“We are all beggars, of this I am certain.” — Martin Luther’s dying words
John Pilch points out that for the first century nearer behavior at meals was very important. This might well be the reason that observations on table and hosting — and “guesting” —etiquette are common in the Gospel of Luke. Here are a few: Everyone watches whether one washes before supper (Lk 11:38); who eats what, when, and where (Lk 6:4); what is done or omitted at table or in preparation for eating (Lk 7:38-49); who is invited (Lk 14:12-14); where people sit (Lk 14:7-11); with whom one eats (Lk 15:2); and in what order persons of different rank come to the table (Lk 17:7-8).
In the parable that follows our reading today, it becomes obvious that sometimes one must turn down an invitation. (14:15-24) One does so for a very simple reason: Once one accepts the invitation one is obligated by Mediterranean and Mid Eastern custom to reciprocate. (see 14:12) If one cannot it is better to find a reason to say no.
It supported a cast system, this habit. A host invited those who had hosted him in the past and would host him in the future. Inviting anyone significantly below ones own rank, status, or cast was futile and seen as foolishness.
But what is God to do? There are no other gods to invite who would be able to host him in return. There are drawbacks in being the Lord Most High whose name is so holy it is not spoken. If the Almighty invites someone to “eat at the feast in the kingdom of God,” (Lk 14:17) it will be clear to that someone that they are invited to an occasion for which they cannot make a return invitation and it makes no difference who that “someone” is. The rich have no advantage on the poor in this respect.
If one was to act here on earth as one who took ones cues from how God handles things in heaven who would one then invite? The answer is somewhat obvious: anyone — because reciprocity would be meaningless since it seems to be meaningless to the Almighty. A person’s dignity is in the invitation of the Father in Heaven, not in the capacity of that individual to invite in return. The honor of the Almighty is kept by the Almighty and not by social convention and it is consistent with God’s honor to humble heaven in the person of Jesus. This humility is what Jesus will invite the disciple into later in the chapter, but that is next weeks reading.
Though this is not a Eucharistic text, it does have implications on how we view the Lord’s Supper. There we are invited to “eat at the feast of the Kingdom of God.” (14:17) Yet, we come as radically insufficient guests. We have nothing to reciprocate with really. We come responding to an invitation that echoes Isaiah 55.
Yet, at that meal we ourselves do come to be hosts in a sense. Surely those to whom the Lord joins himself in Baptism, those who take in his presence in the hosts of the Eucharist “host” the Lord in some respect as they depart from the Altar. But what hosts we are: Faulty and fragile, without holiness or means. Exactly the failures that make earthly hosting impossible.
In a way the text and the Eucharist are about human dignity, a dignity that is not resident in the human form but is, to use 1 Peter’s language, kept in heaven for us, safe from rust and decay. Our dignity that invites us to the feast is in the eye of the Creator and Father of all. As Paul writes, there is no boasting. (Ro 3) We are called from the least ranks of the table (14:10) to sit at higher places than we can imagine.
“We are all beggars, of this I am certain,” is timeless wisdom. Yet, we are beggars that have been called from our places of begging at the door (Lazarus) to higher places, places we do not dare claim (14:8) but places the Host of hosts bestowed in the hope that we might host Him, not in splendor but in our humility (14:25-27) for humility is the Lord’s great strength.