On 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.
7 When 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; 9 and 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. 10 But 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. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He 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. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
In his famous work, The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias explores the transformation of manners between the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century. Tracing these social developments, Elias observes the gradual removal of our animality from public sight through the instilling of embarrassment, shame, and aversion surrounding contact with other bodies, the display of excessive passions, sexuality, or behaviors that foreground our physicality in ways that came to be regarded as distasteful—nose-blowing, spitting, urinating, nudity, etc.
Elias identifies a political impulse behind much of this, having its root in the rise of a courtly class. Observing the increasingly rigorous etiquette of the court became necessary for inclusion and advancement in ‘polite society’ and social jockeying in the realm of refinement of tastes, manners, and civility steadily displaced the martial agonism of previous ages.
The meal table was ground zero for the initial pedagogy within and the ongoing expression of this new regime of conduct, which spread from courtiers to the bourgeoisie and beyond. The new habitus of self-control, dignity, and concealment of and distancing from animality was taught and manifested at meal tables, until that which originated as a social compulsion became an integral part of people’s psychology.
The rise of civility in the West was a social development of the manners of the meal table that undergirded and spread a new political order, privileging cultivated courtly elites. The political importance of the meal table within this development was manifold. The meal table was—and is—a reflection of the relations between people and of their place within a broader social and material world; each meal was—and is—an opportunity to secure or advance one’s place within this social order.
As our lection suggests, the same was true in Jesus’ day: the meal table and the throwing of banquets were arenas within which people negotiated and competed for social status. It was also a site of intense social scrutiny and Jesus was being closely examined by the Pharisees (verse 1), who wanted to see what his table manners would reveal about him.
Jesus, however, had been engaging in some sociological study of his own, perceiving some distinguishing features of meal table behavior in first century Jewish honor society: dinner guests pressed for the best seats and hosts invited the sort of people from whom they could hope for repayment or improved social status. Jesus addresses both groups, teaching an alternative model of table etiquette.
Jesus’ teaching in this passage echoes Proverbs 25:6-7, ‘Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.’ As Richard Hays remarks,
In the Lukan narrative context … this teaching becomes more than a pragmatic hint about court etiquette; it is implicitly a directive about how the coming kingdom should impinge already on the present, producing a reversal of values and status. In the eschatological kingdom of God, the last will be first and the first last (Luke 13:30); therefore, those who are Jesus’ followers should begin already to assume roles of lowliness (cf. Luke 22:24-27).
Jesus’ teaching involves, as Hays recognizes, a rehearsal for the manners of the inbreaking kingdom. Rather than currying favor with their rich neighbors and adopting the manners of their regional rulers, the people of God are to cultivate the etiquette of a different kingdom, behaving as prospective members of a different court. Jesus instructs his hearers to act against their apparent social interests, in the sure faith that God’s order will prevail over all others.
The table manners that Jesus called for involve the rejection of the sort of honor culture practiced in many first century Mediterranean societies. Instead of grasping for honor, Jesus’ followers should be characterized by humility and self-effacement. While seating arrangements and dinner invitations were means for social climbers to accrue honor and status in their society, Jesus challenges his disciples to reject the way of honor-seekers and, like their Master, to seek the praise of God over that of man. Abstaining from social jockeying in a society where so much depends upon one’s honor and status is a costly act of faith.
The necessity of praxis grounded in radical faith in the coming kingdom is perhaps even more pronounced in Jesus’ challenge to hosts in the verses that follow; rather than inviting people who can be relied upon to give a generous return upon their social investment, his followers must throw their feasts for people with no power to repay. In a society where the exchange of gifts and invitations to feasts was the basic currency by which you secured your social standing, Jesus’ radical practice would seem to be reckless.
Indeed, what we call ‘corruption’ was general policy in most first century societies. One’s political, legal, and social position could become precarious if one was not prepared to throw one’s weight into maintaining circles of reciprocal gift. If one did not give gifts and invitations to the right people, you wouldn’t receive the return of social honor or any assurance of social security. Consistently giving gifts and invitations to the wrong people might be an even riskier course of action: it would offend and dissociate you from people with social power.
Greco-Roman thinkers on the gift such as Cicero commonly stressed the moral importance of giving judiciously. To give freely to the poor, who lacked the means to give a worthy return—being regarded not only as economically but typically also as morally without standing—might reflect poorly upon the prudence and character of the giver.
Jesus doesn’t utterly reject the underlying logic of the gift society, but completely transforms its functioning by revealing that God is the guarantor of all gifts and debts. If we give in faith to the poor and to those without the capacity to repay, we will receive a bountiful reward at the resurrection. Conversely, we need not be placed in others’ debt when we receive their gifts, because God has promised to repay them on our behalf. Jesus tells us to invite the poor, maimed, lame, and blind to our suppers, rather than people who can repay us. God is the one who will reward us with a place at his table in the resurrection of the just.
Here the connection between Jesus’ teaching in these verses and the teaching of the Parable of the Great Supper that immediately follows should be recognized. It is the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind—precisely the same people as his disciples are called to invite to their feasts in verse 13—who are the people who sit at God’s Great Supper (verse 21), while the rich reject the invitation. In associating ourselves with those without social status, we associate ourselves with those who will one day sit at the great eschatological banquet.
Much as we might want to take this teaching figuratively, it seems to me that Jesus is calling us to concrete, radical, and specific change in our actual practice, change that might come at considerable social cost to us.
It is no accident that meals and shocking departures from the prevailing manners at them are such a central aspect of Jesus’ prophetic practice and teaching in the book of Luke. Jesus’ meals were a symbolic means by which he was reforming Israel around himself. Those who rejected Jesus would find themselves outside of the eschatological feast, while the poor and the outcasts celebrated within. They were also a means of inculcating a radical new habitus in his followers, training them in new manners, values, and community, conforming them to the order of the kingdom of God.
A communal meal remains a central feature of the Church’s ongoing worship in the Eucharist. Politics and the manners and social relations that correspond to them are first learnt at the table. It is at the Eucharist that we begin to learn the manners and politics of the kingdom, where we are trained to act as cultivated members of the court of its King. It is at the Eucharist that we can learn to put others before ourselves, to extend God’s goodness to those without the power to repay, to live as a thankful people, and to release people from their debts to us. As these new manners and politics become second nature to us, they should extend out to and be confirmed in all areas of our lives and practice.
Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.