Jesus at a Pharisee's House
1 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 Then he asked them, "If one of you has a child [a] or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?" 6 And they had nothing to say.
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, 'Give this person your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, 'Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
12 Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
When I was in college one of the biggest arguments that could develop between the guys that lived together in the dorms would take place if someone took your seat in our common living room area when you got up to go to the bathroom or get something to eat or something of that nature. To solve this problem we instituted a system called “golden chair”. It was a brilliantly simple system but one that quickly came to be recognized as one of the most important “laws” of our dormitory. Woe to the one who violated the law of the golden chair. What would happen was if you were about to get up for a temporary issue, you could simply declare “golden chair” before you stood up. This laid your claim to that chair, regardless of how good a spot it was, until you came back. Failure to honor the golden chair meant a severe bed jumping for the violator, which was the process of throwing someone down on their bed and then having five or six other guys pile on top of the offender and, while still lying on him, bouncing up and down. If, however, you got up and failed to declare golden chair, you could cry all you wanted when you returned but if your seat had been taken by someone else, it was considered to be your own fault. All you had to do was to declare “golden chair” and that seat would have been yours with no questions asked.
The whole point of golden chair was that you had a right to your own spot. If you invoked the golden chair rule then that seat would be yours regardless of what anyone else did or what you were doing. You simply had a right to that spot that could not be revoked. As strange as it might sound, this is similar to the thought behind this passage here. When it came to a spot at the table in the kingdom of God, was there anything like the golden chair? Was there something that earned someone a certain spot at the table regardless of all other factors?
Luke draws attention to the fact that, once again, we have another scene that takes place on the Sabbath. Just as Jesus was systematically redefining the meaning of the concept of family and centering things around the family of God, he was also clearly not tightening Sabbath regulations but was instead redefining them. As Jesus arrived at the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being watched closely. It is probable that he was invited by this Pharisee out of a combination of the man’s obligation of extending hospitality to a traveler, especially a prominent one, and the desire to meet Jesus up close and see what exactly he was about. Would he fit the proper Messianic expectations or would he prove himself to be an imposter in the eyes of those around him?
One mystery that Luke does not solve for us is where this man with abnormal swelling would have come from. It is highly unlikely that he would have been an invited guest, and the fact that Jesus eventually sent him on his way, seems to verify that he was not a guest. But that is not an important detail for Luke and so, as he usually does, he leaves that detail a mystery. The abnormal swelling was caused by dropsy. Dropsy is not really a disease in and of itself but is a symptom. It is, in fact, a disfiguring swelling caused by water retention as a result of a heart or kidney condition.
Before Jesus even interacts with this man, though, he turns to ask a question of the Pharisees. Jesus knew that he was being closely watched and he knew that taking an action such as healing this man on the Sabbath would be a source of contention. This is a clear indicator, then, that although Jesus certainly had compassion on this man and desired to heal him and release him from sickness, his primary motivation was to teach those at the meal about an important aspect of the kingdom of God.
What was the purpose of the Sabbath? Was it to create a bunch of rules and regulations that, in reality, drove people further from God or was the Sabbath designed to point people to God and show them his desire for people to rest in him? The book of Hebrews, of course, answers that question resoundingly, making the point that the Sabbath was intended to be a day of rest to teach God’s people of their need to rest in him and the fact that they could eventually rest in the Messiah. Jesus’ question gets right to the heart of that. There may be certain laws that kept people in line with the Sabbath expectations, but weren’t there exceptions? Could you heal on the Sabbath or not? The question is not whether work was lawful on the Sabbath, which would have been their objection to his healing of the man. The question was, was it lawful to heal or not? The answer, in Jesus’ eyes, was clearly “yes,” as he quickly healed the man and sent him on his way.
Further proof that the primary point of the healing was to teach a point was that after the man left, Jesus got down to the business of explaining the kingdom to the Pharisees that witnessed the healing. Wouldn’t they rescue a child or an ox that had fallen into a well? Of course they would do it, and that action would take a whole lot more work than his healing. If they were going to show compassion in that situation why would they deny someone being healed, Sabbath or not?
It came down to the concept that I learned long ago with the golden chair. Could they claim golden chair when it came to the kingdom of God or not? Was this their kingdom where their rules and regulations took precedence, or was this God’s kingdom where his will was primary? Could they deny the kingdom to others because they had placed their own claim on it that everyone else must bow to? To make clear that they had no such claim of primacy Jesus used a common occurrence as his tool to teach them something unfathomably important about the kingdom of God.
What Jesus offered in verses 7-11 is often reduced to some great advice about how to handle oneself humbly at a public gathering and there is absolute truth to the fact that his people should be humble and not fight for the best position. If they do that they might be humbled and moved down to a less important seat at the table. No, they shouldn’t think they have a right or a claim to any seat. Take the lowest spot, the spot of a servant even (as Jesus would do in John 13) and then allow others to move them up if they so wished, just don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought.
But, there is much more to this than just some great advice about demonstrating humility in a public setting. Verse 7 tells us that this was a parable, which meant that it was a teaching from Jesus designed to relay some truth about the kingdom of God. The deeper implications are somewhat obvious when considered in context of the larger flow of the Gospel of Luke. It was the religious leaders of Israel, like these Pharisees who would rather have denied the healing of the man with dropsy, who thought that they had a golden chair-like claim to the kingdom of God. But they should not think such a thing. That was not how God’s family acted. Jesus was humble and his people should be humble as well. Rather than scratching and clawing for the top spot in God’s kingdom as though it was owed to them, the kingdom of God had to be received with deep humility and an awareness of one’s utter lack of a rightful claim on any of it. If they continued to think that they had an everlasting claim to the best spot in God’s kingdom, Israel would very soon find themselves humbled as those from outside of God’s historic people were shown the way to the best spots at the table. The kingdom banquet would be the domain of the Gentiles rather than Israel.
They shouldn’t think that the kingdom of God was like their banquets where only the “deserving” were invited. That was to miss the whole point of the kingdom of God. It was not for those who thought they deserved to be there and it was not limited to those who the host thought were worthy of being in their presence. That might be how they operated when it came to banquets in the present age, but if they wanted to be God’s people they needed to embrace a very different way of thinking and living.
God’s people didn’t see themselves as the host or even as an entitled guest who could declare a “golden chair” claim on God’s kingdom. They were the lowest of guests. If they really wanted to be part of God’s family they had better stop thinking that there was any such thing as the “deserving” or the “undeserving.” The kingdom of God was not an exclusive banquet for the rich and self-adulating. It was an open affair that gave invitations to the sick, the needy, the sinful, and yes, the Gentiles.
How easy it is to fall into that type of mentality. Without even realizing it we can start to act as though God’s church, his family, belongs to us or that we have a certain claim to it. God forbid that we should ever start to slip into the mindset that it’s just better to have “decent” people come to church and not have to be bothered by those that are so obviously “sinful.” It is precisely when we fall into that type of thinking that we might just be moved right down the line from our seat with no claim of golden chair, or even worse, we might find that we have walked ourselves out of the banquet altogether.
Have you ever thought, although you might never had admitted it, that you were just too good, too holy, and too Christian to be around a particular person or group of people? Have you ever wished that your church could be full of decent people who were living holy lives rather than having people come around who were uncomfortably sinful at the moment? Does your attitude more often reflect the entitled heart of the Pharisees here or the healing heart of Jesus? What, specifically, is this passage challenging you to do today?