Turning Tables: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Twelfth Week after Pentecost
Twelfth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 14:1, 7-14
1) We’re half-way there! This week is the midway point in “Ordinary Time,” the sixth-month season of growth and study - this year chronologically walking through key passages in the Gospel of Luke.
2) According to Luke, this is the third dinner party hosted by a local religious leader with Jesus on the guest list - a sign of his notoriety, but also a sign that members of the religious establishment, many of whom have become “hostile toward him,” are “watching him closely” (Luke 14:1; 6:7; 11:53-54).
3) One of the earliest Christian hymns - arguably the oldest one we know of today - is recorded in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi. The hymn’s lyrics describe Christ’s signature move as kenosis, an act of loving humility: “though he was in the form of God,” he did not “regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:6-9). This week’s passage in Luke is a meditation on this basic choreography: humility and exaltation.
4) Too often, Christians think of Jesus as a serious, solemn teacher and moralist. But on the contrary, in his public disputations, Jesus is often a playful, mischievous satirist with a twinkle in his eye, a trickster rhetorically tying his opponents in knots. In these exchanges, he’s less a moralist and more a street performer, or a court jester in the halls of power. This week’s story is a case in point.
1) It’s a dinner party, but for Luke, the atmosphere is tense. Some local religious leaders have already taken up a “hostile” stance toward Jesus, and they’re looking for chance to trip him up (Luke 14:1; 6:7; 11:53-54).
2) This backdrop of tension makes Jesus’ actions all the more vivid and striking. After noticing how the guests “chose the places of honor” at the table, he brazenly offers them “a parable,” essentially a paraphrase of the advice in Proverbs 25:6-7 (Luke 14:7): Listen - if you really want to be honored at a dinner party like this one, don’t go for the best seat right away, since someone even more honorable than you might show up and force you to give up your seat, and that’ll be embarrassing. Instead, take the lowest seat, and then your host might make a show of calling you up toward a better one. Then everyone will notice you, and you’ll be sitting pretty!
3) How helpful! But there’s more here than meets the eye, for Jesus is subversively, deliciously skewering the honor hierarchy in at least three ways. First, any effective jockeying for honor in a social gathering needs to be more or less covert; once it’s brought out into the open, it becomes tacky, cringeworthy, and therefore dis-honorable. But exposure is precisely the effect of Jesus’ “advice” to the ambitious guests. In other words, by publically advising them in this way, Jesus is effectively calling them out - though he cleverly, ironically cloaks his rebuke in the form of a helpful recommendation from Proverbs!
4) Second, Jesus then sums up his remarks in sweeping theological terms: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). For his listeners (including us!), this may initially sound like a straightforward call to humility - but upon reflection, in the context of the dinner party and the advice from Proverbs, this summary sentence creates a conundrum. For after all, is strategically sitting at the “lowest place” really a case of “humbling oneself”? Isn’t it just another scheme, just another attempt at being “exalted,” at jockeying for “the places of honor”? Even the technique in Proverbs, then, is exposed as a dead end - and the whole idea of honor-maneuvering is exposed as a sham and a shame.
5) And third, Jesus immediately follows up with another recommendation, this time encouraging the dinner’s host to hold future banquets not for those who can return the favor down the road, but rather for those who can’t: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13). Combined with the advice from Proverbs, Jesus paints a remarkable picture: imagine the ambitious status-seekers strategically taking the “lowest place” at the table - and thereby ceding the “places of honor” to those typically excluded from such events altogether. The tables are turned! The last shall be first!
6) Thus Jesus mischievously skewers and scrambles the honor economy, calling out and confounding the prideful, and opening up the gates of acceptance - and by implication, the gates of salvation - to the impoverished, the marginalized, and the left behind. God’s table, Jesus implies, overturns the world’s petty pecking orders, and among the privileged, those with ears to hear should do the same. Genuine humility doesn’t serve today for the sake of exaltation tomorrow - rather, it gets out of the maneuvering-for-exaltation game altogether.
1) Last week, Jesus warned us about how religious practices like sabbath keeping can be distorted into self-serving parodies - and likewise, this week he warns that even commonplace events (like dinner parties) and laudable virtues (like humility) are often twisted around into helping create supposed hierarchies of higher and lower, insider and outsider. Attempts at “exaltation” come in all sorts of disguises. And religions are, after all, virtuosos at creating and maintaining hierarchies of all sorts (“hierarchy” literally means “sacred rule” or “sacred order”).
2) But the “sacred order” in God’s dawning realm overturns the profane pecking orders of the world. In God’s Great Banquet, the rich and powerful, the privileged and prestigious, won’t sit at the head table. Rather, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” will sit there - the very people typically left out and left behind in worldly life, and indeed the very people to whom and for whom Jesus declares his inaugural good news in the first place (Luke 4:18-19). As the prophet Mary sang, the mighty will be humbled, and the lowly lifted up (Luke 1:52). The tables will turn, and are turning even now.
3) And how can we take part today in this table-turning revolution? Neither by seeking out the “places of honor” in order to be exalted now, nor by sitting at the “lowest place” in order to be exalted later. Jesus mischievously bars both of these doors, and so sends us out on a different kind of mission with a different kind of spring in our step, a journey in which “being exalted” isn’t the goal at all. The goal, in a word, is love. But not just any love. Jesus envisions a love freed from all crass attempts at exaltation, at scoring points, at earning righteousness. A love for its own sake, without ulterior motive, without scheme or advantage, without quid quo pro. A truly generous love, a love that does not seek to be “repaid” (Luke 14:14). For that kind of love - free from all need for compensation, never mind any need to be exalted - is the love God exalts!