Today's Gospel relates another Sabbath dinner that Jesus attended at the home of a Pharisee. 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. Uninvited members of the community were welcome to come and observe. One member of the community who came to observe this Sabbath dinner was a man who had dropsy.
This man with dropsy set up a conflict that Jesus had faced a few times before on other Sabbath days - to heal or not to heal. You see the Pharisees had determined that healing constituted work. Since work was illegal on the Sabbath, then healing was illegal on the Sabbath. On the other hand, the crowds had a different opinion. If healing on the Sabbath is a sin, why would God honor that sin by healing the victim?
Jesus met the conflict head on. Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?" The lawyers and Pharisees could only respond with silence. The conflict between their view and the crowd's view rendered them speechless. Jesus healed the man and then 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?"
The problem that many Pharisees had was that they were concerned about the outward appearance of keeping the Torah - the Laws of Moses. Many Pharisees saw society's praise as proof that they kept the Torah. If they prospered here on this earth, then certainly God was pleased with them and would reward their good works in the next life. In effect they were trying to work their way into heaven.
As Jesus observed the guests choosing places of honor at the dinner, He saw an opportunity to teach them about the true nature of Heaven. He told a parable. The parable tells of people choosing places at a wedding banquet.
The first part of the story tells about people who were so arrogant as to assume they deserved a place of first honor. When the host comes, he asks these arrogant people to surrender their place to others. These arrogant people receive humiliation as they move to the worst place. Then there are those who humbly wait in the lowest place for the host to assign their places. When the host comes, He honors these humble people by giving them places of honor.
Even if there were no spiritual meaning to this story, it makes good sense. After all think of the shame at being demoted in public from a higher place to a lower place. Compare that with the honor of being promoted from a lower place to a higher place. This is simply a good rule of etiquette: consider yourself as the most insignificant person in the room.
As sensible as this story's earthly meaning is, its spiritual meaning is even deeper. Jesus often compared heaven to a wedding feast. In fact, many places in the Bible refer to heaven as the eternal celebration of the wedding of Christ to His bride, the Church. The host at this wedding is, of course, Christ, the groom.
The arrogant guests who take positions higher than their status warrants correspond to those who believe they deserve a place in heaven by virtue of their own good works. When the host, Jesus Christ, comes to judge the world, he will ask these arrogant guests to surrender their place to others. They have relied on themselves for their own placement in heaven and so lose their place.
The humble guests who rely on the host to place them are those who understand that they deserve nothing but punishment here on earth and forever in eternity. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit they rely on Jesus Christ to show them to their places. When Jesus returns He will call them friend and give them a place of honor in heaven.
Jesus closed out this parable with these words, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." This is really the same teaching that we heard last Sunday when Jesus said, [Luke 13:30] "… Behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."
After Jesus spoke to the guests He had a special parable for His host. He said also to the man who had invited him, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just."
If the parable about choosing places at the wedding banquet makes good sense in this world as well as the next, this last parable makes no sense at all in this world. Why would anyone entertain people who can not return the favor? That is no way to run a business. Life depends on tit for tat, cause and effect, payment and repayment. If I do you a favor, you owe me one. That's how the world operates.
That may be the way the world operates, but it is not the way God operates. When God invites guests to His wedding banquet, He invites those who are spiritually poor, crippled, lame, and blind. In fact, He invites those who are spiritually dead - those who have no way in heaven or on earth to repay Him. He invites you and He invites me.
He invites us with the same words that He originally gave to the Apostles and the Prophets - the Words that they wrote for all generations to come - the words of Holy Scripture. With these words, God tells us that the invitation to the wedding feast of the Lamb did not come without a price. With these words, the Holy Spirit reveals how God changed worthless sinners into priceless children of God.
God did not pay the cost of the wedding feast in gold or silver, but through the holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ. When we see God made flesh in the manger - when we observe that flesh suffer and die on the cross - when we see that flesh living again in triumph at the resurrection, we see the payment God made so that we who are spiritually worse than poor, crippled, lame, or blind are worthy of an invitation to God's wedding feast.
In today's Gospel, Jesus said, "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." No where has this statement been more deeply fulfilled than in the saving work of Jesus Christ Himself. The Holy Spirit inspired St. Paul to write [Philippians 2:5-11] "Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." 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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