Luke 14:1, 7-14, Becoming the Least for the Sake of the Lesser

[August 28, 2016] In Luke 14:1—17:19 two things are set in contrast:

  • The way of the self-righteous Pharisees
  • and the way of Jesus and those whom he sends.

In this section Jesus demonstrates by word and deed that he has been sent and anointed by God in the way of God’s favor and graciousness to the lost and scattered sheep of Israel’s house. The Pharisees are depicted as the foil to this. They are the self-proclaimed shepherds of Israel who have no regard for the sheep. They are self-serving, lovers of money, obsessed with receiving praise from others about how “righteous” they are, fixated on rules (while missing their point), and disdainful of common people.

These “Pharisees” are a type, of course, representing only certain Pharisees, the ones of the school of Shammai who were intolerant of the ritually unclean and non-observant and, of course, non-Jews. They and their followers resisted Jesus and his ministry and the mission of the church to the gentiles, hounding them to far-off places and often inciting physical violence against them. They represent a vocal group of Pharisees but probably not the majority of them, and they certainly do not represent the Jewish people or the religion of Judaism.

As the shepherds of the people, though, we would probably not be off-base to compare them to contemporary pastors, teachers, politicians and civic leaders, talking-heads and others, people whose job it is to educate and lead the public.

This section begins with the story in 14:1-6. It sets up what follows in 7-24 and therefore is important for us to keep in view when we consider 7-14. It is the Sabbath. A prominent Pharisee, presumably one kindly disposed to Jesus, invites Jesus to the midday meal at his house following the service of worship in the synagogue. There are other guests, most notably a contingent of Pharisees and legal experts not so kindly disposed to Jesus. Earlier, in the synagogue, Jesus had probably observed (to himself) how “they love the chief seats in the synagogues” and now he sees how “they love the place of honor at the dinners” (Matthew 23:6).

In contrast to such guests there was one who was present who came perhaps as a beggar and for this reason was not shooed away, or perhaps he was even invited—by one of the guests?—in order to put Jesus to the test. He was a very sick man suffering from dropsy or edema, “an abnormal accumulation of serous fluids in connective tissues or cavities of the body accompanied by swelling, distention, or defective circulation … usually symptomatic of more serious problems.”

Jesus put them to the test and asked if it was permissible for him to heal the man since it was the Sabbath. They refuse to answer, waiting to see what he will do. He heals him, of course, and insists that he did not violate the Sabbath. Indeed, by restoring God’s creation to its natural state he had brought the sick man into the meaning of Sabbath, certainly into a place where he could rejoice in the Sabbath. Could this man repay him? If he could, Jesus would not have accepted it, for this was an act of generosity, not a trade. A trade would have violated the meaning of the Sabbath.

In the gospels the Sabbath has a meaning much larger than the seventh day of the week. Jesus had come as the Lord of the Sabbath. He inaugurated his ministry by announcing that with his coming the year of Jubilee had begun, not literally but in a prophetic metaphorical sense. Jubilee was the Sabbath of Sabbaths, taking place on the fiftieth year following every seven weeks of years. It was the year of liberation and restoration and fulfillment, representing the blessing and the promise of the Promise Land.

In the Hebrew Scriptures YHWH is married to the Sabbath, and the Sabbath also represents the marriage of YHWH to YHWH’s people. The end of the age—when the promises are at last fulfilled, when the Messiah comes and the eschatological “Year of Jubilee” begins—begins with a wedding feast when YHWH is married to YHWH’s people. It is when YHWH’s people enter at last the fulfillment of the Sabbath. This is the soteriological context in which Jesus frames himself.

So Jesus tells the other guests a parable in the form of advice about social etiquette. Taking the clue from Proverbs 25:6-7, which says,

“Do not claim honor for yourself in the presence of the king,
and do not stand in the place of great men;
for it is better that it is said to you, ‘Come up here,’
than that you should be put lower in the presence of the noble.”

 Jesus says, “When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not recline in the place of honor, lest someone more honorable than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give this one [that] place; and then you begin with shame to occupy the last place.” While referring to a wedding feast, what Jesus says is a rebuke for how they behaved at the synagogue and how they have behaved at this dinner. He continues, “But when you are invited, go and recline in the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, come up higher.’ Then you will have glory before all those reclining with you.”

The moral of the story is therefore: “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and the one who humbles himself [or herself] shall be exalted.” Literally this applies to our place at a feast.

People, however, commonly take this to mean that we should also humble ourselves before God, for if we do, God will exalt us. The humility, in this case, therefore, refers to something interior. And this is true. And if God is the one inviting us to the eschatological Wedding Feast, we ought to humble ourselves before God now.

However, it is also very clear that Jesus is also talking about taking a lower place, even the last place, with respect to other people, that is, within church and society. That is important in itself but also because something else is going on here. Jesus has taken the lower place, and will take the least place, as Paul tells us, “though he was rich, for your sakes he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9), and in Philippians, he “emptied himself [of his glory], taking the form of a slave, becoming in the likeness of humans; and being found in fashion as a human being, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, and that the death of a cross” (2:7-8). As a consequence, he was exalted, not only in resurrection but in ascension, and God “bestowed on him the Name which is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should openly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (2:9b-11; see also Ephesians 1:20b-21).

By giving this parable in the form of an instruction, even though it be ostensibly an instruction in etiquette, Jesus is saying that they, people who purport to love God, should do as he has done and was doing. This is also (obviously) the way of the church, the way in which the Christian should follow. Paul tells us, “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). Jesus, moreover, makes following him dependent on becoming poor like him by giving up our possessions and our reliance on and security in things. (This is, indeed, the topic in 14:25-35 and 16.)

It is not all about what we think is our inner attitude before God, for we easily fool ourselves into thinking we are humble in the sight of God when in fact that is not so. Jesus is actually speaking about our “humility” before other people. Are we willing to renounce our status before them? 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. Our generosity should be across the table, as it were, not down from above. At least we should adopt 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? This is what Jesus did. It is important, though, to pay attention to the “way” that he did this, since we probably would not do it the same way. He neither paternalized others nor did He simply do what others wanted. He remained self-possessed, living before the Father alone as the “context” in which He did anything. (In other words, he did not simply meet people’s self-perceived needs or protect people from them.)

In other words, Jesus is instructing the Pharisees by comparing their way to his way of being among people, being in society. They are very concerned about their achievement of holiness, congratulating each other while putting themselves above those who are “common,” while he concerns himself with those who are common, particularly the “lost sheep,” entering into solidarity with them by lowering himself to their level.

Jesus then gives them another lesson using the same “parable.”

Jesus turns to the Pharisee who had invited him and says, “When you make a morning meal or a dinner, do not call your friends or your siblings or your relatives or your rich neighbors”—which is apparently what he did and usually does—“lest,” Jesus says, “they also invite you in return and it become a repayment to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”—like this sick man whom Jesus had just healed—“and you will be blessed, because they do not have anything with which to repay you; for it will be repaid to you in the resurrection of the righteous.”

As advice, there is some hyperbole here. Jesus does not mean that you should not invite your friends and relatives and neighbors to whatever feast you spread, or to your wedding feast. Rather you should also extend your hospitality by inviting the poor and crippled and lame and blind, people who are typically forgotten by the comfortable.

However, as in the parable that follows this one, in verses 16-24 (its parallel in Matthew 22:1-14 is a wedding feast), this one too is about eating “bread in the kingdom of God” (14:15). It is about the eschatological feast in which the bounty of the Promise Land is fulfilled. As a parable, the one who does the inviting is God and the Gospel is the invitation. Those who consider themselves “the righteous,” the Pharisees who were eyeing Jesus critically, are as if they were “the friends and siblings and relatives and rich neighbors” of God. The man with edema is an example of “the poor, the crippled, the lame, [and] the blind.” The gospel does not come to the righteous but to this later group. They are the ones whom God invites into the sphere of blessedness. “Blessed are those who are financially destitute, those who are hungry, those who weep, those whom people hate and ostracize and reproach and cast out as ‘evil’ for the Son of Man’s sake” (6:20-22). But “woe to those who are presently rich and satiated and laughing and spoken so well of by people” (6:24-26).

Jesus says he came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance (5:32). Those who consider themselves the righteous cannot hear his call. They “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and viewed others with contempt” (18:9).

The fourfold “poor, crippled, lame and blind,” reminds us of those Jesus mentioned when he inaugurated his ministry in Capernaum: “the poor, the prisoners and the blind” (4:18-19). It also reminds us of those whom Jesus mentions when he summarized his work: “the blind, the lame, lepers, the dead, and the poor” (7:22). Jesus is also one who “receives sinners and eats with them” (15:2; see 5:29-30 where it is “tax collectors and sinners”). If we have heard the gospel it is because we are poor and crippled and lame and blind, lepers and prisoners, and sinners and tax collectors,” and realized it.

Jesus thus is justifying his ministry before these Pharisees, or at least explaining himself to them, whether they are able or willing to hear him. He has been sent and anointed to convey the divine invitation to the eschatological Wedding Feast, the feast of the Promise Land, the Jubilee feast, the great fulfillment of the Sabbath. As the One whose Feast it is, God is inviting those who cannot pay him back. In this way it becomes clear that God’s invitation is gratuitous, given out of pure generosity. It is all by grace. Grace and mercy. Those who cannot receive it on those terms, those who think they are capable of paying God back, or who want God to owe them something in return (like they are doing God some sort of favor)—they are not even invited, really because they are not even capable of hearing God’s invitation. They are tuned in to a different frequency.

This is also instruction for us, or else it would not be here in Luke’s gospel. The gospel sets forth Jesus’ apostolate (his mission, his coming as having been “sent”) as the Exemplar of our own apostolate. We too are sent, with the same mission. We too are to go out and invite others to God’s feast. And we too are to invite those who are lowly in the eyes of society, and who thus might be more capable of recognizing themselves as poor in the sight of God and thus able to receive what God offers as mercy, as a pure gift, rather than a reward. Such people are all around us. By God’s prevenient grace, all people may be such. We, however, ought not to overlook the fact that Jesus literally sought out those who were marginalized by others. Those who are not marginalized, who come to Jesus, observe this and come to realize that they are no better than the others. Only then are they able to come. We read, moreover, that many of them gave up their wealth and joined the “lowly,” then refused to distinguish themselves from them socially.

Today the poor and sick and disenfranchised are all around us. Today Native Americans are having their lands spoiled for the profits of oil, gay and lesbian and transgender people are bullied and suffer violent assaults, and their legal rights and protections are infringed upon or taken away. Black people’s lives seem not to matter to many in law enforcement and racism is out in the open, alive and well. Immigrants are harassed and bullied and ostracized, and Muslims are treated like they are terrorists. We can go on, and by listing a few I do not mean to exclude others, but these are those people to whom God sends the Wedding invitation, to whom the gospel belongs. (I do not mean that we are to aggressively try to “convert” them—by bringing them the gospel, perhaps they can convert us!” The gospel is a story, not a dogma to which we adhere or do not.)

It is up to us to bring it to them. As the church, and as individual disciples of Jesus, we have this apostolic presence in the world, even if we ourselves are not called to be “apostles.” So there is no way that we should let ourselves be separated from others. If Jews are singled out and made to wear the Star of David, then we ought to wear one too. Some women wear the hijab to stand in solidarity with Muslims. If poor have their rights taken away, the privileged ought not to accept those rights without them. Francis of Assisi actually became poor in order to be with the poor, and lived in leper colonies in order to minister to them. Solidarity with the “lowly” is not just a matter of opinions and words then, or good deeds done to them; it must be a voluntary identification with them.

Today I delivered a sermon today at the First Presbyterian Church of Passaic based on the following outline:

  1. The luncheon setting.
  2. The man with edema. The meaning and distortion of the Sabbath.
  3. The way of the Pharisees (they are seeking “holiness”).
  4. But to them is given the responsibility of the people; they are their leaders, their shepherds.
  5. The way of Jesus, which is to take the lowest place, is the right way to please God.
  6. The way of Jesus puts him in solidarity, on the level, with God’s own sheep, sharing their lot.
  7. Who, after all, is God inviting to the Wedding feast of the Sabbath?
  8. On the Sabbath no trade can take place. All must be gratuitous.
    The Feast to which God invites us is a feast of grace—only for those who cannot pay back.
  9. The invitation then is all grace. Only those who know they can’t pay God back can hear it.
  10. But it is not only for the inwardly humble; this inner reality must be reflected socially.
  11. Like himself—sharing the lot of the sheep—this is how we also are “sent” to God’s sheep.

I was not satisfied with the presentation. Did I present to the siblings before me Christ as he is revealed to me in my spirit? Or did I just convey the thoughts and impressions in my soul? Did I present the divine humility (the God who in love enters into the deepest depths of the creature’s poverty) revealed in Jesus, or just a social methodology, a way to be in the world that is explicable apart from God’s grace? Did my thoughts even develop enough to enable this? Kyrie eleison.

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