Luke 14: 7 — 14
One Sabbath, our Lord accepted an invitation after Synagogue Service to go to the home of a prominent Pharisee.
The Pharisees, let us remember, began as a small religious party around B C 145. They were intensely loyal to their heritage, and would not swear allegiance (even once) to Herod. Whereas the Sadducees tried to apply the Law of Moses (first 5 books of the Old Testament) literally, the Pharisees allowed adaptation to the circumstances of the occasion. They therefore had to draw on a large number of interpretations, which in time, despite the best intentions, tended to cloud the revelation from God that they were supposed to protect. All religions, of course, face the same dilemma, and this includes Christianity.
On this occasion Jesus mingles very freely and is accepted by the learned guests. In fact, he has no hesitation taking the lead part in a conversation, and is "given the floor".
In verses 1 — 6 of Luke 14 our Lord is seen rebuking those who abuse the Sabbath teaching of Judaism. However, while doing so, he notices certain visitors who are concentrating more on getting into the right seats (of honour) than listening to him. He therefore changes tack and tries to raise their minds to God, using what they were doing there and then. This is where our reading begins. Let's recall that, while Jesus moves freely through the social levels of his society, he never forgets his mission. He seizes every opportunity to offer a relevant message but always in the appropriate way.
We see now how he does this.
Some Notes On Our Text
First: The Guests — Verses 7 — 11
Our Lord, while talking to the invited guests in the home of the prominent Pharisee, observes very closely the subtle maneuvers of several guests as they try to obtain the seats of honour. As has been well documented it is often in the small apparently trivial acts that a person's character and values are most accurately reflected.
Instead of telling them directly that their behaviour is inappropriate for such distinguished people, Jesus tells them a familiar parable. This has the effect of drawing attention to their indiscretions without his appearing to moralise. The word "parable" used here signifies that what follows has spiritual significance for each individual — it is not just practical advice.
Verses 8 — 10
The parable which is really a commentary on Proverbs 25: 6 and 7, has a similar message to that taught by Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai who said: " Stay two or three seats below your place (i.e. where you feel you should sit) and sit there until they say to you, 'Come Up'. Do not begin by going up because they may say to you, 'Go down". It is better that they say to you 'Go up', then that they say to you, 'Go down'."
The advice of Jesus is that, regardless of your status, assume that there will be someone more distinguished than yourself. Leave it to your host to demonstrate what he thinks of you. That will always bring you more credit than any honour you take for yourself.
In typical rabbinic style, Jesus brings his parable for the guests to a close with a pithy, power-packed saying (one of his favourites, and repeated often in early Church documents):
The invited guests are familiar with the material Jesus uses, but are intrigued with this contribution to it. The refining and re-application of another rabbi's teaching brings honour to both rabbis. Fifty years later another rabbi is recorded as contributing his slant on the topic (which could well reflect an influence from Jesus, indirectly)"
This was written by Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph (A D / C E 50 — 135), one of the greatest Jewish scholars, who exerted very considerable influence on Jewish teaching as seen in the Mishnar. He was burnt alive by the Romans for actively promoting his teaching and refusing to stop doing so. We honour him for his devotion and holiness.
This extended reference to traditional rabbinic on-going, cumulative commentary, is intended to show Jesus at his best: not embarrassing his host's guests, but in the humblest manner possible, quietly bringing to their attention that they may not realise they are letting themselves down. Thus he is able to practise what he preaches.
From Guests to Host
Having gained the attention of his fellow guests; our Lord then turns his attention to the host. "When you give a luncheon or dinner", says Jesus, "do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours lest (or for fear) they might invite you back — and so you will be repaid". This is one of those Hebraisms which puzzles us today.
Of course people will and should invite those who are their friends and relatives. Translated into our cultural setting he is saying:
In faultless, indeed gracious style, our Lord reminds his listeners, devout and very learned teachers of Israel, that we advance in God's Kingdom and win honour, paradoxically, by being humble and conscious of our unworthiness. No one has a claim on any place in this Kingdom. Only those who know they are unworthy of such an honour enter its courts; and they do so because they are called, not because they lay a claim, or invite themselves.
In this very beautiful account, Jesus reminds his listeners that it is a long established tradition for God's people to give alms to the needy and look on it as a privilege to do so. This tradition passed over into the Church and for 2000 years has remained at the forefront of Christian teaching. It is up to Christ's members to ensure it, likewise, remains at the forefront of Christian practice.
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