Jesus is having dinner at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and people are observing him carefully. Noticing that the guests were choosing the places of honor at table, he tells a parable about the embarrassment suffered by a person who had chosen a place of honor and then was made to take the lowest place. Jesus then turns to the host and says to him: When you hold a dinner, don’t invite those who can repay you; rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind because of their inability to repay you. If you do that, Jesus adds, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Jesus addresses both the guests invited to a banquet, and the host who does the inviting. At first glance, his suggestion to take the lowest place of honor when invited seems like a bit of human wisdom that might save someone a little embarrassment—hardly worth Luke’s including it in his gospel. We are alerted, however, to a deeper meaning when we notice that Luke mentions that Jesus is telling us this as a parable. A parable surprises us with a meaning that is beyond the obvious, and upsets our usual way of thinking. The deeper dimension in this case is whether we have been exalting ourselves before God.
Jesus is not particularly concerned about the little embarrassment of having to take a lower place at a banquet. He is concerned about the possibility of a Big Embarrassment before the judgment of God—the host who has invited us to the banquet of life. Luke provides an illustration of what Jesus is talking about in the parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The tax collector, who would not even raise his eyes to heaven, went home justified rather than the Pharisee who had exalted himself before God.
What Jesus tells us about the way we extend hospitality is most radical in its life implications. The natural human tendency is to treat those people well who have or who will treat us well. There is nothing wrong with this sort of business deal—the world would not function very well unless we made business arrangements every day. Jesus, however, is talking about a divine kind of hospitality, and asks us to imitate him in that. Our generosity ought to be a characteristic of our personal freedom, not dependent on how people treat us. And besides, to attempt to determine who deserves our love implies a judgment of another person’s soul that only God can make.
Again, Luke provides a good illustration of what Jesus is talking about in his parable about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). A theologian asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling a parable about the Samaritan who showed mercy to a man in need: instead of trying to figure out who a deserving neighbor might be, one should become a neighbor by choosing to help those in need.
Graham Greene in his novel The Power and the Glory had a clear sense that the kind of love Jesus was talking about is the essence of divine love, and by grace a possibility of human love. The fugitive “whiskey priest” (realizing that the mestizo whom he had met would one day betray him) came to this awareness: “It was for this world Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good and beautiful…it needed God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”
When I taught Greene’s novel in a first-year college religion class, I asked students if there is anyone for whom they would give their life—their mom, their dad, their brother, sister, friend? To do so certainly would be heroic, and would reflect the glory of divine love. Then I can see the incredulous negative look in their faces when I ask, “Would you give your life for Osama bin Laden?” Yet, it was for Osama bin Laden as well as for the rest of us—the undeserving world—that Christ gave his life. “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.