At the typical wedding reception today, the guests of honor are the bride and the groom, and the wedding party that sits at the table of honor centrally located in the front of the room. Closest to them are the bride and groom's immediate family--parents, grandparents and others. The farther away are more distant relatives, then friends, and finally those who sit farthest away are the friends of friends and friends of friends of friends--those on the margins of the list of invitees. They not only sit farthest away, but they are the last ones served or last to be invited to the buffet table.
Imagine for a moment a wedding reception where conventional custom is turned upside down. Those at the central table, sitting in the seats of honor are strangers who were just invited off the street by the bride and groom who ventured out of the church just after the ceremony to extend the invitation. Those closest to that table of honor are the friends of friends and the friends of friends of friends, and then the close friends, then distant relatives, and finally... those farthest from the table of honor are the groom and bride's immediate family with the newly married couple and the wedding party seated in the corner of the room away from the center of attention. And then when serving time comes the bride and groom are served last while the strangers off the street at the table of honor are invited to the buffet table first.
It would be quite the surprising and scandalous scene, to be sure, but it would reflect exactly what Jesus is getting at in Luke 14. Here, Jesus turns the notion of honor on its head and taking shots at the conventional customs of his day (which he did so well) that excluded those on the margins of society.
In order to understand more fully the punch of Jesus' words, we have to know a little about the honor and shame culture in which Jesus' lived. Emerson Powery writes,
In an honor and shame culture, avoiding shame is of the utmost importance. This is not simply embarrassment. Public shame may have tangible implications for the shamed. A family's bartering practices or marriage proposals can be negatively affected by a public shaming, if the shame is significant enough.
On the opposite end, public honor -- determined, in this story, by the host -- may come to those who express public humility. Jesus expresses expectations for hosts (cf. 14:12-14). His words are a challenge to the honor system embedded in first-century culture. To secure one's place in this system, it was appropriate to invite friends, family, and rich neighbors. Reciprocal requests would ensue, as the public acknowledgement of an honorable person may bring its own rewards.
But Jesus calls into question this type of caste system, imagining instead hosts who choose to associate with people who are "poor, crippled, lame, and blind" (14:13) as their new network. The problem for hosts, however, as Jesus explicitly recognizes, is that no honor is forthcoming in return. Rather, it's an investment in the future.We may not live in an honor and shame culture in the way Jesus and his contemporaries did, but in so many ways how we practice hospitality is not much different from the critics of Jesus and those whom he criticized in return. The all-too-human temptation is to gravitate to those who are "like us," socially, economically, intellectually." And in our polarized political environment, we even find it difficult to associate with folks whose politics differ from ours. We invite those into our social circle who can in return invite us into theirs, we repay the honor of being included by returning that honor to those who have so honored us.
But Jesus challenges us to a different way-- the kingdom way in which the guests of honor are not deemed so by conventional custom, but by the God who came in human flesh to honor all of humanity by giving himself in shame on a cross. And Jesus seems to think that those who desire to follow him should reflect that new kind of kingdom honoring to those who have nothing to pay in return because, after all, who can ever hope to repay what Jesus did for us in his death?
The great kingdom banquet that is coming will look nothing like any banquet we have seen before. Jesus thinks our earthly banquets should begin to reflect, to glimpse that kingdom now.
So, who is on our guest list?