In the gospel of Luke, Jesus is accused of eating with sinners and tax collectors (Lk 15) and we have an image of Jesus as always eating with the marginalised. However, today’s gospel account is a more common occurrence: Jesus eating with a leading Pharisee and people of social importance. Although Jesus is depicted as frequently dining in the houses of these well-to-do people, he was probably never invited a second time! As in today’s account, Jesus made a habit of accepting the hospitality of such people and then giving them a lecture about how they should behave and reminding them who was not gathered around the table with them. Certainly the sort of actions that don’t see too many follow-up invitations!
The message he dishes out to the Pharisees on this occasion is about not thinking you’re more important than you really are. He tells them that it is far better to assume a lower status and to be lifted to greater prominence than it is to assume too much and have to be asked to step down to your proper status. In first century Jewish society, eating was as much a political act as it was a social one. Who you ate with was a reflection of your social and political position. To be invited to the head of the table would reflect very positively on a guest whilst being asked to assume a lower seat would be humiliating.
Jesus’ final teaching in this account would have been outrageous to his audience. The thought of inviting to a meal people who were in no position to reciprocate was absolutely ridiculous. But Jesus encourages his audience to give to those who cannot repay – to be graciously generous just as God gives without expecting anything in return.