Banquets served several functions in Jesus’ day. At their most basic level, they were practical. In the era before refrigeration, perishable items could not be kept for long periods of time. Although ancient peoples came up with some ingenious solutions to the problem of food storage, they still had to consume much of what they grew fairly soon after harvest. One way to do so was to share it with neighbors and family through rituals of feasting. Weddings usually took place not long after the harvest in order to take advantage of the fresh food available at that time.
‘Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.’ (Lk 7:13-14)
What is your “wedding feast,” that is, the gifts you have in such abundance that you are free to give them away?
How can you give these gifts to those who cannot repay you?
Banquets were also symbolic displays. They were foremost a demonstration of wealth. The ability to host a feast meant a family had access to land and labor, both of which revealed high economic status. Banquets were also displays of a family’s social connections. Few houses had rooms set aside specifically for dining. Family meals took place in the open air, usually on the roof or in a front courtyard. Large feasts required the use of public areas of a village or town like streets or squares. One’s guests would thus be visible to everyone. Host families would give places of prominence to important guests not just to honor them but to show off the host family’s own social connections. A place of prominence likewise reinforced the prestige of important guests like royal or military officials, religious leaders and people of wealth and privilege. For both guests and hosts, banquets were opportunities to see and be seen.
Reciprocity was expected. Relatives invited each other to family feasts, establishing and strengthening ties even among distant kin. Reciprocity also supported elite culture. A royal official invited to a family’s wedding feast would, in turn, invite the hosts to a similar banquet or, even better, would secure the family an invitation to a royal event. Banquets thus played a vital role in supporting the status of those with even modest wealth and connections.
Jesus participated in this feasting culture, and one suspects that he was often one of the “important guests.” Many Gospel narratives are about events at banquets or dinner parties; Jesus recognized their usefulness for his mission of evangelization. But because he knew the culture so well, he also recognized its troubling aspects. Feasts were opportunities for competition and strategic social and political maneuvering. Banquets could be occasions for generosity and for building ties of affection, but too often they became calculating performances for the pursuit of status.
In our era of refrigeration and industrial agriculture, banquets have fewer symbolic aspects. Disciples must seek opportunities to live out this Sunday’s Gospel reading in other contexts. The spending of time might be one close analog. God gives each of us 1,440 minutes every day, and they are impossible to store up. A certain number are necessary to support our lives and families, but some are available to give away to others. Jesus’ instruction is to spend them on those who cannot repay. Such a choice will determine our fate at the resurrection of the righteous.