Jeremiah 2:4-13 – God states the case against the descendants of Jacob.
Sirach 10:12-18 – The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.
Proverbs 25:6-7 – 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. What your eyes have seen
Psalm 81:1, 10-16 – I brought you out of the land of Egypt, but you did not obey me. So I gave you over to your stubborn desires.
Psalm 112 – Blessed is the one who obeys the Lord. His house contains riches.
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.
Luke 14:1, 7-14 – Jesus heals on the Sabbath and lectures on the law. Jesus teaches about taking the lower place. When you give a luncheon or dinner invite the poor and crippled.
The Last Shall Be First
Possible Theme: By Faith Welcome the Stranger. Hebrews: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Luke: invite the poor and crippled to your dinner parties.
Our text today begins with Luke 14:1, then jumps to verses 7-14. Verses 2-6 never appear in the Lutheran lectionary. The missing verses recount another Sabbath healing, something we have already heard from Luke. Verse one sets the stage. Jesus has been invited to a Sabbath meal at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. Luke clues us in that this is a trap: “They were watching him closely.”
In verses 2-6, Jesus heals a man with dropsy (hydrpikos). This is the only place this word appears in Luke’s gospel. Dropsy is a swelling due to fluid retention. It is caused by an underlying problem, edema. In his commentary on Luke, David Jeffrey says the condition was associated (incorrectly) in rabbinic tradition with sexually transmitted disease. In Luke, Jesus reaches through walls of shame. Jesus taunts them, asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Why would he provoke them knowing full well what they think? I’m not sure, but it’s interesting that they don’t answer. “If you have a child or even an ox that falls in a well,” Jesus asks, “would you not pull it out on the Sabbath?” I believe Jesus is appealing to our most basic sense of justice and compassion. He appeals to their common sense. The obvious answer is “of course.” Once again, they cannot answer. The law only gets you so far. If the law gets in the way of loving God and neighbor, it must be disregarded.
They have been scrutinizing him, “watching him closely” (v. 1). Now we discover that Jesus has been watching them closely too, in particular, how they have been scrambling for seats. He sees this for what it is, an exercise in privilege and status. Jesus knows this runs counter to the very law the Pharisees tout. Leviticus 19:15 says,
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
The laws of hospitality imply a certain amount of humility. We put the other first. Leviticus 19:18.
As then, so today, most status is tied to wealth. The wealthy are almost always treated with more respect and kindness. They are given more privileges. The more you have, the more you seem to get. A mark of godly spirituality can be seen how we treat the poor and those from whom we cannot benefit. In particular, this applies to strangers, whom we may never see again from whom we cannot benefit.
Who are the people in your life that you treat with greater respect and deference and why? Ask your folks this question. Give them a moment to ponder it.
Jesus spells this out in the story of the Good Samaritan. It is central to his theology. James picks up the theme and expounds upon it (2:2-4):
“For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
A great read on power and privilege is “Power, Privilege and Difference,” by Allan Johnson.
How do status and privilege function in your congregation’s immediate community? Are there ways you can point this out in humorous or anecdotal ways that make us laugh at ourselves and rethink our allegiances? Perhaps some stories about how people behave in lines, something we experience every day in traffic, at the bank, at the grocery…
As often happens in wisdom literature, Jesus shows that scrambling for the seats of privilege (protoklisiai) is not only unjust, but as it turns out, it is unwise. It could be potentially embarrassing if you overshoot your status and get asked to take a lower place. Much better to shoot for the lowest place and then get asked to come forward. Proverbs 25:6-7 says,
“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.”
Jesus is not making any of this up. He is calling the Pharisees back to the deeper traditions of their elders.
This is not an ancillary teaching of Jesus. It is at the heart of his theology as laid out in Luke’s gospel. This theology somehow makes it to the apostle Paul, who points out Jesus’ humility in many places, not the least of which is Philippians 2, where Paul points out that Jesus, though in the form of God, did not go to the front of the line in his earthly pilgrimage, but instead took on the form of a servant and even endured the shame of the cross.
Paul lives this out. He points out that though he has the right to have a wife, he chooses not to. Although Paul has a right to receive pay for his ministry, he chooses not to. I’m not saying pastors should be celibate and not take salaries. Paul defends pastors’ right to do so. He just chooses to make tents for a living, so he can serve for free. There are many who do this. What I am saying is there will be times in life when we will (and must) choose to take a lesser place, even though we have the right to a higher place. This is because we learn volumes in the lesser place, and because we know that joy is not really found in status.
What if a mark of a Christ follower is a simple behavior of not pushing to the front of the line? Never insisting on being first. Often willingly taking the last place. What might that look like? What witness might it promote?
When people see so-called Christians demanding privileges, insisting on first place, pushing to the front of the line, I believe they instinctively intuit that this is not a person with much spiritual awareness.
Instead, let us become “exalted” by taking the last place, for those who exalt themselves will inevitably be humbled. Pride goeth before the fall. Those who humble themselves will be exalted. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. This is the quintessential Jesus.