“But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you…” (Lk. 14: 13-14).
There’s nothing more awkward than being found out of place: you sit down in a reserved section, and now have to move; you finally get to the person at the counter and find out you really should have been in the other line. Jesus’ parable today draws on this kind of experience in positing the guest who sits in the place of honor at a wedding, and then is invited to vacate the space for another person more worthy of honor. A mistake, compounded by presumption! As Jesus says, “But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’…For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk. 14:10-11).
Here, the story is a parable about humility, the characteristic stance of Christians. As St. Paul says in Romans, do “not think more highly of yourself than you ought to think” but “think with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3). The stress on humility in the New Testament is an authentic one, going back to Jesus himself. Humility was so contrary to the way people reckoned the virtues in Jesus’ day. In most people’s estimation, being lowly, of no account, was nothing to be proud of! But Jesus, in parables like these, put humility, taking the lowliest place, at the center of his ethic.
None of us wants to be found in the wrong place, but the remainder of Jesus’ parable is about something else: making a place for others. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Lk. 14:13). Now the point is not about our own place, but the place we make for others. Not humility, but hospitality: also a Gospel virtue that takes us back to the beginning. “Show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:2), it says in the Letter to the Hebrews; another reminder of how the church has taken Jesus’ teaching and applied it to our own life together.
Jesus comes back again and again to this list of folks we need to make a place for. In Luke’s Gospel the list becomes a standard feature. Later in the chapter, in Jesus’ parable of the great dinner, the host says, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Lk. 14:21): the same descriptive list. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus described his own work in this way, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Lk. 7:22). Hospitality is on the agenda for Jesus’ ministry.
People in these categories were considered to be lowly indeed: not eligible for inclusion in the sacred life of Israel, not counted for establishing a quorum, as it were. The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind were considered by the world to be “no account.” But for the early Christians, it’s exactly humble folk like these who were worthy of a place in the church. In fact, those who first heard the words of Luke’s Gospel, in the small Christian communities of the day, would have been conscious of themselves as “the poor” who are here addressed and invited.
In Jesus’ parable, part of the virtue of these humble folk is their inability to return the hospitality. This reminds us of the gracious and generous margin that God has extended to each one of us. When we gather as a church and make a place for others, we’re practicing the kind of hospitality that Jesus himself practiced. He’s made a place for us, after all, extended his favor to us when we cannot hope to repay it! None of us is worthy of the place we’ve been given; none of us is able to afford the spot in the kingdom that’s been reserved for us. Still, God has made a space for us.
Jesus’ words in our Gospel today invite us to think about the kind of space we extend to others in our life in the church. The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind: yes; but maybe some other folks who might make us even less comfortable. Some of this will not be obvious to us, or maybe even be counterintuitive, since most of us like to distinguish between those we think others should welcome, and those we ourselves are willing to welcome. Think of the people who annoy you the most: everyone in these days of social media is likely to have their own list. Imagine: God is extending his gracious and generous margin to them, and calling us to make a place for them as well.
Humility and hospitality may be the most urgent calls that God is addressing to us in our life together in the church. A lack of humility and hospitality is what ails and vexes the world. The pieces fall into place when we remember our own need for humility, and our own status as those who have been welcomed.