This passage in Luke is located in a section with several other stories about food, banquets, and hospitality. Public meals and banquets in the time of Jesus followed a strict pattern of etiquette. Today, formal state dinners or even many business luncheons are guided by social customs and protocol. Much work goes into deciding who sits where at the table, and who sits next to whom. Much care is taken to not insult people by making them sit in a “lesser” position.
At wedding receptions in some cultures, for example, there is usually a table at the front for the bridal party, with nearby tables reserved for family or close friends. Today this is simply to honor the couple and their families, but in Jesus’ time there were hidden motives. Public meals or banquets were times when those who were powerful and rich could display their superiority. People manipulated seating arrangements to make statements, either negative or positive about those in attendance. It was a time to see and be seen. As the text states, everyone was watching Jesus closely as he sat and ate—and Jesus was watching them as well.
The message of Jesus was truly countercultural. In a society where money and power meant everything, Jesus constantly talked about giving and sharing, and being humble. He finds himself at the table of a leader of the Pharisees on this occasion. The Pharisees were protectors of the law and it was important for them to follow every facet of custom and tradition. Sitting at this table was a chance for Jesus to share his radical vision of the world.
He shared a parable centered on humility and hospitality. He told them that instead of trying to find ways to sit in the most prestigious place at the table, which was likely what everyone was trying to do, one should sit in the “lowest” place. Instead of trying to raise our status and find a way to improve our place at the table—and as an extension in society—we should be willing to be lowly and humble. This way behavior is the opposite of everything society and culture dictated. But then, that’s the message of Jesus. To be a disciple means we are engaged as humble servants, putting others first. Ministry is not about us. Ministry is about the “other.” True ministry offered in humility is always done not to bring prestige, but for the other person. That was Jesus’ message to those who sat at the table—and to us. He reminded all present that they share with those who could never repay them.
And, as Jesus suggests in the parable, if the host invites you to move to a more prestigious place at the table, then you are also sharing in ministry by allowing the host to share the gift of hospitality. One of the greatest gifts we can give is the gift of allowing another to give to us. In some cultures, people find it difficult to receive and think humility means never to be the recipient of another’s generosity. But, part of being a servant is the ability to receive graciously the gifts of others. In doing so we allow others to be generous and express their servanthood.
Cultures and times are different today from the time of Jesus. However, the message of humility and hospitality never changes. Jesus’ life and ministry was an expression of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our servanthood is expressed in the same manner—lives that reflect love and grace in our world.