Luke 14:7-14, Taking the Least Place for the “Lesser” Ones

[September 1, 2013] Up until now Jesus had been calling on people to repent, making it clear that the turning of their hearts back to God will require a gratuitous act of God to awaken their spirits to divine and created reality. Friendly Pharisees had come to warn Him of the danger that Herod imposed and Jesus responded by telling them that He is on His way to Jerusalem—and Herod cannot stop Him—where He will die, rejected as a Prophet. God has been like a mother hen trying to gather her brood but the children of Jerusalem would not have it—their house will be left desolate (Second-Temple Judaism will end), and they will not see the Messiah again until they are ready to welcome Him when  He comes in glory.

From 14:1 to 17:19, in the unit that follows, two things are set in contrast: the way of the self-righteous Pharisees and the way of Jesus and those whom He sends. Jesus’ teaching here demonstrates that His coming is in the way of graciousness, of favor, to the lost and scattered sheep of Israel. The Pharisees are positioned as a foil. They are the shepherds of Israel who have no regard for the sheep. They are self-serving, lovers of money, obsessed with the praise they receive from others (about how righteous they are), obsessed with rules while missing their point, and disdainful of common people.

The “Pharisees” are a typos, of course, not representing all the Pharisees (for example, not the school of Hillel) but rather the leaders of the “Judaizers” (from the school of Shammai), who were intolerant of the ritually unclean and “sinners” (non-observing Jews) and, of course, gentiles. They and their followers resisted Jesus and His ministry, and they resisted the church’s mission to the gentiles, their persecution of that mission often becoming violent (for example, in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome). They did not represent all the Pharisees and certainly not all the Jews (as the anti-Semitism of Christianity often asserts).

The Healing of a Man on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-6)

The unit opens with the healing of a man on the Sabbath. Jesus has been invited to the noon meal after worship in the synagogue (implying that Jesus attended the service earlier in the day) in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. It was not an insignificant gathering, for there were lawyers (experts in Halakah) and the host’s fellow Pharisees. They picked out places of honor for themselves at the table just like they had done in the synagogue that morning (see Matthew 23:6-7, “They love the places of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men”). Meanwhile, Jesus had taken the last place.

There appears a man there suffering from dropsy. Someone probably invited him to the banquet to test Jesus, to see what Jesus would do, it being the Sabbath, for Luke tells us that “they were watching Him closely.” When Jesus challenged them with a question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” they were stone silent. So while it was friendly for the Pharisee to have invited Jesus (the Pharisees in 13:31 were friendly), there is tension in the house, for whether or not the host is friendly to Jesus, it is obvious that many of his guests were not. We can assume, however, that it is a mixed group.

Dropsy is edema: “an abnormal accumulation of serous fluids in connective tissues or cavities of the body accompanied by swelling, distention, or defective circulation. It is usually symptomatic of more serious problems” (Joseph A Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible, 1985, page 1041). The sick man is perfectly miserable, longs to be well, and is probably feeling awkward at the gathering. Jesus takes hold of the man, heals him and sends him away.

He then addresses his fellow guests: “Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” Again, they are silent. The answer is that they would all respond to an emergency and rescue their son or ox. A long-term illness does not constitute an emergency, however. Jesus is not saying that it does, but He is claiming that such exceptions show that good can be done on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not about “rules,” though work is forbidden. But let us ask, why is work forbidden? Work is an attempt to improve on the creation; it is working the soil, for instance, so that it will do what it would not do if left wild. The Sabbath, though, is to be “satisfied” and to even celebrate—by enjoying—the goodness of the creation, along with God Who is first satisfied. It is to be “satisfied” with the works of God.

The Sabbath, by cessation from work, also allows the creation to recover, and thus the Sabbatical year in which fields were to lie fallow.

The Jubilee was a special type of Sabbath, for there the creation is restored to its original condition. Not by work, but by letting go and releasing. Land is returned, debts are forgiven, slaves and indentured servants are released. All bondage is ended, including the bondage of the land.

The coming of the Messiah promises a special kind of Jubilee, an age in which the creation is restored and Israel redeemed, and even the gentiles are saved from their enslavement to idols and violence.

When Jesus heals the man with dropsy, the kingdom of God—the messianic age—comes upon everyone there, even if only temporarily, even if only in the presence of Jesus. Creation is restored, the man’s suffering is ended, and—borrowing from 13:16—the man has been released from the fetters of Satan.

He becomes then an object lesson for what follows. He is an example of “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13 and 21), one of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, that Jesus refers to in two of the parables that follow.

Let us consider now what follows.

Taking the Lowest Place (14:7-11)

When Jesus challenged His fellow guests, they refused to answer Him. Now He makes a comment about how they all seated themselves. As was pointed out earlier, they all picked out places of honor for themselves. Probably there was some embarrassment as someone had to move down to make room for someone more honorable than themselves whom they did not expect to be there. So Jesus alludes to Proverbs 25:6-7: “Do not claim honor in the presence of the king, and do not stand in the place of great men; for it is better that it be said to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for you to be placed lower in the presence of the prince, whom your eyes have seen.” (Similar advice is later attributed to Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai in the fifth century and others.) Jesus modifies this: instead of being in the presence of a prince, we are the guests of a wedding feast in the presence of the one who has invited us.

Jesus draws a moral from it: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (see Luke 18:14; Matthew 23:12; Ezekiel 21:26; 2 Samuel 22:28). See also Sirach 3:17-20: “My child, be gentle in carrying out your business, and you will be better loved than a lavish giver. The greater you are, the more humbly you should behave, and then you will find favor with the Lord; for great though the power of the Lord is, he accepts the homage of the humble” (NJB).

This is often taken by commentators as Jesus simply giving sage advice: “rules of etiquette for guests at a feast,” “practical rules of behavior.” Luke, they say, tried to spiritualize it by attaching a moral to it in verse 11, a moral that he probably understood eschatologically (“there will be a reversal of values in the new age”). See The Interpreter’s Bible, 1952. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible sees it as “indirect counsel to his disciples about modes of conduct toward other human beings … Hence the attitude of Christian disciples should be humility, not status-seeking.”

The Interpreter’s Bible makes this the point of the lesson: “the lowly acknowledgement of God” (page 253). In other words, it is about inner humility before God, humility in the sight of God.

Well and good, but I beg to add that more is alluded to than this. First of all, Luke tells us this is a parable (though some assert that a parable is nothing more than a story with a moral attached). The parable may simply be the comparison of ourselves in our own situation to the people in the story. Perhaps, though, the immediate reference in the parable is not to the guests to whom Jesus was speaking but to His own example among them. They take the highest seats (the ones closest to the host) and He takes the lowest. The indirect reference is to the manner of His coming and to the way of His disciples who will follow His example.

Second, Jesus chooses to use a wedding feast in His parable instead of some other kind of banquet, such as the one they were at (see also verse 16). YHWH is Israel’s Bridegroom. The Sabbath is also considered such, which is interesting in view of Jesus bringing the messianic Jubilee into their midst. The Messiah is also considered the Bridegroom of Israel. Jesus alluded to this messianic wedding feast in Luke 5:34-35. The feast to which all are invited alludes to the eschatological feast which celebrates the redemption of Israel, the actualization of salvation, the coming of the Messiah. The parable in Luke 14:16-24 is in fact a wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14. In that parable, the invitation to the feast is clearly the invitation of the Gospel.

Third, the “moral” of verse 11—“everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted”—as general as it is, applies most of all to Jesus Himself, for “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9), “Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the Name which is above every name, so that at the Name of Jesus ‘every knee will bow,’ of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11; see also Ephesians 1:20b-21). The way of Jesus’ own apostolate (as the One sent by the Father) and the way of our own apostolate (or mission: our sending) is to take the lowest place among human beings.

In other words, this “parable” is a justification for Jesus’ own “way” which is in such a contrast to the “way” of the Pharisees with whom He was speaking and who were “watching Him closely” to judge Him.

Furthermore, in this—as typical of Luke’s presentation of Jesus—Jesus is the exemplar for His followers. His own apostles were to be like Him, and so are all His disciples (not only those engaged in “public” ministry). They are to renounce status and seek a humble manner of life, perhaps even becoming voluntarily poor.

“We suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17), for “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). “If we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12; compare 1 Corinthians 4:8).

As much as this has to do with our inner attitude before God, it also has very practical implications about our “humility” before other people. It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we are humble in the sight of God. But are we willing to renounce our status before people? Are we willing to identify with those whom the world considers poor, not by a paternalistic attitude of generosity towards them but by becoming voluntarily poor ourselves (and practicing generosity across the table, as it were, instead of from above)? or at least, by adopting a lifestyle that is humble and lowly in the eyes of society. Are we willing to treat the “lowly” as our equals or even as higher than ourselves by placing ourselves below them? The “way” in which Jesus did this is important to observe, for it probably is not the way in which we would do it. For He neither paternalize others nor did He simply do what anyone wanted (He remained self-possessed, living before the Father alone as the “context” in which He did anything).

That this parable is alluding to the way of Jesus in contrast to the way of the Pharisees is further strengthened by the “advice” that Jesus now proceeds to give to His host.

Inviting Those Who Cannot Repay You (14:12-14)

Jesus says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner”—such as the one we are at—“do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors” (four classes of people; four represents universality), “otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (another four classes of place), and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

The connection to what Jesus just said is that those who were positioning themselves to have the highest seat of honor they could get are the same as those who will repay you for your favors: “your friends, brothers, relatives and rich neighbors.” The connection to the man with the dropsy is also apparent, for this man whom they invited, and whom Jesus healed, had no means to repay either the host or Jesus, the real Master of the actual feast.

The obvious “moral” lesson is not that we should not extend hospitality to our family and friends (because we need to maintain and build good, mutual relations with them—thus our reward) but that if we wish to have the reward that ultimately matters, we need to seek to be rewarded at the “resurrection of the righteous.” This reward does not come to us in this life; it is the reward we are granted after we die, as preparation for our life in resurrection. (We can spiritualize this, I suppose, and imagine an inner reward “in the heavens,” in the present, but that is not the obvious sense here.)

There is more than one resurrection. “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end” (after the age of the kingdom), “when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 Corinthians 15:22-26). The “general resurrection” does not take place, then, until the end. Before that, however, is the resurrection of the righteous, beginning with Christ Himself, and then others at His coming in glory (whether all at once or in stages). Between the “general” resurrection and the resurrection of the righteous is the age of the kingdom when Christ reigns, during which He abolishes all rule and authority and power, putting all His enemies under His feet. That kingdom is not now but begins when Christ comes in glory. The reward that we are to seek is a reward that would be given to us at the resurrection of the righteous.

Christ (in His divinized humanity) was granted this reward when He ascended into heaven. Our reward will be like His (otherwise, we have no basis on which to think of any other kind of reward). However, we will not all be granted such a reward to the same degree. That is the point. Some will “qualify” for more than others. Some will actually suffer loss (1 Corinthians 3:15; see many of Jesus’ parables). Commentators call this the “Jewish doctrine of rewards” and yet it is no less Christian for the fact that it is Jewish.

If we do acts of righteousness that cannot be repaid in the present, they will be repaid in the afterlife. Nothing is lost, and therefore the balance is maintained. At least, this is the metaphorical picture. (Whether there is such a moral “physics,” I won’t speculate now, for such a concept could be an unwarranted extrapolation from a particular case.)

What are we to make of this second “parable”? What is Jesus’ point? Is it simply this? Or is there more?

If we simply take this idea of inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” we can see it. In 4:18-19 when Jesus introduced His ministry, He spoke of the poor, the blind and captives: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord,” the year of Jubilee. Furthermore, in 7:22 Jesus speaks of the blind, the lame, lepers, the dead, and the poor. He was telling John the Baptist how He was fulfilling the words He spoke in 4:18-19, when He quoted from Isaiah 61. “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” This, Luke 14:13, then, describes Jesus’ own work. He is inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” to the feast of the Jubilee. Although the kingdom has not come, in the acts of Jesus it comes upon us here and now, for a moment. It came upon people when He proclaimed the Gospel, that is, when He proclaimed the significance of His coming. It comes upon us when we hear the Gospel today and our hearts are opened by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In other words, Jesus is not just giving sage advice to the other guests at the table. He is justifying the “way” of His apostolate, His ministry, in contrast to the “way” of the Pharisees who “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (Luke 18:9), and grumbled because “this Man receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2). Not only was He justifying Himself but, as our Exemplar, He was justifying the way of His apostles and all those whom He sends, and the way of the church—which is to practice hospitality towards “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

Looking Ahead (14:15—17:21)

If we understand that these two parables as being about Jesus (and us), than they prepare us for the parable that follows in verses 15-24, about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to the banquet of the Jubilee. If His “way” must also be our “way” then the passage about the cost of discipleship in 14:25-34 makes sense. We who are invited are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-29). Furthermore, “none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions,” thus taking the lowest place.

The three parables in chapter 15 are said in response to the Pharisees criticism that He receives sinners and eats with them, that is, that He invites and takes His place with the lowest, offering God’s grace to them. The teachings that follow in chapter 16 contrast His way to the way of the Pharisees, who are lovers of money. In 17:1-10 Jesus further instructs His disciples about caring for these “little ones” (which turns out to be each other), and concludes with a story that illustrates how God receives more glory from the “least of these,” the leper who happened to have also been a “foreigner” (a Samaritan, but suggestive of the “far off”—pagan—gentiles who will follow) than from the Jewish lepers whom Jesus had healed. This is an appropriate closing for the unit that began with the man whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath. This entire unit therefore is about the “lowly” as the object of God’s grace and taking one’s place among them.

[As an aside, today’s text is illustrative of how the Franciscan approach to the Gospel is grounded in Jesus’ own approach (how Jesus saw His own “way” of being sent).]

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