We are studying Luke 14:7-14 for Sunday, March 3. This text presents two of Jesus’ short discourses, delivered at a Sabbath dinner, revolving around the theme of social position. [Study questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text is from the gospel of Luke, which happens to be the gospel featured in the Revised Common Lectionary this year, and which we know a few things about from earlier studies. Luke presents us with a carefully crafted narrative in refined Greek, clearly and sympathetically addressed to Gentiles – or, we might say today, a “cosmopolitan audience.” Having this audience in mind may help us think about the passage this week, which seems to be directly addressed to people who are acutely aware of social position.
As Luke presents Jesus’ story, this passage occurs around the midpoint of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. That journey is the longest section of Luke’s story. Luke has already told us about miraculous events that begin even before Jesus’ birth, a little about Jesus’ early life, and a fair bit about Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee, including casting out spirits, healing, raising a little girl from the dead, calming a storm, feeding a huge crowd of people, and being transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John. Now Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem;” along the way he attracts followers and does a lot of teaching and some more miraculous deeds. Once he arrives, as we know, there will be a parade, more teaching – in the Temple – and all the events of Holy Week, including the episode of the risen Christ’s appearance to two disciples on their way home to Emmaus from a long disheartening time in Jerusalem.
In other words, we are right in the middle of the story at this point. If it were our first time hearing it – although, how many readers or listeners have ever encountered Luke’s gospel as their very first encounter with the Jesus story? – we might wonder what this teaching is leading up to. As knowledgeable readers, we may pick up more hints about the future in the way Jesus’ teachings are presented here.
Zeroing in on the occasion for Jesus’ teaching, Luke 14:1-24 tells about “an occasion” when Jesus goes to “a meal,” hosted by “a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees” on the Sabbath. So we can probably have in mind a conventional social occasion of the ancient Greco-Roman world, with guests – all men, presumably – reclining at tables in the dining room of a substantial home. The finely-tuned social status system of the Greco-Roman world and the purity system of the Jewish world of Jesus’ day would both have been operating.
On this “occasion,” Jesus has already healed a man with dropsy (vv2-6) – which seems to pose a purity issue (because of the dropsy) and a legal observance issue (because the healing happens on the Sabbath). The discourses we’re looking at follow that healing, and lead up to the longer, familiar parable about “the great banquet” – the one at which the invited guests all decline to appear for various reasons (vv15-24).
CLOSER READING: The Greek text hits the reader over the head with the repetition of the verb to call, to invite, in various forms. We miss this in English, because some of the occurrences are noun forms that are translated by English words that sound very different (guests, host). Jesus seems to be choosing his words carefully to emphasize the invitational, called identity of the guests (“the ones who had been called/invited”) and the host (“the one who called/invited you”) at this by-invitation event. So we hear the same word, basically, over and over: eight times in these six verses by my count. The repetition is repetitive enough that when we get to verse 12 and Jesus suddenly uses a different verb that also means “call, invite” it comes as a real shock.
That verb in verse 12, by the way, is the same one that gives us our words telephone, phonograph, stereophonic, etc. So the effect is as if we have been hearing the word call or invite over and over and suddenly Jesus says, “So, when you have a meal, a breakfast or luncheon, don’t just phone up the people in the church directory …”
OK, he didn’t use those exact words. But the use of phōnei in verse 12 does seem to suggest that all these people (the friends, brothers, relatives, rich neighbors) are close to you, within earshot. When it comes to the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, we are back to calling/inviting.
Maybe there is too much distance between these folks and the ruler for him to just phone them up. Maybe that distance is literal and physical; maybe it’s more metaphorical and social. Maybe that kind of distance is not only an issue for that ancient ruler who belonged to the Pharisees. [The church directory is still on my mind.]
Back to verse 7, it’s a little odd that Luke’s narrator says Jesus told them a parable, because what follows sounds nothing like a parable. It sounds like a direct description of a possible scene at an invited meal, a description of behavior we’ve just been told Jesus is noticing right now. So we are left wondering what makes this a parable, and what it’s a parable of.
We may even be left with the sneaky suspicion that Jesus’ audience [which seems to include us] has become the parabolic illustration of something … yet to be disclosed.
In verse 9 there is a striking contrast of giving and taking in the humiliating scene in which the person who sat down in place of honor has to give the place of honor to the distinguished guest and take the lowest place.
That “lowest place” might hit some of us a little hard because it is literally the eschaton topon, the last place, the same “last” that shows up in the “last things” of “the eschaton,” or as we sometimes say, the end times.
Does Jesus mean to send some signals about those end times in this discourse? Well … Luke’s narrator did say he was telling a parable … about … something. And Luke’s narrative has been suggesting from the very beginning of the gospel that places are going to be switched. And Jesus was just talking about eating food in the kingdom of God in chapter 13 and explicitly said “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30). So … I’m inclined to think yes.
Especially since in the next discourse, when Jesus focuses on reciprocity and repayment, the one who offers hospitality to the poor, crippled, lame, and blind will be “blessed” and “repaid” at the resurrection of the righteous.
My study Bible reminds us that the inclusion of these categories “challenges the purity code of Leviticus 21:17-23” – a clause which affected priests and the making and eating of sacrificial offerings.
In other words, these categories of people would challenge both the social status hierarchy and the purity hierarchy that would be in the minds of the people Jesus is addressing in the story.
The big question lurking in the background here, in these discourses, and in the gospel of Luke more generally, may be: where do you want to be honored and blessed, and by whom? Here, in this world, by the people who make the rules around here? Or at the last, by the ruler of the kingdom that is coming?
Because we can’t have it both ways, according to Jesus, according to Luke.
We have to make a choice.