Historical Cultural Context
In Jesus’ Mediterranean world meals were very powerful means of communication. Above all, meals affirmed and gave legitimacy to a person’s role and status in a given community.
For this reason, most meals in antiquity were attended by people of the same social rank. The fact that the ruler of the Pharisees invited Jesus to dine at his house indicates that the Pharisees accepted Jesus as a social equal.
The host and his guests were “watching” Jesus closely. The word used here and elsewhere in Luke (6:7; 20:20) implies “hostile observation.” They hope to catch him in a shortcoming of some sort. The apparently “honorable” invitation is actually hypocritical.
Behavior at these meals is very important. Everyone watches whether one washes (Lk 11:38); who eats what, when, and where (Lk 6:4); what is done or omitted at table (Lk 7:38, 40, 44, 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).
Jesus responds to this hostile observation by telling them a parable. A parable always means something the same and something other. The storyteller challenges the listeners to identify the “other.”
True Honor Again
Accepting an invitation to dinner in the ancient Mediterranean world obligated a guest to return the favor. It was not uncommon for guests to decline the invitation, especially if they realized that returning the favor was more than they could or cared to handle (see Luke 14:15-24).
Crass as this may seem to modern Western believers, this practice of reciprocity was a key factor in the economic life of equals in Jesus’ day. I do you a favor; you do me a favor—endlessly. This basic rule of behavior guided every host in drawing up the guest list.
Jesus’ advice to his host is not only rude and insulting but also shocking. It is extremely bad manners for a guest to tell a host how to be a host!
Moreover, inviting people who cannot return the favor is viewed as cultural suicide. Such guests—the poor, crippled, lame, and blind—are clearly people of a lower social status than the host. To associate with such is to dishonor one’s own status. One’s social equals will then shun future invitations, and a host of means will be socially ruined.
Jesus, however, paints another picture of “true” honor. It is not human judgment, the return invitation, that determines honor. God determines true honor, and at the resurrection of the righteous, God personally will reward and honor the host who has been gracious to those unable to return an invitation.
This statement surely stung the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection (Acts 23:6). Having set a trap for Jesus, they are themselves trapped by Jesus, whose teachings truly turn the world upside-down (see Acts 17:6).
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University