One of the recurring themes of the Gospels—indeed, all of Scripture—is the way God calls humans to overturn established order of who is “greater” and who is “lesser.” Hannah, a barren woman in a contentious polygamous marriage, rejoiced in the Lord and proclaimed, “[God] raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor” (1 Samuel 2:8). It seems that God has always been switching seating charts to show how societal esteem is frequently at odds with God’s valuation of humans. Jesus gives another example of this principle in this week’s Gospel reading.
Jesus was invited to share a Sabbath meal at the home of a prominent Pharisee, and all those present watched him eagerly to learn from such a popular and powerful teacher. First, Jesus noted the presence of a man afflicted by excessive swelling. Luke notes that the man was “in front of” or “opposite” Jesus (Luke 14:2). If Jesus was seated at the head of the assembly where everyone could see him, the man with the swelling was toward the back, where only Jesus would have been able to see him. Jesus chose to offer his first teaching of the night by reiterating the lesson we read about last week—Sabbath healing is not only allowable but necessary. The Pharisees assembled neither questioned nor replied to this teaching (4, 6). Indeed, it seems that from the earliest stages, Rabbinic Judaism insisted that healing on the Sabbath—miraculously or not—was appropriate. After Jesus healed the man, he sent him away before beginning his next lesson (4).
Then Jesus began to teach those remaining at the dinner party about seating arrangements. Presumably the location of the man with the swelling, opposite the place where esteemed guests jockeyed for positions next to Jesus, was the occasion for his next parable. Jesus told of a wedding feast in which people tried to secure the best positions for themselves, only to be demoted and asked to vacate their seat when someone more important arrived. Imagine the shame as they looked around for another place as everyone watched! Instead, Jesus instructed those present that they should pick a humble place for themselves. If they stayed in the same spot, at least they would avoid the shame and ignominy of being displaced by someone more important.
But it might happen that the host would notice them in their humble place and call them up to a higher, more prestigious seat. Then they would be honored in the presence of all the guests. Jesus was referencing a proverb that gave exactly this advice (Proverbs 25:6-7). Jesus had called a man relegated to an inferior position forward, healed him and then dismissed him before calling out those who had chosen better spots for themselves.
Jesus instructed those present that they should pick a humble place for themselves. If they stayed in the same spot, at least they would avoid the shame and ignominy of being displaced by someone more important.
Jesus then turned to his host and offered a commendation and reproval. First, he told him to not invite only his friends, family or wealthy neighbors because they could offer reciprocity, invite him to their parties and thereby repay him. These were exactly the people who were left at the banquet after Jesus dismissed the person he had healed. Instead, Jesus insisted that the host should invite more like the man who was there first, but who had been relegated to an inferior position by the other guests—poor people, people with disabilities, folks with limps and blind folks (Luke 14:13).
The leader of the Pharisees had invited some of the right people but had allowed the other guests to honor themselves and shame others. Jesus honored the man he healed, and then excused him so that he would not hear Jesus use his treatment by the other guests as an object lesson for how people are to interact with others. Thus, Jesus doubly guarded the man’s dignity.
Friends, let us be like Jesus and guard and preserve the dignity of those whom others would relegate to positions of unimportance. God has always lifted up those whom the world discards and brought down those who honor themselves. It’s probably best to leave the bringing down of the prideful to God. Jesus invites us into seeing, honoring and joining those who are relegated to positions of dishonor. To do anything else risks God sweeping us aside in order to bring up the downtrodden.