The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – 1st September 2019
Lectionary readings: Sir. 3:17-20, 28-29; Ps. 68:4-7, 10-11; Heb. 12-18, 22-24a; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Theme: On taking the lower place
If biblical prophecy includes speaking truth to power then today’s reading in Luke is a wonderful example of Jesus as prophet. The context of the story is a meal on the Sabbath attended by “lawyers and Pharisees” (Lk 14:3) and hosted by “a leader of the Pharisees” (v. 1). As such it was a gathering in which each was conscious of his place in the group, and of his chances of increasing his honor in the estimation of his peers. Luke describes the first of Jesus’ interventions, beginning in verse 8, as a “parable”. It is intended then not just to give a moral lesson on humility but to puzzle and tease the reader into seeing the world differently. In the story Jesus is undermining one of the foundation stones of the culture of the time: its system of honor and shame. He is proposing a different kind of society.
In verses 9-10, Jesus recommends taking the lower place in order to be promoted and so gain honor, drawing on Jewish tradition expressed in the wisdom saying in Proverbs 25:6-7, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
Similar advice is found in a midrashic teaching in Leviticus Rabbah, which dates to the 5th century but which may preserve an older tradition: “If you are a man of distinction and entitled to a prominent seat at an assembly, seat yourself, nevertheless, two or three seats lower, for it is better to be told ‘Go up,’ than to be asked to ‘go down.’ Hillel was wont to say, ‘If I condescend I am exalted, but if I am haughty I am degraded’” (Beale & Carson, ‘Luke 14:10-11’).
On first reading it might seem that Jesus is advising false humility in order to gain honor, an unworthy motive by any standards. However he goes on to say in verse 11, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” As Jerome Kodell puts it, “Self-exaltation must not be sought either openly or secretly.” Jesus overturns the whole honor-shame culture and points to the great reversal that will take place when the Kingdom of God is established. What shame awaits those who now choose to lord it over others! (Byrne, p. 123).
Jesus’ words to the host (verses 12-14) convey a similar message. On a superficial reading it may seem to be self-serving, inviting the poor so that we will receive a reward, but it is really an exhortation to give without counting the cost and to leave any recompense to God (Kodell). The values of the Kingdom are different from those that control present society and the only honor we need is that which comes from God.
For Reflection and Discussion:  In what ways do you see the honor-shame culture of the ancient world still expressed in your own society?  How might Jesus’ insistence that we invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” be made practical for your own situation?
Bibliography: Beale & Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids MI, 2007); Byrne, The Hospitality of God (Strathfield NSW, St Paul’s, 2000); Kodell, “Luke” in Bergant & Karris (eds), The Collegeville Bible Commentary (Collegeville MN, 2002); Leviticus Rabbah: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/tmm/tmm09.htm