Posted by: mattcolvin | September 21, 2018

Etiquette and Eschatology in Luke 14:1-14


14:1 — Jesus chooses to dine with, not just Pharisees, but “a leader of the Pharisees,” and to do so, not on just any day, but on the Sabbath, the day that was at the centre of the ongoing contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Sabbath was the central controversy between them because both sides held it as a symbol of an entire ecclesiology and eschatology: in short, of their two different ways of being Israel, and of their expectation of what God would do for Israel.

For both the Pharisees and Jesus, the Sabbath was a symbol of God’s long-expected rescue of Israel. But for Jesus, that rescue was happening in his own person: in him, Israel’s God was at last becoming King. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath was a marker of the true Israel that could expect vindication and inheritance of the age to come. In their social pragmatics, Sabbath-observance was eschatologically oriented, and looseness about the Sabbath was a sure sign that the violator would find himself on the wrong side of the decisive eschatological moment. For the Pharisees, Jesus was an intriguing figure because he largely agreed with them about the resurrection of the dead and the corruptness of the Sadducees and Herod. Luke 12-14 can be read as an account of the Pharisees’ attempts to make sense of Jesus. Yet in their final analysis, he was disqualified from being the Messiah: “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” (John 9:16)

In 14:1, then, the Sabbath is the elephant in the (dining) room. However cordial the meal, however welcoming the host, the Pharisees in attendance are nonetheless “watching him like a hawk” (παρατηρούμενοι).

14:2 — Suddenly, in the middle of this meal, and against this background of (polite?) tension, a man with dropsy (œdema) is “before him” (ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ). We may entertain our suspicions here. Is this a set-up, like the woman caught in adultery in John 8? We know that the dropsical man is not a guest at the dinner party, for Jesus will later “dismiss” him (ἀπέλυσεν, 14:4). The phrase “before him” is full of suspense because of the expectations that prior narratives of healing have set up. The question in every onlooker’s mind is “Will Jesus do something?” And in our mind, we may add, “In front of this audience?” and “On this day?”

14:3 — Jesus is the undaunted master of the situation. Note the odd expression καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, “and answering, he said…” Answering? But no prior utterance is mentioned. Jesus is “replying” not to anything that has been said, but to the situation, the elephant in the room, which poses, of itself, the question which he then makes explicit by posing it aloud to the νομικοὺς καὶ Φαρισαίους.

14:4 — οἱ δὲ ἡσύχασαν, “they were silent,” effectively passing their turn in the implied debate. Jesus will now answer his own question, not by delivering a verbal verdict or halakhic ruling, but by actually healing the man.

14:5 — Having made his case by deed, Jesus now puts it by words as well. …καὶ οὐκ εὐθέως ἀνασπάσει…

14:6 — The Pharisees are defeated in the end and reduced to “silence,” and that in the very house of one of their own leaders. Cf. the story (t.Ber. 5.2) of R. Jose ben Halafta who, when contradicted by his own guests in a halakhic matter (whether to stop eating if the Sabbath begins during one’s meal), exclaimed “Will you even do violence to the queen before me in my house?” — a citation of Esther 7:8. It is likely that there was then, as there is today, an expectation that guests ought not to attack their hosts’ dearly held theological opinions. Jesus, of course, violates that norm.

14:7 — Having silenced the Pharisees, Jesus then turns to “those who were invited” (κεκλημένους). This designation is the catchword that serves to introduce the two parables that Jesus then tells. He seizes upon their “invited” status and uses it to address the central issues between him and the Pharisees. As N.T. Wright says, it is a mistake to think that Jesus is concerned about etiquette in this passage. Rather, he is using principles of etiquette to address questions of ecclesiology (or what I call “Israelology”), eschatology, and his own identity as the Messiah.

14:8-11 — Jesus here virtually quotes from Proverbs 25:6-7. We must interpret this as a metalepsis in the sense that Richard Hays elegantly explains in his two books on Echoes of Scripture. When Jesus quotes a few lines from Proverbs to a room full of Scripture-saturated, highly literate Jews, there is simply no way that his words can fail to bring to his hearers’ minds the entire context of those phrases. What is that context?

Do not exalt yourself in the presence of the king,
And do not stand in the place of the great;
For it is better that he say to you,
“Come up here,”
Than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince,
Whom your eyes have seen.

Jesus has deftly avoided quoting the very lines that would make the point too bluntly. He prefers, as always, to let his audience put two and two together, to let the Father and the Spirit and his works testify to his identity as the Messiah. But there can be no mistake about it here: He intends that his hearers will understand that they are “in the presence of the king” and that he himself is “the prince, whom your eyes have seen.”

These lines are also an indictment of the Pharisaic approach to being Israel. Where the Pharisees practiced “the works of the Torah” as a way of securing for themselves a sort of πρωτοκλισία in the eschaton, Jesus preaches and embodies being Israel for the sake of the world. This is not, then, mere etiquette advice. “Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (14:11) is a principle cited dozens of times in Scripture because it is dear to the heart of Israel’s God, and central to the way his salvation has always operated.

14:12 — Turning from the “invited ones” to the host who had invited them, Jesus again takes social etiquette as the starting point for theological and “Israelological” teaching. He attacks the very root of social relations in the ancient world. As John Barclay notes, hospitality and gift-giving were means of forming and maintaining relationships. Aristotle sums it up well:

“For it is by proportionate requital that the city holds together. Men seek to return either evil for evil—and if they cannot do so, think their position mere slavery—or good for good—and if they cannot do so there is no exchange, but it is by exchange that they hold together. This is why they give a prominent place to the temple of the Graces—to promote the requital of services; for this is characteristic of grace—we should serve in return one who has shown grace (χάρις) to us, and should another time take the initiative in showing it.”

— Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1133a (Revised Oxford Translation, ed. J. Barnes)

Yet precisely because hospitality and gift-giving place men into the bonds of relationship, one must be careful to show these graces only to those who are worthy of relationship. Thus, the 6th century Greek lyric poet Theognis expresses the principle that would have guided Greeks in their giving:

“He who does good to the wretched poor gets the emptiest thanks; it is the same as sowing the waters of the salt sea;
For you would not reap hay after sowing the waters; nor would you receive anything in return after doing good to the wretched (lit. “bad people”, κακοί).
For bad men have an insatiable mind, and if you just make one mistake, then the friendship from all past deeds is poured out and lost. But good men blot out even the worst that they have suffered, and keep the memory of kindnesses, and return thanks (lit. “grace,” χάρις) in the future.” — Theognis, 105-112 (my translation)

Barclay cites other Roman and Greek authors on the inadvisability of indiscriminate generosity. What Barclay calls “the incongruity” of grace is emphatically not the way of the ancient pagan world.

Jesus rejects this ethic, urging instead the bestowal of hospitality and grace upon those from who no counter-gift (ἀνταπόδομα, 4:12) can ever be expected. As in the sermon on the mount (Mt. 6:2), the foregoing of reward from men results in a reward from God, whose gifts and welcome cannot be taken away.

Again, Jesus’ point is not about etiquette, but about the Pharisees’ way of being Israel. By using the “works of the Torah” as badges of their expected eschatological superiority, they brought their “reward” into the present and forfeited it for the future. They did not use their covenant status and privileged position in God’s household to benefit the weak and helpless, but to line their own eschatological nests.

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