7 When Yeshua noticed how the guests were choosing for themselves the best seats at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, don’t sit down in the best seat; because if there is someone more important than you who has been invited, 9 the person who invited both of you might come and say to you, ‘Give this man your place.’ Then you will be humiliated as you go to take the least important place. 10 Instead, when you are invited, go and sit in the least important place; so that when the one who invited you comes, he will say to you, ‘Go on up to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in front of everyone sitting with you. 11 Because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.”
12 Yeshua also said to the one who had invited him, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives or rich neighbors; for they may well invite you in return, and that will be your repayment. 13 Instead, when you have a party, invite poor people, disfigured people, the crippled, the blind! 14 How blessed you will be that they have nothing with which to repay you! For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The trick of understanding this material is to estimate whether it is meant as gospel instruction for everyday life, or whether it is a kind of parable, like the story of the great banquet which follows. Should the reader receive it as literal instruction about giving parties or as a warning about status- seeking and an invitation to humility?
My guess is that it started out as practical wisdom. In the Greek-speaking society of the Roman Empire, the giving and receiving of favour was of great importance. A person’s social status and honour depended on whose dinners he was invited to and where he was placed at them; and on who would attend his dinners when invited. All sorts of important social and economic business was translated through such dinners. It’s not too much to say that a family’s future might rest on who invited the man of the house and who accepted his invitations. In such a society the mutual scratching of backs was a primary mechanism of survival.
Jesus’ first instructions deal with the common situation of attending a wedding feast. Should you try to grab one of the seats of honour, so as to elevate your status in the eyes of other guests? All Jesus’ audience knew that the answer to this was,”No,” for that kind of brass neck risked humiliation. Still, reckless people might have tried it, relying on embarrassment preventing their host from demoting them. Jesus reminds his audience that choosing a seat with no prestige at least offers a chance of promotion. Jesus is not so much instructing people as articulating the common wisdom on the issue. But why?
Surely because he is also thinking of the “banquet of life” to which God invites all people. Those who try to grab the best seats in life, the ruthless, the wealthy, the arrogant, are likely to be booted out when the Host arrives, and the poor, the outcast and the modest will be shown his favour. God may be just as picky a host as the giver of a wedding feast. Jesus therefore gives the general principle, that people who raise themselves up over others will be downed, while those who are down will be raised up.
Then Jesus turns to the custom of giving parties as a means of gaining social standing. He advises his audience to get out of the ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind of hospitality, which is a grace too precious to be wasted in that way. Rather, it should be used in God’s way, to give the least important a share of food and happiness. I think this is a command to the community of Jesus’ followers to stand outside the culture of mutual favours and to open itself to people excluded by that culture. Luke’s second volume about the Jesus story, The Acts of the Apostles, includes the story of how the community obeyed this command. And as always, when the gospels deal with first and last, the thought of the ultimate outsiders, the Gentiles, is never far away.
I’ve indicated that this teaching has special relevance to the society of the Roman Empire, but it shouldn’t take much reflection to realise its relevance to all people as social beings. In complex societies, where there are hierarchies of power based on birth, class, violence and wealth, many want to enhance or secure their status by means of networks of mutual support. These are partly means of advancement (one’s social skills may compensate for lower status) and partly bulwarks against disaster (social collapse or revolution). Even if these networks use pleasant social occasions like dinners and parties for self re- enforcement, the real relationships involved will be focused on success and failure.
Those who are brought up in competitive societies internalise from an early age the need to compete and succeed. Those of us who were early trained to understand that education was not about one’s own knowledge but about doing better than others, will confess that fear of failure and desire to dominate influence our behaviour even into old age.
Jesus’ utter refusal to play these dangerous social games, and his guidance to his followers, is therepeutic for all who are driven to compete. If our networks are based on appreciation of each other’s gifts and an openness to those who think they have none, the compulsions which lead to competitive arrogance may be neutralised.