Honor at Meals

This coming Sunday is the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  In yesterday’s post we explored the Scriptural  use of the word “humility.”  Today we will consider the mealing setting, common in many of the gospels as a metaphor for the celebration of the Kingdom’s come. But it is also often a setting of controversy. Consider that vv.1-6 centered on the debate at table regarding the lawfulness of curing on the Sabbath – reminiscent of earlier discussions about appropriate behavior on the Sabbath (e.g., 6:2, 9; 13:14–16).

When Jesus asks if it would be lawful to cure the man with dropsy, those at table are silent. When Jesus next asks if their son or oxen fell into a cistern would they pull them out, again, they are silent. The easiest take on their reaction is that Jesus has them timid and stumped. But there was a long standing tradition for debate about the understanding of the Law. I would suggest that given Jesus’ challenging questions, one would need time to think about the reasoning – and in the face of such challenging wisdom, perhaps there is a struggle for the host to figure out exactly where this wandering preacher from Nazareth should be sitting.

Regarding “places of honor” at the table: (prōtoklisia), at banquets the basic item of furniture was the couch for three, the triclinium. A number of triclinia were arranged in a U-shape round a low table. Guests reclined on their left elbows. The place of highest honor was the central position on the couch at the base of the U. The second and third places were those on the left of the principal man and on his right. After this there seems to have ranked the couch to the left (with the places as on the first couch), then that to the right of the first and so on. That there was a variety of arrangements is probable, later Jewish writings speak specifically to this arrangement.

In 14:1–24 Luke depicts Jesus’ enjoying the hospitality of a leader of the Pharisees following a synagogue service on the Sabbath (14:1). Given, first, the importance of social status as determined by the perception of one’s contemporaries, and, second, the importance of the reciprocity of gift and obligation in ancient society, Jesus’ assertions on right behavior undermine the values and expectations that his meal companions would have taken for granted. The consequences of this right behavior leads to the construction of a new vision of life and community. That dynamic then opens the way for Jesus’ larger questions about honor at meals. It also serves to continue to instruct the disciples that the Gospel may often serve as a counterpoint to societal norms, especially in a culture of where pride, shame and honor, and social position are such strong factors in shaping attitudes and behaviors – and so often leading to pride, an attitude destructive to spiritual health. And so Jesus emphasized that true disciples are marked by humility

Notice that vv.7-11, addressed to guests, is parallel to vv. 12-14, addressed to hosts, both showing a common pattern in which humility plays out.

As Culpepper [286] points out:

  1. to the guests
    1. “When you are invited…do not recline…place of honor…the host…may approach you…”
    2. “Rather, when you are invited…take the lowest place”
    3. “Then you will enjoy the esteem….”
    4. the eschatological implications (v.11)
  2. to the hosts
    1. “When you hold a lunch or a dinner….do not invite… in case…”
    2. “Rather, when you hold a banquet…invite”
    3. “blessed indeed will you be…”
    4. the eschatological implications (v.14b)

Image: A Place of Honor According to Jeshua from https://www.breadforbeggars.com

Allen Culpepper, Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995) 286-88

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