Let the Scriptures Speak
Who Is Your Patron?
When you are invited, go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position. (Gospel)
If the previous Sunday’s Gospel focused on Jesus’ use of Isaiah’s banquet image for the end-time gathering, this Sunday’s Gospel shows Jesus using that festal metaphor to illustrate “kingdom behavior” in the banquet of our present life.
In a culture that made much of places of honor at a banquet, Jesus advises guests to take the lowest place, to get the host to honor you by calling you to a higher place. Notice that he is not challenging the system of places of honor. He does not even seem to be challenging the desire for a place of honor. Apparently he is simply supplying a clever strategy for gaining that higher place.
You will find commentators who claim that Jesus is not speaking parabolically here but is literally giving a kind of seating-for-success advice for scoring honor points at banquets. Such an interpretation hardly squares with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere (e.g., in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector) that the disciple really is supposed to humble himself or herself.
Taking the teaching as straight advice, however, does serve to point up an apparent contradiction: in speaking of humbling oneself, Jesus still seems to keep exaltation as the goal. In other words, humble behavior is advised as a means to honor. Is he saying this? Well, yes. But notice that Jesus is shifting the location of the honor. He is acknowledging that any human being wants honor, but he is challenging people to acknowledge that the patron whose good opinion really counts in their lives is God. That is the meaning of the saying, “Whoever exalts him/herself [before other people] will by humbled [i.e., by God] and whoever humbles him/herself will be exalted [by God].” It is not a matter of groveling or social manipulation; it is a matter of seeking approval from the Patron whose opinion really counts.
In this teaching, Jesus echoes the First Reading, from Sirach: “My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.” So far, it could be Ann Landers talking. But the next verse expands the horizon to a vision Jesus shares: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God” (First Reading).
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University