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written by Constance Morgenstern

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Part III
Bible Study and Thoughts for

"Jesus, Guest of Many People"

The plot—as people say—has thickened. In the story for verse 4 of our hymn, Jesus is eating at another Pharisee’s house (See Luke 14:1-24 for the full story).

Gospel writer Luke lays out the situation in verse 1: It’s the Sabbath. The meal is hosted by a prominent Pharisee. And, Jesus is being carefully watched.

You may remember how the Pharisees were moving from curiosity to hostility toward Jesus, and that they eventually worked for his death. While Simon the Pharisee (in Luke 7 and our last study) seemed more curious, the Pharisees in the current story (Luke 14) show more animosity. In fact, Luke has described another dinner with Pharisees between these events (Luke 11:37-53), at which Jesus pretty much ripped into their patterns. That story ended with them trying to catch Jesus saying wrong things. So, that is the setting for our current story. The Pharisees are watching Jesus…

and Jesus gives them a lot to watch!

You can’t say Jesus is “playing defense” here! Right away, Jesus delicately does something he already knows will upset the Pharisees. Healing people on the Sabbath was a sore point between Jesus and religious leaders (see the chapter right before this one, Luke 13:10-17). You know from our Ten Commandments that God had set the Sabbath apart for rest (Exodus 20:8-11). On that basis, religious leaders taught people to be extremely careful about doing too much “work” on a Sabbath—and that would include Jesus' healings, they felt. So, it’s not a good start to the Pharisees’ gathering that Jesus not only heals a man with edema right in front of them, but he essentially points out their hypocrisy. He asks them if—despite the prohibition against working—they wouldn’t save even an ox of theirs if it got in trouble on a Sabbath. (They are silent about this.) Jesus heals the man because God intended the Sabbath as a gift, for rest, communion with God, and peace. (For more on this, you could see Mark 2:23-3:6).

The gathering's second upset comes even before they start eating, as Jesus sees the guests at the meal try to claim table places with more “honor.” (“I call ‘Shotgun’!”) Wouldn’t we like to dismiss these Pharisees as being somewhat silly about this? I’d like to think our society has gotten past such a focus on rank or status—except that it hasn’t. Think of political dinners, some formal weddings and receptions, the Academy Awards, etc. At these, it does matter where you sit, and with whom.

I imagine that the Pharisees at the chief Pharisee’s dinner all aimed to sit closer to where he was, or closer to the “movers and shakers” of their Pharisee group. Don’t we do that at business events, or even in school cafeterias? Sometimes, aren’t there people we want to be seen with, or at least, want to know better, because it might be socially or professionally advantageous? (Or, reversing this, aren’t there also people whom the wider group has sort of agreed to pick on or shut out?)

Still, “seats of honor” may have been more important in Jesus’ time. Consider the story where disciples James and John want Jesus to give them thrones in the Kingdom on either side of his (e.g. Mark 10:35-45). Not surprisingly, the other disciples react badly. That’s something we often conveniently forget—how our own actions to “get ahead” may push others aside.

Back at the Pharisee’s meal, when Jesus sees the guests jockey for the top spots, he tells them a parable about a wedding feast (Luke 14:7-11), which was an accepted metaphor for the final Kingdom of God. The parable is about purposefully choosing the lowest-ranking place at the banquet. Its resounding conclusion is that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (The exalting or humbling is done by God. You can see that connection more easily at the end of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14.)

Now, one theme of this entire study and hymn is this: That Jesus “reads” people and meets them where they are. Jesus’ next encounter is directly with the host of the meal, who is descibed as a chief/prominent/leader/ruler among the Pharisees, depending on your Bible translation. Perhaps he had some wealth or power. It’s not a reach to think he had some political smarts, because the leading Pharisees used political maneuvering later to get Jesus crucified by the Romans. It’s a sad possibility that the Pharisee leader partly gave this dinner in order to trap Jesus, and that Jesus knew it.

If Jesus spoke in our terms, I can imagine him saying to his host, “Really? You’re giving a banquet just to trap me, when there’s so much good you could do in other ways?” It’s like Jesus is giving a “reality check” on religion when he suggests how his host could, instead, offer a meal to the poor, the blind, the crippled, the lame….

One of Jesus’ complaints about the Pharisees—who were religious people—is that they sometimes got so caught up in the tinier aspects of Jewish law that they missed the larger issues of justice and love (See Matthew 23:23-28, or Matthew 9:10-13 with its inclusion of Hosea 6:6). The Pharisees also believed, along with Jesus, in a resurrection (e.g. Luke 20:27-38). So, it made sense when Jesus told them that banquet invitations to people who could not repay would be repaid by God at that time.

Now things need a deeper look: In our study about the sinful/forgiven woman, we wrote of the basic Christian idea that our salvation is not earned by good deeds, but through faith and the grace of God. It might seem like a contradiction when Jesus tells our host how inviting the poor to banquets would earn him a final reward.

Jesus did teach that good actions matter. No, they aren’t the key to salvation, but they might be sign of it. He described good deeds as the result of humble gratitude to God for his forgiveness. In his teachings, Jesus likened this to a tree bearing fruit (Luke 6:43-45 and Matthew 7:15-20). The fruit (our deeds) comes from the condition of the tree (our relationship with God). Or, see John 15:1-8, where Jesus similarly portrays us as branches of a grapevine whose fruit-bearing depends on being connected to himself, the main vine. The dark side in each of these passages, is that God knows when apparent good deeds are only superficial (see the continuation of the tree passage in Matthew 7:21-23, or see several passages in Matthew 6). But when we are already in a saved relationship with God, good deeds will naturally arise from it—so that the relationship will show as obviously as a city built on a hill (Matthew 5:14-16).

You might ask (as I did), “But what about the story of the Sheep and the Goats?” Jesus’ illustration of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) might appear to say that good deeds are the key to final salvation, but there are larger, crucial differences between the whole outlooks of the sheep and goats. The saved “sheep” seem genuinely surprised that some of the good things they naturally did for other people were counted as being done for Jesus. It was, for them, natural to help others, perhaps with an attitude of “We’re all in this together.” (Relating this to our supper story in Luke, they were humble, so they were exalted.) On the other hand, the unsaved “goats” try to excuse their lack of good deeds by saying that they couldn't have done anything for Jesus since they never saw Jesus to help! Doing things for others isn’t even on their radar!!! And, overall, their attitudes of selfishness and attempts at self-justification don’t sit well with God.

Getting back to our story in Luke, we can spot a common thread running through all of Jesus’ challenges to the Pharisees that day. In each, Jesus was teaching about priorities/attitudes, to encourage the Pharisees to see whether their lives expressed their own earthly values, or God’s. The last teaching he delivered during their meal together was another parable about a wedding banquet (Luke 14:16-24), (The setup for the parable in verse 15 shows that they would have indeed understood this banquet as representing the final Kingdom of God.) In the parable, the guests who were originally invited to the banquet make all kinds of excuses not to show up, claiming that there are other things they need to do. In the host's angry exclusion of those original guests from the banquet entirely, we can sense a severe warning for the Pharisees. Like the original guests in the parable, they seem to have put other things above their response to God’s invitations.

In terms of Jesus’ earlier analogy, their lives/trees were not bearing good fruit, and God would have every right to “cut them down.” But I do love the little story in Luke’s chapter right before this (Luke 13:6-9) which suggests how Jesus, as a gardener, offers his last-ditch, down-and-dirty labor to get an unfruitful tree to bear fruit the next year.

Or, I like another story immediately before ours (Luke 13:31-35) that shows not only some possibly-sympathetic Pharisees warning Jesus about plans to kill him, but expresses Jesus’ love and concern even for the power-entrenched people who would do this. Or I like the stories which come right afterwards, in Luke 15, about lost things and how much joy in Heaven there is when they are “found.” There is a point being made here: Jesus did try to get our Pharisees to listen. He walked into their plot at the Sabbath meal to do it.

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