Table Talk

Along His journey to Jerusalem, Jesus stops frequently to have meals, three times with Pharisees (7:37-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-35). Meals were central to Jesus’ ministry. He comes “eating and drinking” (Luke 7:34). While His meals are not just for refreshment, they are opportunities for teaching the protocols of the kingdom. Meals are one of Jesus’ main “methods” for forming a new Israel. The people He eats with, often outcasts, are the seeds of a new Israel, and the meal is both a sign of the presence of the kingdom and a visible realization of that kingdom. If we were asked to point to the kingdom of God on earth, we would point to the scene of Jesus eating a meal with His disciples.

The Pharisees eat and drink with “companions” and their table fellowship marks the boundaries of their community: The true Israel is the people who come to their table, who are clean enough to share. Jesus’ meals also define a boundary between one group and another, but define it very differently.

Joel Green points out that the narrative actually displays the hospitable table practices of Jesus. In Luke 14, the scene is a meal in the home of a leading Pharisee, yet several people show up that we don’t expect to be at the home of a leading Pharisee: Jesus and the man with dropsy (who would be considered marginal if not positively unclean). Luke’s cast of characters, his “dramatis personae” is a textual display of the table fellowship of Jesus. All the wrong people at the table; all the wrong people are in the text.

Jesus uses the meal in Luke 14 as an opportunity to describe the way of life that His disciples should adopt. He teaches while eating, but more directly, He shows that table manners, conduct at the table, are patterns for conduct in the rest of life. How you behave at the table is a sign of how you behave elsewhere. Virtues cultivated at the table are the virtues of the disciples of Jesus.

He observed, for starters, the competition among guests for important seats at the table (v. 7). Seating arrangements at ancient meals were very important, a matter of “honor” and “disgrace” (v. 8-9). Honor and shame, glory and disgrace, were the key motivations for ancient men (men especially). This pagan Greek had infected Israel. A guest seated close to the host was exalted over the more distant guests, and could boast in a closer relationship with the host. Jews competed for honor and piety, to grab the seat closest to the divine “head of the table.”

Jesus, as He always does, challenges that competitive honor-grabbing head on. Yet Jesus doesn’t say gaining honor is wrong. In fact, He gives advice designed to help people avoid shame and gain honor. There is a right way to seek and receive honor and a wrong way. Jesus condemns the way of Adam, who seized the fruit of the Tree. Jesus is saying, “don’t be an Adam, who grasped at a high place.” Instead, the path to honor is through humble service. Behavior at table thus becomes an object lesson in humiliation and exaltation, as Jesus reiterates the paradoxical truth that humiliation is the pathway to exaltation, service is the way to authority.

This might appear to be just a question of strategy. It might seem that Jesus accepts the standards of the day – that honor is conferred by the favor of one’s peers – but teaches more effective tactics. Perhaps He’s saying: if you are seeking honor, if that is your ultimate goal, then the better thing to do is to take the lowest seat. Even on Pharisaical premises, it would be best to take the lowest seat.

Yet,  Jesus’ instructions aren’t merely tactical, but theological. His final statement in v 10 casts doubt on the whole system, because here the exaltation is not coming from other people, but from God. Jesus states a general principle that the humble are exalted, and the “divine passive” indicates that God is the exalted exalter. More subtly, Jesus distinguishes between early and late honor. Those who seek honor at the outset of the meal may lose it later, but those who set their sights on ultimate (we might say, eschatological) honor will receive it. Again Adam is the counterpoint: In his impatience, he seized honor too early and lost it all. Honor comes to those who persevere in doing good (Romans 2). Those who seek present honor have their reward. To seek honor from God is to see future honor.

Jesus’ parable is not just good “social advice” but is a challenge to the outlook of the Jewish leaders, who are vying and competing for favor with the Divine Host, displaying their works and the strictness of their Sabbath observance and their utter ceremonial purity. God is not impressed. Disciples must follow Jesus’ lead: He humbled Himself, took the lowest seat, and therefore the Father exalted Him to His right hand.

Jesus then turns to the guest list, and he speaks directly to the host (v. 12). In the ancient world, as today, banquets and meals established or further social networks that would enhance honor. Having an honorable guest at your banquet enhances the honor of your banquet, and when everyone sees that you have important people at your banquets, they’ll want to be there too. When you invite an important person to your banquet, you are buying yourself an invitation to his next banquet. There’s an expectation of a quid pro quo, and by clever invitations and acceptances one can begin to break into the inner ring. “Partying” with the famous is a way to become famous.

Jesus warns that we should not think about hospitality in that kind of calculating way (cf. Luke 6:30-35). Our hospitality should imitate the hospitality of God, who gives generously even though we can never repay Him and even though He needs nothing from us. Jesus does not consider repayment as evil or wrong. In Luke 6, Jesus implies that those who seek an invitation in payment for an invitation want too little, not too much. They seek a reward in this age rather than in the age to come. Jesus poses the question: Do we form our guest lists by sight, thinking about what rewards we might get now? Or do we form our guest lists by faith, looking to unseen, not-yet-seen rewards we will receive in the resurrection? When we make out our guest lists, are we hoping for a return invitation from the people on the list? Or do we make our guest list with a view to getting an invitation to the Messianic banquet?

Jesus gives literal instruction here. He does not speak parabolically or hyperbolically. Jesus wants us to construct guest lists for our meals and Sabbath dinners and parties in this way. We should be looking out for the outcasts, the sick and lame and crippled. Sinners should be welcome to our tables. As Jesus emphasizes in the parable of the wedding feast that follows, this is the way God Himself makes up His invitation list. Even that parable leads directly into a literal instruction. Joel Green points out too the grammatical shift between Luke 14:23 and verse 24. Jesus stops narrating a story in third person and directly addresses the host. The speech starts as the speech of the master to his slave, but the master is Jesus speaking over the head of the parable’s slave to the assembled Pharisees.

For many Jews, the guest list for the Messianic feast was very restricted. Some Jews had interpreted Isaiah 25, which speaks of a banquet for all peoples on God’s mountain, in a way that excluded the Gentiles. Others (as in Qumran) explicitly excluded the lame, crippled, poor, those who were physical and spiritual misfits, from the Messianic feast. Jesus commands us to invite just those people because just those people are welcomed into the kingdom by the Father.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.