This coming Sunday is the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we explored the cultural norms associated with invitations, banquets and places of honor. Today we will continue that line of thought and consider Jesus’ advice to guests.
In a wedding banquet setting it was expected that power and prestige would be placed closest to the head of the table (see Note on 14:7 below). This was probably more formal than most meals, but the words apply to any banquet. Jesus points out the danger in pursuing seats of honor. He tells the story of a wedding where someone quickly grabs a high seat of honor. But then a person more distinguished walks in, and the host insists that the interloper vacate his position. At that point he may find all the other places occupied, so that the only course open to him is to take the lowest place, with all the shame and loss of face implied (cf. Prov. 25:7). So humiliated, the presumptuous one must head to the last seat. The description of the move down the social ladder is drawn out in Greek to underline the person’s shame (you begin with shame… to head for the last seat) It is as if every step hurts.
However, if a one chooses the lowest place, the only way one can go is up. Rabbi Simeon b. Azzai is reported to have advised guests to take a place two or three seats lower than that to which they were entitled: ‘Better that people say to you “come up, come up,” and not say to you, “go down, go down”’ (Leviticus Rabbah I.5).
Notice also the marked tone between the two responses of the host. When he asks the guest to move down from the place of honor, no term of address, respect, or affection is used. He merely says, “Give your place to this man.” However, when he invites the guest to move up, the words are markedly different in tone and language: “My friend, move up to a higher position.” To be acknowledged as the friend of an influential or important person was itself a particular honor.
But Jesus is not teaching banquet gamesmanship or giving a piece of worldly advice. Jesus’ parable does not point for the first person to take their place, two or three seats away in their proper place, but to take the “lowest place.” This should have echoed in the ears of the disciples as they recalled Jesus’ warning, “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (13:30) Jesus is teaching people to be genuinely humble. He reminds us that the truly humble person will finish up where he ought to be and receive the honor that is due. It should be noted that the Greek used for “honor” is doxa, a word usually translated as “glory.” In following Jesus’ advice, we run no other risk than that of being exalted. Honor is not to be grabbed; it is awarded. In the same way, salvation is not earned, it is gift. Those who are truly humble recognize their desperate need for God, not any right to blessing.
Image: A Place of Honor According to Jeshua from https://www.breadforbeggars.com