests, and then declined through the entire guest list, whatever was left for the poor was in some cases, not fit for human consumption.
There was something very socially important in who was invited as well: this is something Jesus is alluding to in this passage from St. Luke’s Gospel – people were invited to dinner based on their social status; you invited those who were of similar status or even perhaps a bit higher – the purpose being to improve your own social standing; there was also an expectation that when you were invited to dinner, you were bound to return the favour ; almost trying to out-do your host the next time you hosted the dinner.
It was taking the ancient cultural ideal of hospitality, (providing what was needed to those who needed it when they needed it) and turning it on its head – you didn’t invite people to feed them simply to be a great host; you invited them so that they would have to invite you in return; it had the potential of using the ‘disguise’ of hospitality to use other people as a means to an end, to help people climb the social ladder.
Jesus takes this opportunity to speak at a Sabbath dinner to turn this thinking back, not only on a particular group of Pharisees, but to the people of his time, and our time. This example of a dinner invitation and the seating arrangements provides a ‘teaching moment’ for Jesus: He is not simply scolding this particular group for their behaviour. He uses this dinner as an opportunity for all people to learn how to imitate the selfless love of God, and to be more Christ-like: to live out those two commands of love for God, and love for neighbour
Jesus says to invite the poor and those who have nothing precisely because they cannot return the favour; don’t give the leftover scraps to them, but share with them the best and the finest that we can; he is saying give to others, especially the poor, not for any expectation of return, but simply out of love for your neighbour.
But there’s another side to this; it is in the metaphor of the invitation and the seating arrangements of a banquet that Jesus illustrates God’s love and God’s saving action.
God invites all of humanity into his own ‘heavenly banquet’; He adopts us through the gift of Baptism and nourishes us with His Word; He gives us His Son Jesus to bring us into closer relationship with Him through His death and resurrection, a relationship we live out in participating in the Sacraments, and the life of the Church and in our own daily lives; and why does He invite us into this banquet? Is it so that we can somehow repay Him?
What could we possibly do to repay God?
There is nothing we could possibly do to sufficiently repay God for His invitation and inclusion in his Kingdom, in His life. Just think of the position we have as children of the Creator of Everything! Imagine if we were an employee of some huge corporation, could we just pick up the phone anytime, anywhere and talk to the CEO? If we worked for the government at some lower level, could we just drop in and visit the Prime Minister or Governor General whenever we felt like it, day or night?
Yet this is what the Creator of All things has done for us; we, a very small part in the immensity of all creation, can talk to our Creator about anything and everything at any time we please; we can share our sorrows and joys, our burdens and our triumphs in prayer at any time; we can approach our Lord in the Sacraments and in the life of the Church any time we like
This is God’s great invitation and kindness to us – and He gives it all out of love; not because we can repay His kindness to us; we can only choose to accept His invitation in gratitude, and share this gratitude in the way we treat others; when we recognize that we cannot repay God, and that all we have comes from God – that is when we become truly humble. That’s true humility; and it is when we enter into this true humility, when we humble ourselves, that God exalts us by inviting us to live as His children, to become one with Him. And when we become one with Him, it can’t help but be reflected in our actions.
We can provide for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable, not because they can repay us, or because we can somehow gain – we do it because we want to be like the Master; because we want to act like our Father; because in expressing our love for each other, we express our love for God.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!