Jesus aims this parable at some Pharisees who have invited him to one of their houses to watch him closely and test him. They would be used to paying close attention to the seating plan at banquets, checking where they were in the pecking order.
Jesus holds up a mirror to them so that, imagining the embarrassment of being asked to move lower down the table or the satisfaction of being promoted to a better position, they will see how ridiculous their behaviour is. Then he cuts the ground from under the whole system by advising them to invite to their parties only people who can never return the favour.
The next parable in the Gospel (which sadly we won’t hear next week) is about the guests invited to a great banquet who make excuses, forcing the host to send servants out to drag in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame to fill his hall. Not one of those who were invited will taste the banquet.
Jesus is not giving advice on etiquette. He is talking about the banquet in the kingdom of heaven. The chosen people were the first to be invited but because they rejected the invitation, the banquet has been thrown open to all.
We might be tempted to think we are entitled to the best seats in the heavenly banquet because we belong to the one true Church, but this parable casts us in the role of the poor who are fortunate to be swept in only by the power of God’s love. George Herbert’s poem catches the message perfectly:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
from my first entrance in,
drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
if I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.