Hospitality, as we have seen, can actually mask inhospitable intentions. Appearing to be generous, it can be disingenuous. In the view of Jesus, no hospitality driven by political motives, or employed as a strategem for social positioning, is virtuous.
As he has watched the guests scramble for preferred seats, positions they imagine to be indicative of their status (14:7), he has noticed this further mark of inauthenticity in the afikomen of the Pharisees. As the parable he tells makes clear enough, the virtue of self-effacement is a corollary of the practice of hospitiality.
The parable and its context, unique to Luke, call for a reflection of the divine principle laid down in scripture (e.g., Lev. 19:15; Num. 16:15) and given by Luke as Peter’s summary of Christ’s teaching concerning the gracious outreach of God to “all the world”: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of person” (Acts 10:34 KJV). Peter then tells of the ministry and teaching of Jesus (10:35-43), following which immediately the Holy Spirit falls on all who hear the word, Gentiles included (cf. Jas. 2:1-5).
Both the Old Testament remembrances and the later account in the book of Acts of Peter’s sermon following the conversion of Cornelius help us to understand Luke’s persistence in underscoring this aspect of Jesus’s message. It is not just that the poor matter to God and must be served but also clearly that “worth” as measured in human eyes does not correspond to the way God sees things.
Scrabbling after the “seats of honor” (prōtoklisiai) is not only unseemly; it is imprudent. The “parable” (parabolē) Jesus gives here is a counsel of wisdom concerning the virtue of humility. In pursuing ambition for the place of honor, or fame, overreaching may result in profound embarrassment, even shame (Luke 14:9). Accordingly, humility is also a form of prudential wisdom; by sitting in the lowest seat the wise person avoids both offense and embarrassment (cf. Prov. 25:6-7).
Jesus offers out of his treasure here “something old,” but that has by his present company been forgotten (Luke 14:10). The principle that one day the last shall be first and the first last is, in 14:11, given in words that recall the Magnificat of Mary, but they also echo Jesus’s earlier warnings that in the eschaton the judgment of God and God alone pertains, and accordingly a lot of people are due for a surprise (Matt. 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30).
This repeated warning transforms the idea of social prudence into something “new,” grounding it in an eschatological principle (but cf. Ezek. 21:25-26). As the word “humility” suggests (from Latin humus), this virtue is no more than a candid recognition of the limitations appropriate to the human being as a creature of the Creator.
Yet, as citation of this verse in The Rule of Benedict 7 and as the schema in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Steps of Humility demonstrate, a careful practice of humility in our relationship with others is essential to our coming to an authentic knowledge of God.