Today’s Gospel begins with a meal at a Pharisee’s house. You may remember a similar situation when we talked about the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious perfume and wiped them with her hair. Pharisees often invited a variety of people to Sabbath dinner in order to stimulate interesting conversation and debate. There weren’t T.V. talk shows back then so people sometimes went to see who the rich people had invited to dinner. People received more honor when members of the community came to listen to the debate.
Furthermore, Luke informs us that this was not the house of just any Pharisee, this was the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. That means that there would be other Pharisees at this meal. Then, as if we don’t get the point that these Pharisees were up to something, Luke also informs us that this was a Sabbath and, that they were watching him carefully. By the time we get this far into Luke’s Gospel account, we pretty much know that this is a setup … a trap. These Pharisees are going to try to embarrass Jesus and harm His standing in the community. The only question is how will they try to get Him this time.
It doesn’t take long for the plot to unfold. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. (Luke 14:2) Dropsy is a synonym for edema. There is a fluid buildup that is similar to the buildup around an insect sting or bite. Only, in this case that buildup is much more widely spread. Very often the swelling is big enough to distort the features of the body. This condition can be fatal, but most of the time it was merely very uncomfortable. In addition to all that, the person who suffered from dropsy was considered unclean.
The Pharisees thought they had Jesus in a trap. If Jesus did not heal this person, then the people will see Him as uncaring. On the other hand, according to the Pharisees tradition, healing the man would be working on the Sabbath, a clear violation of the Law of Moses. Either way, Jesus would lose honor.
Jesus met the conflict head on. Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (Luke 14:3) Before the lawyers and Pharisees could make their case against Jesus, He reversed the situation. Now, if the lawyers and Pharisees said Jesus should not heal this person, then the people will see them as uncaring. And according to their own tradition, if they encouraged Jesus to heal the man, they would be encouraging Jesus to work on the Sabbath and violate the Law of Moses. Either way, they would lose honor. The lawyers and Pharisees had not planned for this reversal and so they said nothing.
Jesus then healed the man and pointed out the hypocrisy of the situation. He said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5) Once again, we see Jesus teach from Holy Scripture for God inspired Moses himself to preach, “You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again.” (Deuteronomy 22:4) Jesus once again demonstrated that the Pharisees based their case on their own traditions while Jesus made His case based on Holy Scripture, the Word of God.
Jesus then used this as an opportunity to teach that true honor comes from humility. He told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor. (Luke 14:7) In the parable, Jesus unpacked the Old Testament reading that we heard from Proverbs: 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. (Proverbs 25:6–7) Humility waits for the host to assign the place at table. Arrogance chooses a place of honor for himself.
Remember that people reclined at table when they ate. Since this was an upper scale house, the people probably reclined on dining couches instead of mats. Your position at the table would affect how hard you had to work to follow the discussion. The more honorable places would allow you be seen by many and follow the conversation easily. Apparently, the people at this meal were not waiting for the host to seat them. Instead, they were seeking the places of higher honor for themselves.
The first impression of Jesus’ parable is that it is just giving some common sense advice. If you take a place of high honor, you take a risk. If a person of higher honor comes to the meal, you will experience shame as everyone watches you move to the lowest place. However, Luke specifically told us that this was a parable, so there must be more to it than is obvious.
The hint comes at the end. He said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) In the parable, Jesus said that someone of a higher rank might show up. It was a gamble. When Jesus stated his conclusion though, He used the word everyone. He was talking about the situation when taking a place of honor guaranteed the shame of moving to a lower place. He was talking about the Great Reversal that affects all people.
We heard about the Great Reversal last week when we heard Jesus say, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30) Clear back at the beginning of His Gospel account, Luke recorded Jesus’ mother Mary as she praised the Great Reversal in the middle of the Magnificat. She said, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:51–53)
Jesus said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” With these words, Jesus teaches that those who believe they can contribute to their own salvation will hear the words, “Give your place to this person.” Such people miss out on the Kingdom of God. Meanwhile, those who confess that they deserve eternal punishment for their sin and trust in God’s mercy will hear the words, “Friend, move up higher.” These people will enjoy a place of honor in God’s presence forever.
We already do that when we have communion. We take the lowest place when we say: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment. But I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them, and I pray Thee of Thy boundless mercy and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Thy beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.” When we say these words, we are taking the lowest place.
When we take the lowest place in this way, we hear absolution come from the mouth of the pastor as he says, “Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” This is nothing other than the pastor exercising the authority that Jesus gave when He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:23) In the context of today’s Gospel, these words that the pastor says are Jesus saying, “Friend, move up higher.”
It is then, with our sins forgiven and with the righteousness of Christ credited to us, that we enter the hall of the feast with the words of the Introit. There the Holy Spirit moves us up to our places of honor at the table of the Lamb of God. The pastor even symbolizes that upward motion as he steps up to the altar during the reading of the Introit.
Jesus Christ has the authority to move us up because He Himself took the lowest of all places. His perfect life without sin earned Him the highest place of all, but He did not take it. Instead, He took the lowest place. He took His place under the punishment of the wrath of God. Even though Jesus was perfect in every way, He took the lowest place on the cross. By taking on this lowest of all places, Jesus earned the right for us to live forever in the very presence of God.
We know that this is true because God the Father has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31) When Jesus rose from the dead it was just as if God the Father spoke to Jesus and said, “Friend, move up higher.” Jesus Christ became the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20) His resurrection assures us all that on the Last Day, Jesus will raise all the dead. Those who arrogantly took the higher places for themselves will hear, “Surrender your place! Go, instead to the lowest place.” Those who recognize their sin and call out to God for forgiveness will hear, “Friend, move up higher! Take your place at My side.”
Jesus made one more point in today’s Gospel. He instructed the Pharisee to invite people who could never pay him back … who would never be able to repay the favor. With these words, Jesus assures us that the Kingdom of God is for all people … even those who are repulsive to society.
At the time of today’s Gospel, Jesus spoke of the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind … He could even have pointed to that man who had the dropsy. In our day, He could point to that young person who makes you a little nervous because of the loud music, the tattoos, the piercings, the strange fashions and odd hairstyles, or any number of other things that make us uncomfortable. Jesus made Himself the lowest in order to save them as well. They too can confess their sins and trust in the mercy that Jesus Christ earned for all people on the cross. They too can hear Jesus say, “Friend, move up higher!”
The Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to write, “Though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11) Jesus Christ who humbled Himself to the lowest depth of the cross is now exalted to the greatest height. He is now preparing the place of honor that He has earned for each of us at His wedding feast. When the time is right, He will come and say to each of His faithful people, “Friend, move up higher.” Amen.
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