On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But 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.’ (NRSV).
Our Gospel reading takes place in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Luke ensures that, from the outset, the reader is aware that this is not a particularly friendly sabbath meal. These religious leaders are ‘…watching him closely.’
They immediately present him with a dilemma. Before him appears a man with dropsy. We are left to wonder at the set-up. Why is he here? How did he so conveniently and quickly end up ‘right in front’ of Jesus? Were these two guests invited for this very moment? Does this man know he is being used? Has he agreed to a humiating and public encounter in the hope of meeting Jesus and being healed?
We can only speculate. What we do know is that the temptation to set this man free from his ailment is simply too much for Jesus.
But before healing him, Jesus asks his hosts for their professional legal assessment: ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ Although the law is their area of expertise they refuse to reply. Jesus response was, firstly, to heal the man, and second, to send him, healed and whole, from these prying and callous eyes. Jesus affirms his dignity through both healing and letting him go.
Only then does Jesus offer his own assessment of sabbath law: ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’
There is, once again, silence. The party is not starting well. Jesus it would seem is a somewhat challenging guest.
But he is only just getting started. He also has a problem with the seating arrangements and the guest list. Jesus has been doing some close watching of his own.
Those who have been invited have been clamoring for ‘the places of honor’. Jesus’ parable changes the setting to a wedding banquet but almost all the rest of his story could be taken from the scene before him. This is, perhaps one of Jesus less-than-well-disguised parables.
His story points to the possible disgrace of exaggerating your own importance. He confrontingly concludes: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’. A conversation stopper is ever there was one!
The predictable pause may have been a good opportunity for Jesus to leave. But he is far from finished. Having taken on the guests, he now turns to the host.
The invitation list – with the exception of the healed man who has now left – was a careful selection of relatives and rich friends. This, according to Jesus is a sharing among the haves at the exclusion of the have-nots.
Jesus daringly suggests that a broader selection would have been more just – and more pleasing to God. He fingers repayment as the motive. But it is a short sighted repayment being sought. In this economy of invite and be invited God is assumed absent.
But God is not absent. God is the one who sees all – abundantly blessing and repaying. The hosts economy is narrower than the reality of the kingdom he so zealously serves. In his lists and preparation he has forgotten God.
How easily we lose sight of God and God’s economy.