In 14:1–24 Luke depicts Jesus’ enjoying the hospitality of a leader of the Pharisees following a synagogue service on the Sabbath (14:1). Given, first, the importance of social status as determined by the perception of one’s contemporaries, and, second, the importance of the reciprocity of gift and obligation in ancient society, Jesus’ assertions on right behavior undermine the values and expectations that his meal companions would have taken for granted. The consequences of this right behavior leads to the construction of a new vision of life and community.
7 He told a parable to those who had been invited, noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, 9 and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.
Already in this banquet there has been controversy about healing on the Sabbath (14:2-6). Within this opposition and tension, Jesus continued to instruct about discipleship – especially among the culture were pride, shame and honor, and social position are such strong factors in shaping attitudes and behaviors – and so often leading to pride. Jesus regards this dynamic as destructive to spiritual health and so Jesus emphasized that true disciples are marked by humility. There are times when humility is a hard lesson but as parable (v. 7) shows he regards this attitude as fundamental to discipleship. At the same time the parable forms a rebuke to others at the table – and perhaps to his own disciples who had not yet fully learned from Jesus’ earlier rebuke in Luke 9:46-48.
Advice for the Guests. In a wedding banquet setting it was expected that power and prestige would be placed closest to the head of the table (see Note on 14:7 below). This was probably more formal than most meals, but the words apply to any banquet. Jesus points out the danger in pursuing seats of honor. He tells the story of a wedding where someone quickly grabs a high seat of honor. But then a person more distinguished walks in, and the host insists that the interloper vacate his position. At that point he may find all the other places occupied, so that the only course open to him is to take the lowest place, with all the shame and loss of face implied (cf. Prov. 25:7). So humiliated, the presumptuous one must head to the last seat. The description of the move down the social ladder is drawn out in Greek to underline the person’s shame (you begin with shame… to head for the last seat) It is as if every step hurts.
However, if a one chooses the lowest place, the only way one can go is up. Rabbi Simeon b. Azzai is reported to have advised guests to take a place two or three seats lower than that to which they were entitled: ‘Better that people say to you “come up, come up,” and not say to you, “go down, go down”’ (Leviticus Rabbah I.5).
Notice also the marked tone between the two responses of the host. When he asks the guest to move down from the place of honor, no term of address, respect, or affection is used. He merely says, “Give your place to this man.” However, when he invites the guest to move up, the words are markedly different in tone and language: “My friend, move up to a higher position.” To be acknowledged as the friend of an influential or important person was itself a particular honor.
But Jesus is not teaching banquet gamesmanship or giving a piece of worldly advice. Jesus’ parable does not point for the first person to take their place, two or three seats away in their proper place, but to take the “lowest place.” This should have echoed in the ears of the disciples as they recalled Jesus’ warning, “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (13:30) Jesus is teaching people to be genuinely humble. He reminds us that the truly humble person will finish up where he ought to be and receive the honor that is due. It should be noted that the Greek used for “honor” is doxa, a word usually translated as “glory.” In following Jesus’ advice, we run no other risk than that of being exalted. Honor is not to be grabbed; it is awarded. In the same way, salvation is not earned, it is gift. Those who are truly humble recognize their desperate need for God, not any right to blessing.
Luke 14:7 invited: Besides the image of a meal, Luke 14 is interconnected by the word kaleo (“to invite”) which occurs 10 times in vv 7-24. Paul uses the same word in terms of being called by God (see Rom 8:30; 1 Cor 1:9; Gal 1:6, 15; Eph 4, 4).
places of honor at the table: (prōtoklisia) At banquets the basic item of furniture was the couch for three, the triclinium. A number of triclinia were arranged in a U-shape round a low table. Guests reclined on their left elbows. The place of highest honor was the central position on the couch at the base of the U. The second and third places were those on the left of the principal man and on his right. After this there seems to have ranked the couch to the left (with the places as on the first couch), then that to the right of the first and so on. That there was variety of arrangements is probable, later Jewish writings speak specifically to this arrangement.
Luke 14:9 Give your place: Jesus’ saying alludes to Ezek. 21:26, a text in which Yahweh castigates the “wicked prince of Israel” whose time of final punishment has come (21:25). In this midst of God’s acknowledgement the “humble,” we should not lose sight of that He judges those who seek honorable status.
- Allen Culpepper Luke, vol. 9 in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN.: Abington, 1995) 286-88
- Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997)
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.