by Catherine Upchurch
Special to The Leaven
Jesus is known for using stories to teach his closest followers and the crowds who gather along the way.
These stories of seeds and crops, banquets and simple meals, beggars and travelers, and blindness and deafness are familiar from a lifetime of hearing them in our Sunday and weekday liturgies. They pour over us and have the potential to shape our perceptions just by the sheer power of repetition.
But perhaps the stories Jesus shared have become too familiar to us. Familiarity might numb us to their power. If we allow ourselves to hear these now recurring stories with “fresh ears,” we might find that many of them are shocking, and intentionally so. Unearthing the meaning of the “kingdom of God” requires open ears and hearts, and a willingness to allow the sacred stories of Jesus to surprise and transform us.
Luke 14 begins by telling us that Jesus was being carefully observed while dining at the home of a Pharisee on the Sabbath. Jesus took the opportunity to heal a man, creating a teachable moment for his fellow diners and those observing.
In the kingdom they were all familiar with, first-century Judaism, such activity on the Sabbath was unlawful, but clamoring for places of honor at a Sabbath feast was typical. And so, Jesus tells a story, which leads to a second story. Both explore a dimension of the kingdom of God.
The first story is about how to attain status. At a typical banquet, guests may desire seats of honor, but Jesus says that the lowest places are where honor is found: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 11).
Further, he says that the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind are the best guests for a host to invite. Social barriers are simply demolished in the etiquette of the kingdom of God.
To reinforce this new reality, the second story tells of a man who planned a feast and invited all the “acceptable” cast of characters. When time came for the banquet, all those invited offered excuses — attending to business, examining new cattle, settling in to a new marriage.
The absence of important guests at the man’s table would have been a social embarrassment, but he turned the situation on its head and had his servants round up the very groups who were considered the most unacceptable: the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. His servants were to beat the bushes and bring in any who would come. This was to be a feast that redefined who is “in” and who is “out.”
Jesus himself was known for his associations with outcasts: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30)
Tax collectors in his day worked for the Roman occupying force and not only did the work of the enemy, but were known to overcharge and skim the profits for themselves.
The irony is that he also ate with Pharisees whose self-righteous behavior was sinful in ways they did not yet recognize. His meals in homes and on hillsides provide a glimpse of the guest list when the kingdom will be celebrated in its fullness at the end of time.
The fact that Jesus ate with sinners tells us that he fed them, he sat with them, he heard their stories and he invited them to listen to his. Meals are inherently social, and sitting together at a table invites us to make eye contact and to speak together.
Our challenge is to prayerfully imagine who Jesus would be welcoming to the table today, who we might find scandalous but Jesus welcomes, who we might avoid but Jesus would seek out, and how we would feed those who accept our invitation on that growing guest list.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith, Arkansas.