It may come as a surprise to you that Jesus was friends with Pharisees. Back at the end of chapter eleven of Luke’s gospel, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner on the Sabbath. This might seem like a small detail, but it’s actually pretty significant.
Being invited to someone’s house for dinner was a way to climb up the social ladder, but being invited for the Sabbath meal meant you were almost family. We usually think of the Pharisees as ‘the opposition,’ but Jesus didn’t always behave that way.
In chapter twelve we find Jesus in the synagogue, healing a woman with a bent back – on the Sabbath. It could have been the week after he’d had dinner with the Pharisee, or it could have been another Sabbath, but Luke seems to be organizing his story around these Sabbath events. The Pharisees always seem to be somewhere in the picture.
We know that some of the Pharisees cared about Jesus, because by the end of ch 13, they come to warn him that Herod wants to kill him. As much as we want to see them as enemies, these Pharisees are behaving remarkably like friends. But not all of them. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the Pharisees are looking for a way to trap Jesus. They are watching him.
That brings us to the 14th chapter of Luke’s gospel. We pick up the story on a third Sabbath day, and this one combines the activities of the other two Sabbaths Luke has described. Jesus has just healed someone, and now he is at another Pharisee’s house for dinner. Not just any Pharisee, either. The host for this Sabbath meal is a leader.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 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’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 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, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:1, 7-14)
According to Luke, Jesus enjoys food. There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table in Luke than in any other gospel. So here we find Jesus at a meal in a Pharisee’s home, and –as is his habit – Jesus is teaching while everyone eats. And his teaching is based on what he observes in his students.
Jesus was not giving a lesson in table manners here. He was explaining, for the people gathered at that Pharisee’s table, just how different the rules are in the Kingdom of God. To understand just how radical this teaching was, we need to remember the social system that was in place at the time.
It was a system of patronage, where honor and favors were the currency. As a benefactor, favors owed to you by others gave you a higher ranking in society. Mealtime was often the place where status was on display. Guests of honor sat near the host. If you were less important, you sat farther away. If you didn’t matter at all, you weren’t even invited.
But Jesus has a different idea for the way things ought to work. By now, we should be familiar with Luke’s focus on turning expectations upside down. As Jesus watched the guests at this Pharisee’s house jockeying for good positions at the table, he saw a double teaching opportunity, and he grabbed it.
First, he addressed the guests. He reminded them of the advice found in Proverbs: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”
While this was practical social advice for his listeners, it included a reminder that the people present at the table belonged to God, not Rome. Jesus was reinforcing their identity as children of Israel. The Roman practice of self-promotion did not fit well with the prophet Micah’s reminder to “walk humbly with your God.”
Within a few years, the early church would be singing a hymn that we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Knowing what we do about social customs of the time, and recognizing that any self-respecting Pharisee would invite to a dinner only those who could be considered at least equals, one has to wonder what Jesus was doing there in the first place.
But it is also possible that this particular Pharisee did, in fact, consider Jesus to be at least an equal. Jesus had demonstrated a keen understanding of scripture, and had been an effective teacher in synagogues wherever he traveled. Jesus certainly had a following.
The leader of the Pharisees may have even seen Jesus as a step up the social ladder from himself. But this system of patronage, that was all about improving one’s social status, was exactly what Jesus came to challenge. Jesus had no intention of letting his host off the hook when it came to table manners in the Kingdom of God.
“You’re inviting the wrong people,” Jesus told him. “By including only friends, family, and those who can advance your status, you are no better than these guests who are fighting over the best seat in the house. You’re trying to make yourself look good by surrounding yourself with “important” people, while you ignore the very ones who should be enjoying your hospitality.”
You see, the Pharisee and the Pharisee’s guests might have thought they were just behaving according to the social expectations of their time, but those expectations pointed to a basic human need. It’s a need we all experience. We need to belong. We need to know our place in the world is secure. We want to be recognized. We want to feel like we matter to the world, that we have something to offer, that we are important, at least to someone. We need to feel accepted. We need to feel loved.
The social climbing and jockeying for positions of importance Jesus saw around the Pharisee’s table don’t seem that much different from what we experience today. People still feel the need to justify their standing in the community or the organization. We long to belong. We crave being accepted. It happens in the schoolyard and in the workplace. It happens any place people gather in groups.
It happens in church. Whether we want to admit it or not, we like to impress others with the work we do for the church, the positions of leadership we hold, how often we show up, how much we put in the offering plate, how much we pray, how well we know the Bible. We like to impress people with our righteousness.
But Jesus says, you don’t need to try to impress anyone with your righteousness. The only one whose opinion of you matters is God, and he knows your heart. He knows how far short of his righteousness you really fall. And he loves you anyway.
So to the guests, Jesus says, “Don’t seat yourself too high up the table but take the lowest place. Show the kind of humility that honors God.” And to the hosts, Jesus says, “Don’t invite those who can repay you, but those who can’t. Instead of looking for ways to look down on people, to consider them as less important than you are, find ways to lift others up and stand beside them.
In our culture, just as in Jesus’ day, the division between aristocracy and peasantry, between wealthy and poor, between powerful and powerless, is seen as a distinction between better than and less than. This instantly assumes a level of privilege the host holds over the guest, and as much as we’d like to avoid this, Jesus sees and names a cultural expectation that we cannot ignore. Christ calls us to live in a radically counter-cultural way, leveling the field for all God’s children.
Jesus teaches the guests of the Pharisee and their host that they can all stop trying to make themselves seem more important, because they are already important in God’s eyes. Jesus teaches us how to be both a humble guest and a gracious host by his own example.
We are all at the same Table. Jesus is our host, and also our guest.
As host, he invites us who do not deserve his grace to sit in the place of honor. As guest, he shows true humility, taking on the identity of a servant, placing himself at the lowest place for our sakes.
We are both host and guest to Jesus, as well. We invite him into our lives, and we also find our place at his table, receiving his grace. Either way, the role we take needs to be centered in true humility. Not the false humility that barely hides our neediness to be loved and find acceptance. But the kind of humility that rests in knowing we already are loved beyond our ability to comprehend it.
As we accept Christ’s invitation to join him at Table in the Kingdom of God we must admit that we are only there by grace. We don’t deserve such grace, and we aren’t any better than anyone else because of it. Taking our place at the bottom of the table, where we know we belong if we’re really honest, allows us to respond with joy when Jesus, our host, taps us on the shoulder and says, “What are you doing down here? Come on up and sit by me.”
In God’s kingdom, the expectations for both guest and host are the same: Whether you are inviting Jesus into your life, or accepting his gracious invitation to join him at his feast, your place at the table is neither too high, nor too low. Because your place at the table is right next to Jesus.
So come. Come to the table. And as you accept Christ’s gracious invitation, offer yours to him. Invite Jesus into your life, and take your place beside him.
 Proverbs 25:6-7
 Micah 6:8
 Philippians 2:3-11