22nd Sunday Year C – Lectio divina on Lk 14,1.7-14
Always on the move to meet the people, without a house of his own where he could rest, Jesus was used to going wherever he was invited. He was often the guest of influential people and also of sinners. He was ready to meet everyone and to share the word of God with them. Today’s gospel passage records one of these occasions. One Sabbath, an important Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him. His presence in the house of a leading Pharisee caused a certain amount of surprise among the people present, and they kept watching him. After a little while, Jesus noticed how the invited guests were looking for the better places. They all thought they were deserving of special distinction. Their inconsiderate behaviour prompted Jesus to give them a lesson. In reality, Jesus did not intend to give a lesson in good manners. That was not his job. What he wanted to show them was the inappropriateness of a mode of behaviour that seeks honour for oneself before the glory of God and respect for one’s neighbour. And he added a warning: people should not grant favours in the secret hope of being repaid.
1 One sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching him. 7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he marked how they chose the places of honour, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, `Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, `Friend, go up higher'; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
I. READ: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
This is the fifth time Luke introduces Jesus as the guest of a family. The first was his visit to Levi the publican (Lk 5,29), then to the home of a Pharisee (Lk 7,36), to Martha and Mary (Lk 10,38), to yet another Pharisee (Lk 11, 37), and this time to a very well known Pharisee. A meal in a family home was his favourite setting for teaching people, whether they were worthy or not. It is worth noting that he allowed himself to be invited by Pharisees more often than by his friends or disciples. In this particular scene, the evangelist gives the reason why, even though the Pharisee invited Jesus for a meal, his real intention was to trap him. Jesus was not among friends but he was not afraid and he did not try to avoid the situation. He let himself be seen by them for who he was – the master of life.
Jesus observed a simple detail (Lk 14,7), that probably went unnoticed to others because they were so accustomed to it. He used it as the starting point for a somewhat unexpected lesson he wanted to teach, two lessons in fact. Jesus uses an everyday incident to correct a way of behaviour that was all too common. Luke presents the words of Jesus in the form of a parable, but in fact what Jesus gave was a teaching of the kind found in the wisdom literature. The first part is addressed to all who were invited (Lk 14,7), the second part only to the one who had invited them.
He told the guests how to behave when choosing their place at table (Lk 14,8-11). He told the host how he should choose the people to be invited (Lk 14,12-14). In both cases, his teaching was the opposite of what was regarded as normal and reasonable. The first teaching might seem just a lesson in courtesy, with an element of cunning calculation. However, the conclusion raises the lesson to a principle of life: if you seek your own glory, you will not find it (cf Ezechiel 21,31: the low will be high and the high brought low). The lesson Jesus taught the host is more unusual and more demanding: it is an incredible and unreasonable call to be generous and to forget one’s own interests. When you are inviting guests, you should invite the poor, those of lower rank, those who cannot pay back. When you do good, you should not expect anything in return. If you give without hope of reward in this life, you can hope for your reward on the last day.
II. Meditation: apply what the text says to life
Jesus was always teaching. Most of the time he chose his listeners, but at other times they went in search of him to hear what he had to say, and, as we see in today’s Gospel passage, not always with the best of intentions. Jesus preached the gospel even when he was not well received, or not taken seriously. Disciples who carry God’s Gospel in their hearts, miss no opportunity to speak about their treasure. They do not need to be among other disciples where they are well regarded, in order to be what they were sent to be and to do what they were sent to do. Is there not need today of evangelizers like Jesus who will speak about God where nobody else speaks about him? God deserves to be proclaimed even in places where his representative is not well regarded.
To find ways of talking about God to people who are not well disposed, it is not necessary to know the situation or to analyse it. It is enough to observe how they act. From the listeners’ way of acting, an astute evangelizer will know how to proclaim the message of salvation. When God is missing from people’s lives, there is an emptiness and a loneliness that can be seen. Maybe we do not look closely enough at our world. We do not observe it enough for us to love it, and that is why we cannot find a reason to speak to the world about God. Our negligence and personal lack of interest are hindering others from contemplating God and feeling loved by him.
When Jesus was invited to a meal, he observed the guests’ way of acting and used it as the starting point for his teaching. He does not intend to give a lesson in etiquette, but he uses their way of acting to teach the norms that should be the basis of relations between people. Something simple that happens frequently, like the desire to have the best places at the banquet table, was enough to give Jesus an opportunity to evangelize. He did not need any other reason. If people want to evangelize, they will always find an opportunity.
The guests do not have to be deemed worthy before being invited. Neither should they seek out places that have not been assigned to them, since they did not deserve the invitation in the first place. The invitation is an unmerited gift, and does not have to be paid for. The host should not worry about whether or not the invitation will one day be repaid by the guests. An invitation is a free gift, not a long term investment. If we invite someone who cannot return the compliment, God will take it on himself to repay us. God invites us all, even though none of us deserves it, and God does not expect to be repaid. God’s way of acting is the reason behind what Jesus recommended in both cases – to the guests and to the host. Jesus teaches that, in the ordinary things of life, we should imitate God’s way of acting.
We have to admire the importance Jesus attaches to teaching even those who did not ask to be taught. The circumstances were not the most favourable, surrounded as he was by people who never stopped watching him, but Jesus remained confident and sure of himself. He showed them the foolishness of people who think only of bringing honour to themselves, at the expense of their neighbour. If we had been invited, we would probably have pretended not to notice, or tried to justify their behaviour, or maybe even fallen into the same way of acting ourselves. Jesus did not let the incident pass because he saw in it something more serious than simply seeking honour and privilege at any cost. The warning Jesus gave them went far beyond what he had observed: people who think they are more worthy run the risk of losing God. Doing good to those who will repay us is not good business. In fact, it can lead to the loss of a place at the heavenly banquet.
Although the parable seems to refer to what Jesus was experiencing in the home of the Pharisee, in reality Jesus is speaking about the believer’s relationship with God. It might appear that Jesus is giving some good advice to hosts and their guests, but in fact, he is speaking about God and God’s will. God invites all without their meriting it, and he invites without hope of ever being repaid. This is the reason for the way of acting proposed by Jesus. In their daily lives, people should imitate God’s way of acting. As a son imitates his father, so the believer ought to imitate the choices made by God. What Jesus saw that day served as an excuse to correct the temptation we have to think we are better and more deserving, just because there are others who are worse and less honoured. In the eyes of God, people are not deemed good because they seek a higher place than the one they have been given. The fact of being invited is honour enough. Having God as our host is reason enough for us to be satisfied. The fact that God thinks of each one of us and gives us a place at his table ought to be enough to satisfy our desire for glory and honour. God does not decide our goodness depending on the place we occupy, but on the good we do. It is God who makes us good by inviting us to enjoy his company and sit at his table. If we wish for anything else, it means we do not appreciate the gift God has given us. Looking for a higher place is a sign that we do not value the place God has given us.
Since we do not deserve the hospitality God shows us, we have no right to go looking for places that have not been assigned to us. The invitation is an unmerited gift, not a reward we have earned. When we receive a gift and think we are entitled to it, we lose the chance to show gratitude. Looking for a higher place in life is a sign that we are not grateful for being invited. Sharing with others demands humility, accepting others as they are and accepting one’s own position, and leaving the rest to others. The Church and society today need Christians who are satisfied with what is given to them, without seeking what is intended for others. Without humility it is impossible to accept what is given gratuitously and to share with others. Being humble means accepting gratefully what God decides to give us in life. Desiring something else will leave us unhappy today and humiliated in the future.
If we are not satisfied with what God plans for us, it is worse than an affront to God. The guest who keeps trying to better his position, leaves someone else with a lower place than the one intended by the host. That is how we treat God when we are dissatisfied with what he gives us, and keep on seeking privileges that we think are more honourable than those God has given us. People who think they are good run the risk of thinking that God has not dealt fairly with them, and that they deserved better. They will finish up, as Jesus warned, being humiliated and losing what they had sought and obtained. Whatever the believer receives from God is good and is sufficient. Striving for higher honours or a better place is an offence against God and the people with whom we live and with whom we share God’s gifts.
When we know we are loved by God, we are free from envy and vainglory. When we know that God values us, we don’t need to triumph over others or gain recognition. We know that God loves us and appreciates us without our having to merit it. We do not need to look for honours at the expense of others, and we will not feel bad when others are honoured more than we are. As believers we do not seek honour or privilege. It is enough for us to know that God loves us. Our dissatisfaction with life and the tension we feel when others get more than we do, or are more successful, are most probably due to our lack of awareness of how much God loves us. If we had more faith in God, we would gladly do without anything that is not of God or does not lead to God.
In the Pharisee’s house, Jesus did not limit his teaching to his fellow guests who were not very interested. Without recourse to parable, so that his position would be very clear, he warns the master of the house about the danger of inviting people who will repay the compliment. Contrary to reason, and against all normal practice, Jesus believes that the invitation should be a free gift and not a long term investment. If we invite someone who cannot repay us, God himself will see to it that we are rewarded. It does not seem to make sense to give something to someone who does not deserve it and will not be able to repay it. Doing good to someone who will not be able to help you in return, seems a senseless waste. But this is not the way Jesus thinks. Total gratitude must be the rule of relationships for people who are waiting for the kingdom of God. The certainty of what is to come frees us from the desire to seek recognition. Doing good, knowing that we will receive nothing in return, and witout seeking our own interests, is good for us and for the people we do good to. Jesus promises that wherever good we do, will one day receive its reward when the just will rise again. God is good and cannot forget those who do good, freely and gratuitously.
Jesus’ reasoning could not be clearer, but the demands that follow from it are quite unusual. It is normal for someone who has been invited to think that they should invite in return. We all do it. Not to do so would be considered bad manners if not downright ingratitude. It never enters our heads to invite people we do not know, and certainly not the poor, the sick and the maimed. This is precisely what Jesus wants his listeners to understand. If we invite only people who will pay us back from their own pocket, then the debt of gratitude will not last long. Our generosity will have had its reward. It is only when the debt is not repaid that we build up a reward for ourselves in heaven. Jesus wants people who do good to know who it is they are helping – the poor, those who have nothing, people who have nothing to give in return. They are to be preferred to family members and friends who might be expected to treat us with equal generosity.
This way of acting, if followed strictly, would endanger our social life and family relationships, and that is not something that Jesus would want to do. It is not his intention that we should fill our homes with needy strangers. But this does not mean that his words can be ignored as a rule for Christian living. What Jesus wanted to see in his fellow guests, and what he wants to see in his disciples, is disinterested generosity and altruism. Doing good cannot become a short term investment. Goodness in not a way of obtaining benefits. Looking for reward or recompense for the good we do would mean that we will never discover God’s goodness to us. If we do good to gain recognition, or in the hope of being repaid, we will lose out on the reward that God has prepared for those who do good.
Jesus wants his disciples to do good, without making other people indebted to us. Christians do not calculate the good they do in terms of what they expect in return. To ensure that we do not fall into the temptation to seek recompense, however small, we should be ready to do good to people who cannot pay us back, not because they are bad, but because they have not got the means. Goodness that is not given freely, and goods that are not shared, are not in keeping with Jesus’ way of thinking, and should not be ours either. Only good that is done without seeking reward will bring us one day to God and his gifts for ever. Jesus is not satisfied with asking us to be happy with what we have, but he demands that we give without expecting recognition. Who ever said that following Jesus would be easy?