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63. Presuming Places of Honor (Luke 14:1-14)
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Gospel Parallels §168-169
James J. Tissot, 'The Meal in the House of the Pharisee' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"1 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?' 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away. 5 Then he asked them, 'If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?' 6 And they had nothing to say.
7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 'When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, "Give this man your seat." Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But 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 honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.'
12 Then Jesus said to his host, 'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.' (Luke 1:1-14)
Jesus was never a dull dinner guest. During his ministry from town to town he was invited to eat in many homes, some poor, some wealthy. He always had something to say worth listening to. I am amazed to see how Jesus sets the agenda of the discussion at this meal.
Looking for an Excuse to Blame Jesus (Luke 14:1)
"One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched." (14:1)
Jesus has been the guest of tax collectors and friends. And now he is the guest of an influential Pharisee, a "leader of the Pharisees." The man and his friends have invited Jesus to see how he observes the niceties of their interpretation of the Law. The Greek word describing their intentions is paratēreo, "watch closely, observe carefully, observe someone to see what the person does." From the context, this can take on the meaning, "watch maliciously, lie in wait for."590 What ends up happening, however, is that the Pharisees themselves are examined -- their Bible interpretation, their motives, and their values.
Since this was the Sabbath, all the food would have been prepared ahead of time for this rather large dinner, which included as guests, presumably, Jesus' disciples, Jesus, the Pharisee host, and his fellow Pharisees. Since making or tending fire wasn't allowed on the Sabbath itself (which began at sundown Friday night) food was prepared on Friday, and then kept warm for one of the three Sabbath meals -- Friday evening, one on Saturday morning, and a light meal following the time of Saturday afternoon prayer. We're not sure which meal Jesus was invited to, but the Friday evening meal might be the most elaborate of the three.591
Healing the Man with Dropsy (Luke 14:2)
"There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy." (14:2)
One of the men at the meal was afflicted with dropsy (Greek hydropikos). Dropsy (now an archaic term) or edema is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the body cavities and tissues, visible, perhaps, from puffiness in the face and swelling of the legs. It isn't so much a disease as a symptom of an underlying cause, such as congestive heart failure, liver disease, or kidney disease.592 In other words, the man in front of Jesus was pretty sick. My grandfather was afflicted with dropsy in his final days before dying of heart failure, so I have a special feeling for this man.
Some think that the man was a "plant," brought to the dinner in order to provoke Jesus to break the Sabbath by healing. Others wonder why a diseased man would be allowed at a Sabbath meal at all, since the Pharisees, of all people, were obsessive about ritual cleanness, and a diseased man might render them unclean.
I prefer to see the man as a wealthy Pharisee himself, probably overweight for some time, and now suffering from fluid retention that was an indication of his ill health. He doesn't have any symptoms that render him ceremonially unclean, but he is in obvious poor health. His Pharisee friends are glad he can join them this Sabbath -- it may be one of the last occasions he can be with them. It just so happens that the man is directly in front of (Greek emprosthen) Jesus. The Master can't help but observe his ill health, and be concerned for him.
Healing on the Sabbath (Luke 14:3-4a)
The Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see how scrupulously he keeps the law. Will he wash his hands in the ritual fashion? Will he commit some other breach of their laws? Will he heal? Jesus observes the suffering man but he doesn't immediately move to heal. He asks permission of sorts.
"Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?' But they remained silent." (14:3-4a)
They could have answered, trying to argue the position that a physician's ministrations are forbidden on the Sabbath. To bandage a wound to keep it from getting worse is allowed, but any treatment to improve a wound or sickness is forbidden unless it is considered life threatening.593
Why don't the Pharisees and scribes answer? Are they going to let Jesus hang himself? Perhaps they are aware of how he had demolished the objections of the synagogue ruler when the bent woman had been healed in a synagogue a few Sabbaths before (13:10-17). Or do they secretly hope that Jesus will indeed heal their friend? Maybe they well aware that the Mosaic Law itself doesn't prohibit healing on the Sabbath -- only Rabbinical rules. We don't know. Maybe a combination of all these reasons. But none of them speaks -- so now none can accuse Jesus of wrongdoing if the man is healed. Jesus' question ahead of time has seen to that.
Healing the Suffering Man (Luke 14:4b)
"So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away." (14:14b)
Jesus took hold of the man. The Greek word is epilambanomai, "to make the motion of grasping or taking hold of something, take hold of, grasp, catch."594 Probably this means that he took the man by the hand (see Mark 1:31; 5:41; Acts 3:7).595
Then Luke records that he healed him. The next action is interesting. Most translations render this in a similar way to the NIV, which says that Jesus "sent him away." The Greek word is apolyō. It can be used as a legal term, "acquit, release," or as "let go, send away, dismiss." In the previous chapter the same word is used of the bent woman in the sense of "to release from a painful condition, free."596 I don't see why Jesus would send the man away from the dinner; that doesn't seem to be what is going on. Perhaps the sense is: "Taking hold (of the man's hand), Jesus healed him and set him free (from his disease)." That makes more sense to me, certainly is a possible interpretation of the Greek, and follows a recent similar usage by Luke.
Doing Good on the Sabbath (Luke 14:5-6)
"Then he asked them, 'If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?' And they had nothing to say." (14:5-6)
In the synagogue, when the bent woman was healed on the Sabbath, Jesus alludes to their practice of watering their animals on the Sabbath (13:15). Here, he refers to the exception on the Sabbath of rescuing one whose life was threatened. If a son or an animal had fallen into a pit, surely they wouldn't wait until sundown to pull them out!597 If they needed to, Jesus is suggesting, they would find a way to justify pulling a son or animal out of a pit on the Sabbath. Leon Morris comments, "The clear implication of all this is that deeds of mercy are in order on the Sabbath."598 Again, the Pharisees are silent. What can they say? I wonder why they didn't say the obvious: How wonderful that this gravely ill man is healed! But they were silent.
Picking the Best Places for Yourself (Luke 14:7-9)
This dinner is the scene of a marvelous healing, and that is one theme of the story. But there's something going on at another level. The guests, it appears, care only for themselves, and not for those less fortunate for themselves -- the man healed from dropsy, for example. Their agenda at this dinner is primarily selfish.
"When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 'When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, "Give this man your seat." Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.'" (14:7-9)
There was a pecking order among this group. Jesus and his disciples may have arrived early enough to observe what was going on. There were no place cards to indicate where the guests were to sit, so as a guest entered he would look for the most honored spots at the table. Where one sat vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one's status.599 Even Jesus' own disciples, James and John, had their mother try to intervene for them so they would have the preferred places in seating order -- one on his right and the other on his left (Matthew 10:21-23). In the end, the initial honor went to two thieves.). Apparently at a Jewish meal, the top place was at the head end of the table or the middle of the middle couch.600
But the guests were not really free to sit where they desired. The host could seat and reseat guests as needs arose. Jesus gives an example of the host asking a presumptuous guest to give up his place of honor to another guest. All that is left at this point is the least important place at the table, which all of the other guests had avoided! Oops. Big time embarrassment! The one who had sought to advance his social standing ended up overreaching himself and being publicly humiliated.
Taking the Lowest Place (Luke 14:10-11)
"But 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 honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (14:10-11)
Jesus recommends to the group that they should take a more humble spot. Then they might be happily surprised when the host asks them to move closer to him. The "moral" of the story is: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (14:11). One minute Jesus uses a very current example of worldly jockeying for position. In the next he is drawing a spiritual application. It is not just a dinner host who might humble you, but God himself. Therefore don't presume on your position, but be humble before God; let God exalt you, not yourself.
Can you imagine being this pointed at dinner? In our culture it would have been considered rude -- and probably in Jesus' culture, too. But Jesus is trying to teach kingdom principles to curious and religious, but selfish, hardened leaders. He can't break through their hard shell except by shock value. I don't expect any forgot the dinner discussion that day!
Motives for Giving a Dinner Party (Luke 14:12-14)
But Jesus' pointed comments aren't over yet. He has talked about the social climbing motives of the guests. Now he turns to the host and his motives. Americans -- at least in some social classes -- pride themselves on egalitarianism, equality of all. (Now, if we would only practice it!) But cultures with a stronger awareness of class distinctions will understand this passage better. Joel B. Green writes:
"Because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one's table only one's own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one's table would either enhance or at least preserve one's social position."601
There is a room full of guests -- Pharisees, the host's peers -- who looked up to him as a leader. Jesus was the honored guest of the day, and, presumably, Jesus' disciples were invited as well. Though he were socially inferior to the Pharisees in this town, Jesus' fame had preceded him, and so his presence brought prestige to the prominent Pharisee, who wanted to be remembered in that town as the one who had hosted the famous, if unorthodox, teacher from Galilee.
This dinner wasn't about helping others, it was about helping oneself, advancing oneself, moving forward in the social matrix. These guests didn't seem to be especially concerned about the man with dropsy, only whether Jesus could be charged with breaking the Sabbath or not. The meal wasn't about enjoying Jesus' company and learning from him so much as enhancing one's status. And so Jesus' next parable is as jarring as it is apropos:
"Then Jesus said to his host, 'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'" (14:12-14)
Jesus is saying, when you hold a special meal, invite those who are least able to reciprocate. Do it out of love, invite out of the goodness of your heart. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And don't look for status, but rather bless them with your generosity. Then God will reward you. It's the same kind of parable as the previous one:
- Parable of the Places at the Table (14:7-11). Point: Don't exalt yourself, let God exalt you.
- Parable of the Guests Invited to Dinner (14:12-14). Point: Don't exalt yourself, let God exalt you.
Instead of letting your actions be controlled by what it will do for you, rather do what will bless someone else. Turn your focus from inward to outward.
A Parable of the Father's Grace
In a wonderful way, in the Parable of the Guests Invited to Dinner, Jesus is asking the host to be like Jesus' own Father. God invites to his own table -- not those who can do something for him, who can bring him expensive gifts and laudsome praises, but the hurting, the oppressed, those who have nothing to bring, the crushed and brokenhearted. The Father invites them to his table, not to help himself, but to help them. Not to receive a blessing, but to bless.
This dinner conversation is an uncomfortable one that exposes less than worthy motives. Selfishness, self-seeking, self-aggrandizement.
Many times in the church and in our families we do the right things for the wrong reasons. Our motives have tarnished and soured. It's me, it's me, O Lord. That's our refrain. Yes, we can pretty it up with spiritual jargon, but in our hearts, why do we do what we do? Do we heal out of love or duty? Do we seek to advance ourselves or seek to honor others before ourselves? Do we do good works so others will praise us and think us spiritual, or because we are overflowing with blessing to spread to others.
In my experience, we are a mixture of motives, some noble, some venial. As I read this week's passage I sense my own need for the fruit of the Spirit to grow good, wholesome fruit in my life. I need the Lord to gently loosen the roots of weeds that have infested his plantation and lift them out. I need his good work in me. Not self-serving surface good, but the deep character of my Savior in an otherwise barren and needy heart.
In this passage I see the compassion of Jesus and the open invitation of the Father. You and I have received an invitation to his table for no other reason than love, abundantly seasoned with grace.
Father, sometimes I can be as cynical as the Pharisees sitting at this table. Cleanse and renew me. Perfect and refine my motives so that your heart might fill mine and your desires might become my own. Forgive me and make me whole. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 14:11)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- What do you think the man with dropsy is doing at this dinner? What was the Pharisees' attitude about the man? About healing the man on the Sabbath? (14:1-2)
- Why did Jesus ask the Pharisees their opinion first? (14:3)
- Why did the guests at this dinner party try to get to the best seats before the others? What does that reveal about them? (14:7-11)
- In what ways do we try to garner public approval by our actions? How does verse 11 apply to our lives and actions?
- What was the host's probable motive for inviting Jesus to dinner? What dinner invitation strategy does Jesus recommend? Why? (14:12-14)
- What does Jesus' invitation recommendation have to do with the evangelistic and social strategies of our local congregations? How should it affect our strategies?
- List in one column the character flaws you see exhibited in 14:1-14; in a second column list the virtues that Jesus wants to flourish in their place.
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Paratēreo, BDAG 771.
 Edersheim, Life and Times 2:303, and Appendix XVII, "The Ordinances and Law of the Sabbath as Laid Down in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud," pp. 777-787. Also Moore, Judaism, vol. 2, pp. 35-36.
 "Edema," Encyclopedia Britannica . Also, The Merck Manual (Thirteenth Edition, 1977), p. 672.
 See notes in Edersheim and Moore above.
 Epilambanomai, BDAG 374.
 Beyer, therapeuō, TDNT 3:130. In Mark 1:31 and 5:41 the verb is krateō, "hold." In Acts 3:7 the verb is piazō, "grasp."
 Apolyō, BDAG 117-118.
 However, the Mishnah in Shab. 128b, cited by Marshall, p. 580, gives both a mild ruling, allowing helping an animal out of a pit, and a harsh ruling, allowing only the provision of fodder to it in the pit on the Sabbath.
 Morris, Luke, p. 231.
 Green, Luke, p. 550.
 Marshall, Luke, p. 581 cites Strack and Billerback, IV:2, 618.
 Green, Luke, p. 550f.
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