Of Feasts and Families

I don’t know a command of Jesus that seems to have been so universally disobeyed as the one we heard recently in a Sunday gospel, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Lk 14:13)

“Ah, but my parish does this on Thanksgiving Day; it holds a dinner for the homeless.  We contribute canned goods.” I’m sorry, but that is not what the Greek says precisely.  Only the New American Standard Bible (the most literal of the common translations) gets it fully right: “whenever you give a banquet.”  Jesus is stating a general rule, not something you satisfy by doing once in a while.  On each and every occasion on which you give a banquet, he says, this is what you are to do.

Furthermore, he implies that only those who lack the means to repay you (Lk 14:14) should be invited.  To invite a token poor person or two would not come up to the intention of his command.

I have been to thousands of “banquets” – Luke’s word (dochē) covers any kind of reception or show of hospitality – open houses, “mixers,” after-event receptions, cocktail hours, wedding receptions (of course), fundraising dinners, not to mention family gatherings and dinner parties.  Not once, when Christians were hosting, was Our Lord’s rule followed.  A saying that should always be followed is never followed.

So what is going on here?  Is the saying without application?  Is it so hyperbolic that it is fundamentally impractical?

Oddly, an argument in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations clarified the teaching for me.  Where have all the feasts gone? – Smith asks at one point. (III. iv)  One can read in medieval and ancient histories, he says, that wealthy men hosted feasts on a near daily basis.  The practice was common among Highland chieftains, Smith points out, even until the early 1700s.

I remember that Sir Walter Scott’s description of such a feast at the beginning of Waverley.  In Quo Vadis, the feasts at Caesar’s court are a big temptation. Of course, John the Baptist was executed by a licentious Herod at one of his feasts. But in modern societies the practice has lapsed.  Leave it to Adam Smith to wonder why.

“In a country which has neither foreign commerce,” Smith explains, “nor any of the finer manufactures, a great proprietor, having nothing for which he can exchange the greater part of the produce of his lands which is over and above the maintenance of the cultivators, consumes the whole in rustic hospitality at home.  If this surplus produce is sufficient to maintain a hundred or a thousand men, he can make use of it in no other way than by maintaining a hundred or a thousand men.”

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Thus wealthy men, “from the sovereign down to the smallest baron,” have ever had their retinues of loyal supporters, whom they feasted constantly. And any excess beyond this was used to foster greater dependency among the tenant farmers.  This was how the wealthy kept their power, Smith says, by fostering dependence, mainly through feasts.

Smith is developing an argument of David Hume’s that, curiously, the rise of manufacture and foreign trade led to the breakup of baronial power, since the wealthy could now spend their money on accumulating luxurious artifacts.  In doing so, true enough, they still “supported” the network of manufacturers and traders who supplied these luxuries.  But they had no power over this network, from its dispersion, and because their own contribution to its maintenance was relatively small.  In this way the rise of commercial society supported the rise of a free society.

I am not interested here in evaluating this fascinating argument.  Clearly, what Smith regards as freedom, the autonomy of consumers and producers, has downsides that we have grown increasingly worried about.  Also, analogues of the medieval lord and his dependent retinue are alive and well in contemporary wealth-transfer politics.

The point I wish to emphasize, rather, is that in traditional societies the “banquet” stands for the use of surplus wealth. Our Lord is engaging in what rhetoricians call the synecdoche of pars pro toto – he refers to one use of surplus wealth, the only available use at the time, to refer vividly to any use of surplus wealth.

The command about banquets, then, is a command to use surplus wealth for almsgiving.  Of course it retains its validity in commercial societies.

And yet some Christians have satisfied the command in close to its original meaning.  St. Elizabeth of Hungary and St. Margaret of Scotland come to mind.  These women essentially swapped out the retinues of their royal courts, replacing them with the poorest of the poor.  Instead of feasting hundreds of noblemen and sycophants on a daily basis, these saints were famous for setting up hospitals near their palaces and taking care of the crippled, the lame, and the blind before anyone else.

But the other Christians who do so are parents, especially parents of large families.  I mention large families because the total commitment of surplus wealth is usually clearer in that case, and the dinner tables of large families look the most like the outlay of a medieval court.

Their children are blind, that is, uneducated; certainly poor, without any legal title to possession; crippled – some cannot even walk – and lame, that is, immature.  They cannot repay now, and, if they are raised well, they will not repay, since the best way they can show gratitude is by doing the same for their own children later.

We must reject the false arguments that parents who generously welcome children are only selfishly “actualizing” themselves, or that, as they have helped cause their own children to exist, there is no merit in their caring for them.  Certainly, such parents serve the common good by having many children in a time of catastrophic demographic decline.

Yes, parents of large families faithfully keep this commandment of Our Lord with great clarity.

 

*Image: Portrait of a Family by Anthonie Palamedesz., c. 1660 [Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium]

You may also enjoy:

David G Bonagura, Jr.’s The Last Acceptable Prejudice

George J. Marlin’s The Decline of Working-Class Catholic Families

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.