This weekend in the Gospel Reading at Mass, we hear another reference to table fellowship. It’s a persistent theme in Saint Luke, but today’s account is different from the others. In most of the narratives, table fellowship is about mercy, acceptance, compassion, and understanding. The various gospel stories about meals definitely emphasize what the guest receives at the table.
Today, however, the Lord Jesus has a different message.
During his public ministry, the Lord was invited to dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee. While there, he was suspiciously observed by those in attendance. In response, he was also watching. The Lord’s focus, however, was how the different guests selected their seats at the table. Obviously, it was quite the spectacle, as multiple people mulled around trying to assert their prominence or establish their place with the host.
After some observation, the Lord Jesus offered a parable.
In the parable, he admonished his listeners to “go and take the lowest place” since “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” And so, the Lord is placing table fellowship back within its context of humility. Whenever we’re invited to be at someone’s table, we’re not there for our personal promotion or prestige. In accepting the invitation, the Lord reminds us to offer a proper meekness to our host.
But the Lord isn’t done. He pushes even more. He says to the participants of the meal: “Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” This direction would have been totally unexpected, and completely out of the ordinary.
Why would anyone outside of the circle of intimate family and friends be invited to table fellowship? And why would guests be told, while they were guests, to make sure they invite those who cannot repay the invitation to the table?
Such counsel would have struck the people of Jesus’ day as very odd, and it would have been seen as especially peculiar in light of the state of affairs at that time. It would have been completely outside of the lived experience of the original listeners to invite the abandoned, forgotten, and those on the peripheries to table fellowship.
In the instructions given by the Lord Jesus, the emphasis is not on what we receive, but on what we are called to give. First, the call to humility, and then a call to the poor and forgotten. The admonitions turn the world upside down and change the entire notion and reality of table fellowship.
Rather than an insular experience for self-promotion, it now becomes a call to meekness and selfless outreach.
The Lord models this approach to table fellowship. He welcomes the sinner, greets the outcast, reconciles those in disagreement, feeds those who cannot repay him, and accepts humiliation at the tables of others. All of these various encounters at the table reach their culmination in the Upper Room, where he washes the feet and entrusts a commission to the very men who will betray and abandon him.
In each of these dimensions, and especially in the Upper Room, the Lord is showing us how to accept and give table fellowship in his kingdom.
Table fellowship is now a call to reach out to those on the peripheries. It’s a summons to break out of our comfort zones and to embrace and accept the very ones who are farthest away and in greater need of mercy, acceptance, and holy fellowship. The table now becomes a mission field and a place of universality and selfless service.
Pope Francis summarized this principle well, when he wrote: “There is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them.”
In our own discipleship, we eat of the table that flows from the Lord’s sacrifice. In receiving this tremendous gift, do we expand the table fellowship in our lives and homes? Do we invite the forgotten and those who are unable to repay the invitation?
The challenge is daunting and uncomfortable, but it is real and pending before us. What will we do with this startling and convicting admonition?