More than any other Evangelist, Luke portrays Jesus at meals. He eats not only with tax collectors and sinners, as in Mark and Matthew, but with friends like Martha and Mary; and he dines frequently with Pharisees. In antiquity, meals were important community events with their own rituals governing social status and seating. (Every mother of the bride may appreciate this as she struggles with seating for the wedding reception.) Pharisees were especially noted for their careful attention to banquet rules, since they were concerned about purity and formed “eating clubs,” where they could feel at home and reflect on the Scriptures.
Jesus shares a Sabbath meal with a “leading Pharisee”; but the story has an ominous note, since people are “keeping an eye on him.” Unfortunately, by omitting verses 2 to 6 the text in the Lectionary eviscerates the drama and meaning of the whole section. A man afflicted with dropsy appears, interrupting the banquet much as the “sinful woman” does in Lk. 7:37. Jesus then asks the lawyers (scribes) and Pharisees if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath—perhaps a topic discussed at their banquets. In the face of their silence, Jesus heals the man and then asks whether they would save a child who falls into a well on the Sabbath. Again he receives no answer, even though Jewish law allowed life-saving activities on the Sabbath. Jesus views the man’s debilitating illness as living death.
Today’s Gospel picks up the story at the point where Jesus expresses the common wisdom about dining etiquette (see Prov. 25:6-7; Sir. 3:17-20). Instead of seeking places of honor his listeners are advised to go to the lowest place to avoid the humiliation of being asked to move down, with the chance that the host will notice their proper deference and invite them to a higher position. (The injunction not to seek places in the front seems engraved in every Catholic’s imagination, as they huddle in the back of church.) Jesus’ words seem like jejune advice from one who himself has broken social taboos and exhorts his followers to radical discipleship.
Then Jesus makes another turn. Echoing Mary’s vision in the Magnificat, he again invokes the theme of reversal—those who exalt themselves will be humbled, while the humble will be exalted—and goes on to shatter those very dining rituals that he seemed to support. Reciprocity and the practice of inviting people of equal status were the twin pillars of ancient dining customs. Jesus rejects this and says that you should instead invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” groups of no status who, Jesus notes, will not be able to pay you back. These groups were not simply economically poor and social outcasts; they were often considered unclean. The Qumran community celebrated their meals as an anticipation of the great eschatological banquet, but ineligible for participation were “the lame, the blind, and the crippled” (War Scroll 7:4-6). Jesus too looks to the eschatological banquet at the resurrection of the righteous, which is symbolized in the present by the inclusion of these very outcasts.
Since the meals of Jesus throughout Luke have eucharistic overtones, this Gospel can suggest proper “etiquette” for our celebrations. Eating with Jesus should be a time of healing, which can shock even customary religious sensitivities. Liturgy should be inclusive of those whom our society today views as unworthy or unclean. Such invitations are the prelude to admittance to the banquet of the just (righteous) who humbled themselves by associating with those very people to whom Jesus announces the benefits of God’s reign (Lk. 4:16-19).