Last week I used the image of a jigsaw puzzle to talk about how the story of Jesus healing the woman with a bad back touched on several aspects of the larger picture Luke was trying to describe and interlocked with both previous stories and next stories in Luke. I mentioned it contained images of Jesus’ healing ministry, his critique of first century scriptural interpretation, especially concerning the Sabbath, and images of the coming Kingdom of God.
This week continues in a similar manner. In our Lectionary, we skip over some sections of scripture between last week’s lesson and this week’s lesson. I hate missing pieces in my puzzles so I would like to just mention a few highlights from these passages so we can keep the flow of the story in mind.
Jesus is traveling from town to town moving ever closer to Jerusalem and continuing his critique of the people’s understanding of the kingdom and how different their actions are from what God expects. The people think that just because they have shared meals with Jesus and listened to him teach that makes them insiders. Jesus talks about narrow roads and closing doors. Jesus tells them there will be people from the four corners of the world that will be included, and some of the ones they least expect to enter the kingdom of heaven will be the first ones to be included. Some who expect to be first may be last or might not even make it in the door before it closes.
These are very dangerous words to be speaking in the presence of local authorities. Some of the Pharisee’s warn Jesus that he is in danger of being killed by Herod if he continues toward Jerusalem, especially if he continues teaching in this vein. We are quick to stereotype all Pharisee’s as enemies of Jesus, but that is not entirely the case. Some, like these appear to have Jesus’ safety in mind, some were curious and perhaps had not entirely decided what they thought about Jesus as we will see he is invited into the home of one of the Pharisee’s for a sabbath meal in today’s lesson.
Jesus is aware of how dangerous his message is and what the outcome will be, yet tells he tells this group of Pharisees that he must continue his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus is grieving over Jerusalem even as he journeys toward his death there.
We speak of Jesus as prophet, priest, and king. He is functioning as prophet as he tells his stories. Prophets were seldom popular; they spoke the truth about the present and predicted the outcome for the future if nothing changed. In fact, Jesus reminds the people that it is in Jerusalem that prophets get killed. His words about narrow roads, closing doors, and people being excluded sound harsh. We may be tempted to say “Not my Jesus”, but Jesus’ intent is to cause the people to repent and correct the direction of their lives while there is still time. Here is where we get the passage about Jesus wishing he could take the inhabitants of Jerusalem and protect them under his wings like a hen protects her chicks. Jesus is speaking for the Trinity, who loves the people and is broken hearted that they don’t understand what God through the centuries has been trying to teach them.
As Jesus continues toward Jerusalem, he is invited to the home of one of the chief Pharisees and it appears there are many other synagogue leaders there at the table with them. We almost get a repeat of last week’s lesson. Jesus sees a man, possible one of the servants, who has dropsy. Today we would call it edema and he probably had no business being on his feet. Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” This time no one responds. Perhaps word has gotten out about the last time this subject came up. Jesus heals the man and then volunteers the same answer he gave last time – if it was one of their valuable farm animals, they would care for it on the sabbath.
All this time, Jesus has been watching the crowd at this dinner. He has seen how people have jockeyed for the best places, have wanted to sit close to certain people. Jesus does a little preaching on Proverbs 25: 6-7 which says, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” Jesus takes this proverb and makes it real for them. He moves it to a wedding feast – something they all would know about – which wasn’t too far from the situation they were currently in.
Jesus begins, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…” (Luke 14:8). This should not have been too scandalous for them unless they recognized that Jesus was talking about them. This followed the line of Proverbs which they knew well. But then Jesus takes it one step further and this was sure to give pause to the host in particular, but possibly the guests as well. “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.” (Luke 14: 14-13) The poor and lame at this feast are working as servants to the rich and powerful and they have not been invited to sit down and share the meal. These are the people that Jesus indicated might get into the kingdom of heaven first. This behavior of seeking earthly riches and earthly honor is the ditch on the side of the road that Jesus said was narrow.
The guests at this dinner would probably have been horrified at the thought of the bloated servant sitting next to them. I am reminded in Downton Abbey when the chauffeur is first invited to sit at the table with the family because of his relationship with one of the daughters. Violet, played by Maggie Smith, reacts pretty close to what I imagine the dinner guests at this dinner were feeling at the thought of inviting people, like the man Jesus just healed, to sit next to them for a meal.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first. It is a hard concept to grasp because most humans are naturally competitive. Athletics, whether individual or team, is all about proving that you are better than anyone else. Award ceremonies for music, theater, or any other craft or skill are all about acknowledging that some people are better at something than anyone else. Scholarships are awarded to those who are the best in their field of study. The list goes on and on. We are programmed to want to win.
Building relationships that increase our chances of winning are also pretty natural to most humans. Networking is the name of the game. It is not what you know as much as who you know. Befriending the friendless will not get one ahead in this life, but that is exactly what Jesus is suggesting.
What is just as troubling is that being compassionate to those who have less can become just as competitive as being rich, beautiful, or powerful. The harder we try to “get into the kingdom of heaven” the more we can fall into the trap of seeking to be first, in a different way. The Pharisees fell into this trap. The harder they tried to make sure God’s laws were followed the less they followed the intent of the law. The Pharisees were probably the most law-abiding folks around, but not the most compassionate. I am well aware of how tricky it can be to find the right balance so that one is righteous , in right relationship with God and not self-righteous, believing oneself to be in right relationship with God when you are not.
I have no easy answers for you. Prayer, reading the scriptures, self-examination and confession, getting out into the community and building relationships with a wide variety of people are all tools to help us navigate this narrow path. The Good News is that if the last are first, we don’t have to win any race. We just do the best we can, one day at a time, and give thanks for the mercy of God who forgives all our sins.