Almighty God, whose only Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence: give us pure hearts and steadfast wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE rules that govern meals are keys to understanding a great deal more about communities than what they eat. Who associates with whom, when hands are washed, and what may be discussed at the table are topics of equal or greater importance.
It is not surprising, in that light, that Luke should set some memorable confrontations about social customs and their far-reaching implications during meals. They provide dramatic opportunities to explore in situ what it means to eat with tax-gatherers and sinners (Luke 5.29-32, 15.1-2); the relationship between clean hands and a sincere heart (Luke 11.37-54); and the expression of true hospitality (Luke 7.36-50). Meals also act as a backdrop to three encounters with groups of Pharisees (Luke 7.36-50, 11.37-54, 14.1-24).
Sunday’s Gospel reading is the third of these encounters. Some commentators find the inclusion of a lesson about social presumption a rather forced development of a popular idea (Proverbs 25.6-7), and one that feels artificial at a sabbath gathering in a private house.
Certainly, it is a bold guest who goes into someone else’s home to keep the traditions of a holy day, as the Greek text puts it, “to eat bread” (Luke 14.1), and proceeds to criticise fellow-guests for asserting their status by taking privileged seats.
It demands special audacity to do this when one is being closely watched (Luke 14.1), and a wedding banquet is not the obvious topic to introduce at a sabbath supper. Even more outrageous is the idea of a guest’s accepting hospitality, and then advising the host on better ways of constructing the invitation list (Luke 14.12-14).
Luke’s readers must be patient with the anomalies to follow his purpose. Banquets in this Gospel point to the life of God’s Kingdom (Luke 12.36, 13.29, 14.7-24; see also Matthew 22.1-10, Isaiah 25.6-8, Isaiah 65.13-14). They celebrate the flourishing of people living in a properly ordered relationship with a generous God and with one another.
This point is underlined in the opening event at the Pharisee’s house, which is omitted from the reading — the healing of a man with dropsy (Luke 14.2-6). What better way to begin the ritual weekly recollection of a good and complete creation (Genesis 2.1-3, Exodus 20.8), and to celebrate release from slavery (Deuteronomy 5.12-15), than with an act of restoration?
The lesson for the Pharisee and his guests is there, if they choose to hear it. People such as the sick man belong inside the Kingdom, not on the outside, and including them without regard for importance, perfection, or material wealth represents the best hope for the flourishing of all.
The closing chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews gives practical advice to an audience who must work out how to live, as they look forward to “a city that is to come” (Hebrews 13.14). Hospitality, social concern, sound morality, the avoidance of greed, and charitable giving are the building blocks of the writer’s programme. In the end, though, they are expressions of something much larger and more important: prayer.
The writer has embedded firm instructions about prayer in these closing thoughts: not thoughtless prayer, but something imaginatively empathetic.
Thus the audience is to “remember” prisoners and torture victims as if they themselves were in prison, or undergoing torture (Hebrews 13.3). They are to “remember” their leaders, especially those who taught them their faith (Hebrews 13.7).
They are to acknowledge their confidence in God (Hebrews 13.6, Psalm 118.6), and they are to offer the “sacrifices” that honour God. As the Geneva Bible gloss on Hebrews 13.16 has it, “thanksgiving and doing good are our only sacrifices which please God.”
As a paradigm of a life that turns prayer into the very meaning of what it is to be in communion with God, there is Jesus Christ, who is “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Hebrews 13.8). F. F. Bruce’s remarkable summing up of this remarkable affirmation deserves to be quoted in full:
Yesterday Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death” (Hebrews 5.7); today he represents His people in the presence of God, a high priest who is able to sympathize with them in their weakness, because He was “in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4.15); for ever He lives, this same Jesus, “to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7.25). His help, His grace, His power, His guidance are permanently at His people’s disposal; why then should they lose heart?
The Epistle to the Hebrews, Eerdmans, 1964