In our reading today from Luke chapter 14 verses 1-11 Jesus is going to the house of a Pharisee for a meal, this is common theme in Luke where we find Jesus going for meals more than in any other gospel. For Luke it seems Christian life is like a meal or a party and God is the host.
Verse one however, alerts us to the fact that this is not an innocent Sabbath lunch, Jesus is being watched, the Pharisees were suspicious of Jesus and were looking out for ways to get rid of him. Earlier at Luke 6.7 we are told that ‘The Pharisees and teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.’
The Jews of Jesus day, and many Jews right up to the present day follow the commandment that God gave to Moses
‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work.
And many people myself included think that this is a very good commandment, however it has been subject to much debate by Jews regarding what is work. Growing up in Newton Mearns I remember our beautifully dressed Jewish neighbours walking to Schul on a Saturday because driving was work. And in London before the advent of timers Jews would employ a ‘Shabbat goy’ that is a gentile to light the fires and put on the lights because that too was work. So would Jesus work on the Sabbath by healing the man with dropsy?
Bearing in mind the Pharisees aim to get Jesus to incriminate himself we might wonder if the man with dropsy, a condition which caused fluid retention and swelling, was a plant. We might wonder if he had been brought along to test Jesus reaction.
Well, Jesus’ reaction was to take the bull by the horns, he challenges the so called experts on the Jewish law turning the question to them, ‘Well’ he says is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or isn’t it?’ But the experts were unwilling to commit themselves because as I said this was a matter for debate, they wouldn’t commit themselves one way or the other so said nothing and Jesus healed the man and sent him off.
But Jesus wasn’t finished with the hard question because he went on to challenge then on their understanding of the law, ‘can you rescue an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath, what about if it was your son’ he asked them? Well of course the Pharisees would rescue an ox and would certainly rescue their son and the logic is clear; if you can help an animal or a person who has fallen down a well on the Sabbath surely you can heal someone with an illness! Once again the Pharisees could not refute Jesus and had nothing to say. They had set out trap Jesus but Jesus was aware of the trap and neatly avoided it.
So we have the situation where the Pharisees were watching Jesus, but Jesus was also watching them and he saw how they jockeyed for the best positions, the positions of honour at the table. And he told them the parable that we read earlier, one part says:
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 honoured 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.”
This doesn’t seem too much like a parable to us, it’s more like a piece of good advice, a way to avoid embarrassment, how to behave in a social setting and is as relevant today as it was in the first century.
In fact the reading that we had from Proverbs is very similar and as experts on the Jewish scriptures the Pharisees might have been expected to recognise its teaching;
Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence,
and do not claim a place among his great men;
it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,”
than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.
So Jesus is turning the tables on the Pharisees and experts of the law, they were watching Jesus looking for him to violate the law, but when they tried to get him to condemn himself Jesus showed them that though they might have a good knowledge of the Torah they did not always follow it’s teachings.
Jesus was not bragging to the Pharisees he was telling them a story about what heaven is like, a story about God’s banquet. He was telling them about the topsy-turvy nature of Gods kingdom where the first are last, where the king of the world is the servant of all, where those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He was warning them that in Gods kingdom things might not be quite what they were expecting.
As I have studied and reflected on this passage I have wondered about Jesus relationship with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were one several groups of Jews living in Israel in Jesus time. They believed themselves to be the keepers of the Law given to Moses by God. To this law they added precepts or customs which had been handed down through the years. They took these precepts to such extremes that the original intent of the written law was often lost. To the Pharisee, keeping the law was everything. The condition of a person’s heart towards God was unimportant.
The Pharisees were waiting for the Messiah who they believed would be a descendant of King David. They were looking for someone to rule over the Jewish nation, but their idea of the Messiah was certainly not a friend of Gentiles and sinners. And as they were totally convinced that their laws and religious observances were correct. The idea of the Messiah breaking these laws was unthinkable to them.
The Pharisees had so much knowledge and learning, they had studied the Torah so fully they had debated and discussed it’s meaning, dissecting every tiny verse to try and extract every bit of meaning from it that they had constructed a strait jacket that confined the Jews so tightly that they could scarcely move for fear of violating some law or precept. And yet with all their study and learning they had altogether missed the point.
Many years ago our minister Elizabeth and I went to a lecture in Glasgow about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Speaker made a statement that I have always remembered, he said, ‘The Bible is a big book!’ By which he meant that in all our Bible study, our interest in small sections we should never lose sight of the broad sweep, the big picture of Gods creative and redemptive love for humankind, and this was precisely what the Pharisees did they were so stressed about the minutia that they forgot about God. For them a point of law was more important than a man suffering from an illness.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was openly opposed to the Pharisees. He denounced them publicly for their hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, and evil ways. Jesus believed that the law which God had intended to enable the Israelites to live righteous lives had been corrupted by the Pharisees;
Sometimes we tend to view Jesus attitudes to the tax gatherers and sinners and the Pharisees and teachers of the Law in a simplistic way, the Pharisees are the baddies’ and the tax gatherers and sinners are the goodies. But of course sinners whether then or now have to repent their sin and turn to God and some Pharisees became followers of Jesus, St Paul himself was originally a devout Pharisee. I think what really upset Jesus about the Pharisees was that they seemed to wilfully miss the point about Gods love. They used the law to keep people out of Gods kingdom instead of using it to help people in.
So what can we learn from this short section of Luke’s Gospel? What does it say to us as a Church and as individual Christians? Well, I think it points up a tendency amongst people, just as strong now as it was in Jesus day to make up rules for Christian living that keep us in and others out. Different denominations disagree about all sorts of things like who we should pray to, whether or not clergy can get married who is worthy to come to communion and so on and so on. And there is still jockeying for position not just at higher levels but within individual churches. Outsiders can see Christianity as a religion where there is more dissent than love, because just as the Pharisees were being watched we as Christians and as a Christian church are being watched.
Jesus was annoyed and frustrated by the Pharisees because they made it hard for people to come to God not easy. But if Jesus came to our church today what kind of church, what kind of Christians would he find? Would he find Christians who are doing everything in their power to make worship open and accessible to all, open to trying different things in order to attract different people? Would he find Christians who ask their friends and neighbours if they would like to come to Church? Would he find Christians who welcome everybody no matter their background but don’t overwhelm new arrivals? Would he find Christians who show love and respect for Christians of other denominations and backgrounds and seek to work with them?
What kind of church would Jesus find if he came in through the doors of this church? And that is a pertinent question because the Bible tells us that Jesus is here in church with us this morning. And just as he watched those first century Pharisees he is watching us. He is watching to see if we put ourselves first as the Pharisees did, he is watching to see if we put barriers in people’s way, he is watching to see if we have sat here week after week yet still missed the central point about sharing his love with others.
Because it is easy to get it wrong, it is easy to repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees that caused Jesus so much pain. But if we want to know how to behave as Christians then the answer is contained in the passage we read today too. In order to get things right we have to carefully watch Jesus, not like the Pharisees looking for faults, but as Christian people learning how to follow our master and our example. And if we follow him and his rule of love, then we will learn to be worthy disciples of our saviour Jesus Christ.