Father Lepold Fonck’s Commentary on Luke 14, 1, 7-14
Posted by Dim Bulb on August 22, 2010
THE parable of the Last Place at the Feast begins the fourteenth chapter of St. Luke, in which he records the three parables having reference to a feast. It reads thus:
Luk 14:7 And he spoke a parable also to them that were invited, marking how they chose the first seats at the table, saying to them:
Luk 14:8 When thou art invited to a wedding, sit not down in the first place, lest perhaps one more honourable than thou be invited by him:
Luk 14:9 And he that invited thee and him, come and say to thee: Give this man place. And then thou begin with shame to take the lowest place.
Luk 14:10 But when thou art invited, go, sit down in the lowest place; that when he who invited thee cometh, he may say to thee: Friend, go up higher. Then shalt thou have glory before them that sit at table with thee.
Luk 14:11 Because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled: and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
The circumstances in which this parable was proposed are already known to us in the parable of the Great Supper. Our Lord, whilst in the house of the chief Pharisee on that Sabbath, observed that the guests strove one after the other to get the first place at the table (v. 7). This, as the Evangelist expressly points out, was the occasion of the instruction given by Christ in the parable which He then proposed to the assembled company.
There is perhaps far more importance attached in the East than in Western lands to the due observance of the order of precedence and to the placing of the guests according to their rank, and this more especially at festive gatherings. As an example of this, Richen relates the following: “In the Spring of 1894, we were resting one day under a giant fig-tree near Geba, north of Samaria. Gradually, drawn by curiosity, a crowd gathered and squatted before us in a semicircle which was widened by every fresh arrival. Finally, the number of those present amounted to thirteen. I drew the attention of my fellow-travelers to the fact that although these people arrived irregularly, still each one took his place exactly according to his age, an old patriarch being in the center, whilst the two youngest occupied the places at each end. I saw the same thing at Madaba in the country east of the Jordan where twenty to thirty Bedouins squatted round us in perfect order.” I frequently observed very much the same thing during my sojourn in the Spring of 1907 in the country east of the Jordan.
The places of honor (πρωτοκλισία = prōtoklisia) were probably beside the host (Mt. 20, 21; Me. 10, 37) l and in corresponding order at the other table at which several guests were usually placed. Amongst the Greeks the places were arranged from the resting place at the upper end; amongst the Romans the middle place was regarded as the first, and this was the case, also, in the East, for example among the Persians. Probably the latter custom prevailed amongst the Jews at the time of our Lord (cf. Mt. 20, 21; Me. 10, 37), as even today the Orientals regard the center seat as the first. In all probability the guests occupied three sides of the table (in horseshoe shape), the fourth side being left free for the attendants.
Christ in the last severe rebuke administered to the Pharisees, in Matthew, reproached them expressly with always seeking the first place at feasts and the front chairs in the synagogues (Mt. 23, 6). Even the disciples were not wholly free from such petty disputes as to precedence (Mt. 20, 24; Me. 10, 41; Lc. 22, 24).
Julicher, it is true, maintains that Luke “frequently invented the introductions to the words of Jesus as well as the setting for them,” and he thinks that vs 7 must “be set down wholly to Luke s account.” He adduces as the “grounds” for this belief that “the two discourses, vss 8-11, sound very unlike the conversation which Jesus would have held at the table of a narrow-minded Pharisee and amongst watchful adversaries. They rather resemble the directions which would be given to a disciple desirous of learning. Indeed, the prevalent singular οταν κληθη (in vss 8 & 10~”But when thou art invited”), etc., quite contradicts the idea that Jesus was here addressing all those who sat at table with Him” (II, 246). We may well pass over such corrections of the Evangelist; for “grounds” so flimsy can certainly not bear the weight of such heavy allegations.
Notice that in verse 7 Jesus is said to address “THEM”, i.e., those seeking the “first seats.” But this plural referent is followed by an address in the singular, “but when THOU art invited…” Julicher was claiming that the words of our Lord were originally spoken to an individual disciple (the “THOU”) and that St Luke has concocted a large feast (the “THEM”) at a Pharisee’s house to present it. It needs hardly be said that this is highly assumptive on the part of Julicher, since addressing crowds in the singular was not unknown then, even as it is not unknown now. The singular address personalizes the message for each individual hearer in the group and is thus a rather forceful tool for instructing a crowd.
The lesson in humility which Christ would here give us is first of all presented as a simple requirement of human prudence, brought home to His first hearers and to us -by the actual circumstances in which they found themselves. Instead of an ordinary entertainment He chose a marriage feast, perhaps to avoid anything which might offend the assembled guests by its air of direct reproof. He points out to them by an example taken from others what should be their conduct in similar circumstances.
Christ bases His admonition against taking the first place on the ground that the host may have invited some one to whom, by reason of his rank or for other personal considerations, he desired to pay greater honor. In such a case the guest reclining on the first couch would have to yield his place to him. The other places at the table in the meantime having been filled in due order of rank, there would remain to him only the last seat, which he would be obliged to take, much to his confusion, before those present. Thus, prudence would suggest to the guest the advisability of choosing the last place, that so the host might show him, if not to the first, at least to a higher place, and in this way confer on him honor and distinction.
Similar advice had been given already in the Book of Proverbs: “Appear not glorious before the king, and stand not in the place of great men. For it is better that it should be said to thee: Come up hither; than that thou shouldst be humbled before the prince” (Prov. 25, 6-7).
The Rabbis, explaining this saying of the Wise Man, admonish in the same way. Thus it is mentioned in the Midrash Vayyikra Rabba that “Rabbi Akiba taught in the name of R. Simeon ben Assai and said: ‘Go down two or three seats from thy place, and sit down until it is said to thee: Move up; but go not up higher lest it should be said to thee: Move
down; for it is better that it should be said to thee: Move up, move up, than: Move down, move down.’ Thus said the son of Hillel: ‘My humiliation is my elevation and my elevation is my humiliation.. . . When I humble myself, I am exalted and when I exalt myself I am humbled.'” (Something similar is found in Schemoth Rabba). Stephan Schulz gives an example from Eastern life: “Towards evening the eldest son of the consul (at Akka) took me to a wedding in the house of a wealthy Greek. All the invited guests without any distinction had assembled in a large saloon where they were inspected by the master of ceremonies. He ordered some to move up, and others to move down, and thus it happened that when we entered, two persons who had already taken upper seats were obliged to move down.”
The assembled company were probably familiar with the example itself from the Proverbs and the commentaries of the Jewish schools of the Law. But Christ once more draws from it a general lesson of humility in contrast to the Pharisaical presumption, by adding the same words with which He ended the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Lk. 18, 14) and which He again made use of later in His discourses against the scribes and the Pharisees (Mt. 23, 12): “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.”
Our Lord in these words repeats the same lesson and the same exhortation to that virtue so specially dear to His heart. “For a humble heart” justly remarks St. Cyril of Alexandria, “is great before God since it imitates Christ who has said: Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart”.
But this rule only holds good, as the same holy Doctor adds, with regard to the judgment of God, not with regard to those of men amongst whom most often the ambitious attain their goal, whilst the humble remain despised. In the kingdom of God, on the contrary, humility forms the foundation laid by Christ for which nothing else can supply.
Since Christ here, as so often, made use of an example taken from life to illustrate a higher supernatural truth and lesson, there is no necessity for us in the designation “parable,” given by the Evangelist to the narrative, to depart from the usual meaning, nor to assume with Maldonatus and others that Luke altered an original parable of Jesus and only records the application of it to the guests as “parable”.
The applications regarding the principal lesson of the preceding parable may be made use of for the present one also.
In the liturgy of the Church these words of our Lord form part of the appointed portion of Scripture for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lk. 14, 1-11). An extract from the commentary of St. Ambrose is read in the third nocturn. Father Fonck is referring to the Lectionary and Divine Office of his day.
The individual parts of the simile are also applied in various ways, in particular the image of the feast. As signifying a spiritual feast, it may be applied to the Holy Eucharist, prayer, meditation, study of the Scripture, etc., in which we must never forget the lesson of humility. (Cf. Salmeron, tract 22, p. 130 et seq.)
ST. LUKE in immediate connection with the preceding parable records the following words regarding the inviting of poor guests to the feast:
Luk 14:12 And he said to him also that had invited him: When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends nor thy brethren nor thy kinsmen nor thy neighbours who are rich; lest perhaps they also invite thee again, and a recompense be made to thee.
Luk 14:13 But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind.
Luk 14:14 And thou shalt be blessed, because they have not wherewith to make thee recompense: for recompense shall be made thee at the resurrection of the just.
The Evangelist does not, as in the case of the preceding simile, expressly describe these words as a parable; but they have equally the parabolic characteristics, and are entitled to be at least briefly considered amongst the parables.
After our Lord in the simile of the last place at the table had pointed out especially to those amongst the guests who were ambitious of honors the necessity of humility, He turned to the host himself and proceeded to give him also an important lesson. In the striving for the first places at the banquet, one side of the proud Pharisaical spirit had been manifested. And now a glance at the guests who had been invited to the feast revealed another perverse tendency of the same spirit: selfishness and the seeking for earthly reward.
Our Lord had already uttered emphatic words of warning against this looking for a return from man for the performance of good works: “For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans do this? And if you salute your brethren only, whatdo you more? do not also the heathens this? And if you do good to them who do good to you, what thanks do you deserve? for sinners also do this. And if you lend to them of whom you hope to receive, what thanks are due to you? for sinners also lend to sinners, in order to receive as much” (Mt. 5, 46 et seq.; Lk. 6, 32-34).
This distinguished Pharisee, as must be inferred from the words, when issuing his invitations for the Sabbath feast, animated by such a hope of return, had let himself be influenced in his choice of guests by considerations of friendship, of kinship, of wealth, and of neighborliness. Christ, therefore, reminded him that it was not good to act merely from such selfish motives; because by this he forfeited the rewards of God. But, on the other hand, these rewards should be his if he allowed the poor and the needy to partake of his banquet.
But neither in the previous words on charity and the doing of good in general, nor in the present exhortation, are we forbidden to invite friends, relatives, or neighbors. “In your works seek not for transitory earthly reward, but rather for the eternal,”- such is the substance of this brief discourse and the lesson, intelligible to all, which it contains.
Although this lesson is illustrated by the example of invitations to a feast, as was appropriate to the circumstances, at the same time it applies in the same way to all similar situations and actions in daily life. It is precisely because this universal lesson is illustrated by an example taken from ordinary life and refers to the supernatural order that we are justified in considering that the words are of a parabolic character.
The words offer no special difficulty; but for an explanation of them separately we must refer to the commentaries.