Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14
When was the last time you attended a banquet? What was the reason for the banquet? Was the seating at the tables assigned? If it was, how were the seats assigned?
Every four years, New Hampshire voters share dessert with their neighbors and a few politicians running for President. Political party volunteers contact the politician and arrange for the dessert meeting; the more powerful the volunteer, the more famous the politician will visit and the more influential neighbors will be invited. The New Hampshire primary is a unique exercise of political power within the social context of a meal.
Like the political desserts in New Hampshire, some meals, formal or informal, met for reasons other than comradery. Meals allow time for networking, deal making, and subtle displays of power. Meals become the game boards for a form of social and political chess. These times can become opportunities for advancement.
As it was today, so it was in the time of Jesus. But Jesus had other ideas for this social game playing: the Kingdom of God.
1 One Sabbath, Jesus went to eat at the house of an important Pharisee. The Pharisees there kept a close eye on Jesus.
7 Jesus noticed how the guests were picking the best seats. So he told them a parable. 8 "Whenever someone invites you to dinner," Jesus said to the guests, "don't sit in the place of honor. After all, the host might have invited someone more important than you. 9 Since he invited you and him, the host will come up to you and say, 'Give your place to this person.' Then, you will be embarrassed because you will have to take the seat in the back. 10 Instead, whenever you're invited, go and take the seat in the back. When the host visits your place, he will say, 'My friend, take a seat closer to me.' Then you will be honored by everyone who attended the dinner with you. 11 For anyone who tries to make himself important will be humbled. But the humble will be made important."
12 Then Jesus told the host, "Whenever you give a luncheon or dinner banquet, don't invite your friends and brothers, nor your family and rich neighbors. After all, they will invite you to their parties and pay you back. 13 Instead, when you give a party, invite the poor, the sick, the crippled, and the blind. 14 You will be really happy, because they have no way to repay you. You will be paid back by God when he raises the good people at the end of time."
In the give and take of the social meal, Jesus told the host and his guests to act as if the Kingdom were present in their celebration.
1 It happened that HE went into the house of a leading figure of the Pharisees one Sabbath to dine. They kept watching HIM (closely).
7 HE told to those having been invited (to the banquet) a parable, noticing how (the guests) were selecting the seats of honor, saying to them, 8 "Whenever you are invited by someone to a banquet, you should not take the seat of honor, (to avoid the situation where) one more honorable than you was invited by him. 9 Having invited you and him, he, approaching, will say to you, 'Give (your) place to this person.' Then you will begin, with shame, to occupy the last place. 10 But, whenever you are invited, having gone (to the lowest place), sit in the lowest place, so that when (the host) inviting you comes, he might say 'Friend, go up to a higher (place).' Then, there will be honor for you before all those sitting with you. 11 For everyone raising himself up will be humbled. And the one humbling himself will be raised up." 12 HE also told (the man) inviting him, "Whenever you give a luncheon or (formal) dinner, do not invite your friends, nor your brothers, nor your relatives, nor your rich neighbors, (to avoid the situation where) they might invite you in return and (the favor) might happen to come back to you. 13 But, whenever you give a reception, invite the poor, the sick, the lame, the blind. 14 You will be happy, for they have (no way) to give (the favor) back to you. For it will be given back to you in the resurrection of the righteous."
14:1 "to dine" is literally "to eat bread." "Seats of honor" is literally "first reclining places." In the time of Jesus, guests laid on their sides to eat a meal.
14:7-10 All references to seating actual refer to reclining. The posture in the translation has been changed for cultural reasons.
14:12 "nor your brothers" The term brothers might refer to any male in the host's extended family.
In the time of Jesus, political power was based not in political parties, but by extended families led by a grandfather. But, like the dessert meetings during the New Hampshire primary, the meal was an arena of personal and political power. These families or clans would gather together at mealtime in assigned places; the seat assignment (made by the grandfather) indicated a person's place of importance in the clan. Those lucky enough to sit closest to the leader were the most important. This arrangement was maintained even when many families ate together.
Power was exercised not only in the seating arrangement but by the invitation. Like social climbers of any age, an invitation to the right banquet was a ticket to advancement. And, like the king-makers of any age, the host who extended an invitation chose his or her guests for best political advantage.
Within this context, Jesus offered two teachings on humility, one for the guest and the other for the host. To the guest, Jesus advised discretion in choosing a seat, lest the person suffer shame. In fact, the lower the seat, the better, in order to gain acceptance and honor among one's peers. [14:7-10] Jesus used this common sense approach to highlight the teaching of humility. [14:11] Luke may have used this passage to emphasize proper decorum of the laity at his community's Sunday Eucharist.
Jesus' advice to the host was far more radical than that he offered to the guest. Instead of throwing a banquet where invitation and seat placement were based upon social power and pay back, throw a banquet for God's Kingdom. Invite those who are powerless and who cannot repay: the outcast and the sick. Then, when the host is invited into the banquet of the Kingdom, there will be a place; the host will be repaid at the final resurrection. [14:12-14] Again, Luke may have used these passages as a critique of his community's leadership; even leadership must be exercised with humility.
Jesus teaching on humility was a challenge to the social convention of the meal. Humility, especially exercised by the leadership, gave the lowest of the community seats of honor; it made service to the lowly a top priority. Leadership exercised with humility did not gather power, but empowered.
Catechism Theme: The Fruits of Holy Communion (CCC 1391-1397)
Jesus gave his contemporaries advice on banquet etiquette, as if God's Kingdom were realized. The Eucharist represents the banquet of the Kingdom. Hence the advice he gave then applies to us.
Eucharist creates a unity. Christ unites himself with his followers. And his followers unite to form Church. In Eucharist, there is no reason for social climbing or displays of power. All are one in Christ.
More important, Eucharist empowers us to act for others. It strengthens us against the self-centered nature of sin. It directs us to serve others, especially the poor. If we truly celebrate Eucharist for what it is, we would honor the weakest among us, for they represent God with us. For God's Kingdom is theirs.
How do you honor the weakest among your circle of friends? How does their honor remind you of Christ?
What is the real test of banquet etiquette? For Jesus, it can be summed up in one word: humility. The humble guest will be honored. And the host who serves the truly humble will be repaid by God himself. True humility equalizes social place and power status. Humility is the right manners for the Kingdom.
Jesus implied that the Christian community itself must have humility as a core virtue. When we, as the community, gather to share Communion, do we really celebrate the Lord's meal? Or, is it my meal, my place, my time? This is the real test of Christian humility.
Reflect on your Mass manners. Do they truly extend love to others? Or, do they merely focus on the self? This Sunday, try to change one or two manners. And see if that improves your celebration experience.