14On 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.
7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and 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. 10But 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 honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “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. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Eating together is an intimate act. It’s no coincidence that, in many present-day cultures, first dates occur around food (or at least coffee). On the one hand, food, literally the eating of bread in Luke’s account, is a basic need of life. On the other hand, to share this act with someone else breeds a sort of familiarity and trust. In a first-century Jewish context, particularly among ritually observant Pharisees, this intimacy was heightened by a concern for ritual purity, which could be disrupted by eating with someone who was ritually unclean.
The intimacy of eating together is further solidified by the connection between meals and conversation. Today, families are encouraged to eat together so that they can share about their days and weeks and maintain connections with one another in an otherwise highly siloed world. The meal becomes a moment of community in which everyone connects over, first, a common hunger, but then, an opportunity to share common hopes, joys, and pains.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the meal was a place not only of conversation, but of philosophical dialogue. Long before Jesus reclined to his first meal, emperors, senators, and philosophers were reclining to high browed entertainment and intellectual conversation. By the first-century in the Roman occupied Mediterranean, the word “symposium,” used to designate such elite feasts had become a common term, used to describe the act of eating together among all classes of people. In Mark’s telling of the feeding of the 5,000 the same word is used for the groups into which the people were divided to receive the fish and bread (Mark 6:39).
Luke does not use the word “symposium” to describe the dinner gathering in today’s text and given that it was a Sabbath meal, it is unlikely that Jesus or the Pharisaic leader who invited him would have used this word either. Nevertheless, the dialogue that ensues suggests a structure and tone to the meal that resonates with several elements of a Greek symposium.
First, both meals are characterized by social stratification. Hierarchy was the norm in the Roman Empire and it permeated all aspects of life. In a symposium dinner, guests were seated proximate to the host according to their stature. This was an opportunity not only to enact the social stratification of the larger society in a familiar microcosm, but also to keep track of movements up and down the social ladder based on a regular guest’s seat from one meal to the next. It is within this context that Jesus warns early comers not to attempt to “jump” in status by claiming a seat that is not reserved for them—an embarrassing social faux pas for all involved.
Next, a symposium, while often engaging extravagant and even exploitive entertainment, was also a place for serious discourse within the Empire. Gathering around a banquet table, citizens of all rank and status (whilst properly seated, of course) could debate weighty matters on relatively equal footing. Although free women and children and enslaved persons of all age and gender were excluded from the dialogue, the symposium was a space where every invited voice was heard. Since Luke makes clear that Jesus was invited to the Pharisee’s house, his voice, however suspect, is thus appropriate and welcomed within a space of dinner discourse.
In fact, given the connection between discourse and meals, it is likely that the unnamed Pharisee in Luke’s text, whether supportive or skeptical of Jesus at that point, invited Jesus to dinner specifically to hear what Jesus had to say. Recognizing Jesus as a prolific teacher, this leader has seized upon an opportunity to invite Jesus into a discursive space in order to learn more about the content of his message.
Here it is important to note the social position of the host. Luke tells us not only that he is a Pharisee, but that he is a leader. Since Pharisees were a loosely defined group of observant Jews at this point in history, they had no formal leaders as such. It is better, therefore, to say that the host is both a leader and a Pharisee, not necessarily a leader of Pharisees. Indeed, it is possible that he may have been influential among Pharisees. If he was, he may likely have been connected with the Sanhedrin, a Roman appointed Jerusalem council consisting of priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees.
If Jesus’ host is a member of the Sanhedrin, he (members of the Sanhedrin were all male) would have been highly entrenched in Roman political mechanisms. As such, he would have understood the power of symposium style meals to reinforce both social hierarchy and political propaganda.
Perhaps it was the case that this leader invited Jesus to his house in order to dialogue with him and prove his rebellious nature inferior to the religious and political status quo under the Sanhedrin. If this is his intent, however, it backfires quickly as Jesus moves in quick succession from demonstrating the importance of care for people within the Jewish law over and against rigid regard for authority (Luke 14:2–6, omitted from the lectionary), to toppling the social stratification that table seating presents, to turning upside down even the entire notion of who belongs at the table.
With reference to these latter two in the appointed gospel, it is important to note that, as elsewhere in Luke’s gospel account, Jesus uses the occasion of this meal as a moment of reversal. Speaking within the social and political norms of hierarchy, Jesus offers what at first blush may appear to be prudent advice—don’t sit in a better seat than the one reserved for you. However, Jesus does not stop there. Instead of encouraging social climbers to simply accept the seat assigned to them, Jesus points each party goer to the lowest place of honor. It is not enough to accept one’s place in the social order, Jesus commands us to lay aside our privilege in favor of making space for others. Indeed, when everyone takes the same place of honor, the system of stratification collapses entirely and effectively each seat becomes equal with the next.
Remember, however, those who are equal are still limited to those whom the host honored enough to invite to the banquet in the first place. These would be friends, patrons, and others through whom the host hoped to either earn status through their honor in the case of those higher up the social ladder. Or, the host could honor and assist those on the lower end of the social ladder. In any case, in one form or another, each guest is expected to contribute to the host’s status—to bring something to the table in a manner of speaking. Even Jesus seems to have been invited in order for the host to showcase his engagement with this engaging teacher’s preaching. However, once again, Jesus turns such expectations on the head.
Rather than thanking his host for the invitation or even suggesting that the host consider modifying his invitation list, including some of those less fortunate among his closest friends, Jesus overturns the social expectations of a proper dinner party entirely. “Do not invite your friends or your brothers,” Jesus challenges, but invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” instead (Luke 14:12–13). Hosting a dinner party in the Kingdom of God isn’t just about making more space at the table, it’s about reframing both the table and those who gather around it.
Jesus’ words, while often honed into an uplifting “All are Welcome” message, are actually far more challenging than that. Jesus does not command those with privilege to make space at their tables, to give a portion of their excess to charities, or to invite a disadvantaged neighbor to join the feast. No, Jesus invites those with privilege to put off their privilege, to disclaim any greater honor or status that it represents, and then to use the excess that their privilege has still provided to feed not their fellow privileged friends, but those who are most in need. In present terms, one might call such a radical reversal reparations. In any case, Jesus’ exhortation is certainly a reversal from the status driven expectations of the secular world—both past and present. It is an invitation not only to the act of meal sharing, but to the physical and emotional intimacy of knowing and claiming one another that such an act entails.