Luke 14:1-14 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, "Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Jesus always seems to get invitations to dinner...
Depending on where he is, whether he is going to Peter’s mother in law’s house, or a tax collectors house, or at Mary and Martha’s house, he always seems to be the guest everyone wants at their table. And why? Well, first of all, because he probably is a blast to party with because of his great sense of humor, his charismatic personality, and riveting stories... not to mention that if you happen to run out of wine during dinner, you don’t have to go to the liquor store to get more… Jesus could take care of it. But more truthfully, Jesus is a pretty prominent rabbi- and his ministry had developed a national following. If you were a local in the church, and you heard that Jesus was going to be coming to your town, it would be natural to want to invite him to dinner.
So today, Jesus is at the home of the leader of the Pharisees. The Pharisees were a group of Jewish rabbis who started a movement- kind of like a modern day fundamentalist movement- where the scriptures (The Book of the Law), were taken literally, and occasionally out of context. The Pharisees were the keepers of the law- the ones who watched others in order to make sure folks stayed on the straight and narrow- and they were often the ones to whom folks reported lawbreakers.
And before we judge them too harshly, because we sometimes have a tendency to make the Pharisees into the bad guys; understand that the Pharisees were dedicated to what they were doing because in their understanding, God’s laws were to be followed to the letter…and they believed that the more you obeyed God’s law, the closer you were to God; you were more spiritual. And of course, the more spiritual you were, the higher place you would earn in God's eyes (and in the temple).
The Pharisees knew the laws inside and out- and would defend them at all costs. They had also learned to use the law to insure their own power. There are 600+ rules in the book of the law, and it was virtually impossible to keep all of them. The Pharisees used this to their advantage- to keep the people feeling like they were always just a little lower than they were.
I’m spending time on this because I want us to understand why, when Jesus enters the scene and started to challenge the way that the Pharisees had been interpreting the law, that the Pharisees would get angry at him. Because Jesus was not only threatening their belief system, but their authority and power over the people- So let's put all of that together: A charismatic personality with a national following who is challenging the power systems of the day, and who is doing miraculous things to help the common people along the way! It’s no wonder the Pharisees were watching him very carefully- in fact the Greek word that the text uses implies that the reason that they had invited him to dinner was to test him. In other words, this was no mere invitation to a meal. Jesus was being set up so the Pharisees could catch him breaking the law; if they could prove him a fraud to the people, they could discredit his authority.
So here is our scene: The leader of the Pharisees' house is full of prominent people; a black tie affair, and everyone is gathering just outside the formal dining room and buzzing about in their tuxes, servers- also dressed in black and white- bearing trays of champagne and hors d'oeuvres are hardly noticeable. Guests chat about about politics and health care and the pros and cons of a Syrian campaign- Jesus is mingling well near the shrimp cocktail tower, but can't resist taking a piece of bacon-wrapped salmon off of a passing tray. He thanks the server and and pops it in his mouth. And as he pulls the toothpick from his lips, a man with "dropsy" steps into his view.
Now, we don’t use the term "dropsy" anymore…, we use 'edema'- a medical condition where, for any number of reasons from congestive heart failure to kidney disease, fluid gathers in the arms and/or legs. The limbs swell to great proportion; it's very painful, and it rarely goes away., especially under first century medical practices. And because of his disease the man was an outcast. He was unclean. We've used that word before, but it's important to understand why. In the time of Jesus, (and well before) there was a belief that if someone was sick, or disfigured, or had some tragedy strike their family, then it was thought to be a punishment from God for sin. The thinking was that the infirmed person must have done something to have incurred this type of suffering... (That sounds ridiculous to us, until you remember just a few years ago when the new AIDS virus was discovered... amazing how things stay the same when we come up against something we can't control...) But back to the story.. since the infirmed must have done something- or in essence, chosen the lifestyle that led to this disease, others needed to keep themselves away from them, and then they did it for 2 reasons. First, so they would not fall into the same type of situation or sin that caused God to punish this person. Kind of like the way parents are selective about their children's friends... to keep safe from falling into some less than desirable behavior. Second,so that they could keep pure. Touching an unclean person meant that the devout Jew would need to go through a lengthy cleansing ritual in order to be restored to community, and who needs that? It's easier to not go near them in the first place.
Because of his condition, the man with dropsy couldn’t work; he wasn't welcome at the temple, wasn't welcomed or even thought of as part of the community... and he wasn't invited to dinner parties at all, much less this party. So what was he doing here at the leader of the Pharisees house? The man with dropsy was probably a plant... he was part of the set up. You see, it was the Sabbath. According to Jewish law, there was to be no work, including healing, performed on the Sabbath… And that was right in scripture … one of the big laws. (Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy) But the Pharisees knew that Jesus wouldn’t be able to help himself, (bleeding heart that he was...) They knew Jesus couldn’t stand to see someone suffer…but he also knew the law. Would Jesus go so far as to break one of the ten commandments in front of them?
Along with the leaders, Jesus of course, is aware of the set up. All eyes are on him and he knows it… so, he puts the toothpick in his pocket for later, and looks straight into the man’s eyes. No one in the room breathes…
Now Jesus could have just healed the man and been done with it- but instead, he uses this as a teaching moment. He want the Pharisees to think- to do some theological reflection on the situation. And if you will indulge me just one more aside, I will tell you, I love that Jesus does that. Because I don’t believe that Jesus ever does anything with a spirit of “look how stupid you are and you guys are so messed up because you got this part wrong…” That doesn’t fit in with the loving God we serve. We sometimes forget that God is love; that God has compassion for us. That the God who shakes her head and rolls his eyes when we mess up is an image we have created of God- mostly because we do it ourselves. But that is not the manner of God- and therefore not the manner of Jesus.
Back to the story: Jesus has the man in an eye lock, no one is breathing... and then Jesus looks from the man’s eyes, around the room at those wanting to test him, and his heart aches for them because they don’t understand… He sees their struggle… their desire to be right… their desire to keep God’s laws holy as they understand them- mixed with their desire to be powerful in their own world… and so, instead of callously calling them on their stuff, he asks them a question- one that will show them the nature of God. “You are all keepers of the law," Jesus says… "Is it against the law to heal someone on the Sabbath or not?”
No one moves a muscle…
So Jesus continues… “Most of us in this room are rabbis- we have wives and children… so let me ask you… if one of your children falls into a well on the Sabbath, or better yet, if one of your animals falls into a well on the Sabbath, what would you do? Would you leave them there, or would you go over and pull him to safety?“
And people around the room start fidgeting, and loosening collars and letting out small concert hall coughs, and not only did they not answer, they couldn’t answer… The Pharisees had nothing to say because all of a sudden, the law, that a moment ago was black and white, was turning grey before their eyes. Jesus had forced them to look at what they thought was a hard and fast rule, and to see it differently, from the context of compassion… the from the perspective of love…from the standpoint of practical hands on ministry. Who would leave a loved one suffering at the bottom of a well?
And Jesus waits no longer for interpretation or the law… its time to do ministry… and without another word, he reaches down into that well, puts his arms around the man with dropsy, and pulls him out… he heals him… And everyone in the room stares with open mouths, as the man skips out the front door, laughing and crying at the same time… to celebrate a brand new healthy life.
And now, since no one really does know what to say, people start moving to their seats for dinner. But since there are no place cards or table numbers, the people begin putting themselves around the tables, with everyone after the best seats in the house. And Jesus notices them all flapping around the room like penguins as they try to get to the tables closest to the host…and I think he probably smiled to himself- watching all of them trying to fight for who is most important, remembering the way his disciples had talked about who was the greatest on the road that day… and I think maybe Jesus was wondering how the simple message of loving and caring for one another ended up so distorted…
And Jesus says… “Are you sure you’re going to the right seats?
And all the flapping stops, and a sea of bow ties & white ruffled shirts turn toward Jesus… that’s funny in itself… Jesus stifles a chuckle and tells them a parable-a riddle- a thinking question- “why not sit in the cheap seats- and if someone important wants you nearer to them, they can come and get you…and you could walk to the head table in front of everyone… wouldn’t that be great?”
And the grumbling begins... “He’s not really going to talk to us about table manners is he? What does he know about who sits where- have you seen the people he usually eats with? Sinner, lepers, prostitutes…He is so used to eating with the dregs of society, he has no clue how to act in high society. One time I saw him in some bar with a bunch of low lifes, watching some football game on a widescreen- all of them cheering and jumping up and down- beer spilling all over the place- “You think that’s bad? I saw him with a bunch of kids at Burger king yesterday and he had a paper crown on his head. They were all laughing so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think!”…. And this is the guy who is going to tell us about table manners?
And as they are discussing Jesus choice of dinner companions and his low class friends, Jesus has made himself comfortable at a table near the kitchen with some guys wearing polyester leisure suits and white bucks, and whatever they are laughing at, it must be completely hilarious, because one of them had soda come out of his nose… and Jesus shouts over the crowd to the host…
“When you have a party, don’t worry about inviting people who can give you something back- invite the people who can’t give you anything… the ones who you don’t normally think twice about except in pity or disgust. Invite those people to your party, and see what a great time you have- you’ll feel like a million bucks and your whole outlook on life will change...”
So what Jesus is saying to his host- to all who are in the room worried about position and who sits where and when and with whom… is that the one who should have been invited to dinner is the man with dropsy… That guy who they thought so little of that they used him as a plant… that guy who they pulled off the street to set someone up- that guy who not only would they never invite to their home, because that guy couldn’t give them anything in return... no prestige came from being with him, no power came because of him or from him... worthless.
All that guy could ever give to them, was the gift of humanity… the gift of finding inside of themselves, a place that hadn’t been hardened by society, that hadn’t been smothered by materialism and wealth and power… a place yet to be discovered inside themselves where compassion still lived, where human connection and caring remained unadulterated by prestige or the power selfishness…
Do you know that place? It lives in all of us… and I know most of us have experienced it... feeling true compassion for someone else. And while it may briefly feel good to glimpse the beauty of it, we are often quick to shut the door on that place, because when we go there, it reminds us that we are a little too close to being the man with dropsy… the place where we are aware of our sins and our faults and face the pain of our own swollen arms and legs... It’s the place where we realize our common vulnerability as human beings- and also our fear that, given the right circumstances, if anyone found out about us, we could be shut out- excluded… and we see our connectedness, yes, but also our brokenness. It’s the place, that in order to get there, we need to confront our deepest selves… the things we think about ourselves underneath the tuxedo… And for many of us that is a scary place to be.
But what Jesus tells us, is that in that deepest, perhaps most vulnerable place, where no one likes to go for very long- we aren’t alone- that it is through vulnerability, that utter dependence on each other, that binds us to each other… and much as we try to vie for place or exalting ourselves over one another- we are, at our most basic level, all exactly the same. And that’s what Jesus is trying to get them to see, and praise God, what we can take away from this.
That if we can drag ourselves to that place… and we realize that our value comes, not from what the world says about us, or even what WE say about us, but what Christ says about us… then we open ourselves up to freedom! That every single day, when we embrace the Christ in the other, and we can drop the pretense, put on a burger king crown and laugh so hard the soda comes out our nose... Do you see? It's joy and happiness and compassion and connection that God intends for us… that we can have a heck of a better time delighting in each other than in competing with each other… and when it comes right down to it, we could all use a course in table manners… to be able to open up the doors of our homes and our churches and the doors of ourselves, to the love and power of Christ… and what a feast that will be…