One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:1-11)
Here we have Jesus invited to dine with the Pharisees on a Sabbath. Of course the food was prepared beforehand, but what also was prepared beforehand was a trap to put Jesus in danger of more charges being leveled at him. Jesus has healed on the Sabbath before, but the Pharisees want a lot of eyewitnesses. Jesus turns the table on them, and he turns the feast, and the subsequent discourses with his disciples after the party into probably the longest sustained mocking and critique of the Pharisees in the Gospels, lasting over three chapters. We will look at the first part only, that involving the dinner.
The Pharisees were watching him carefully. The sick man in question had dropsy, which we can't exactly identify, except that it involved the retention of water. The man was probably morbidly obese, and Jesus' healing of him would have involved a sudden weight loss before everyone's eyes, so that's pretty spectacular as it is. But before he heals him, Jesus asks the Pharisees if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not? No one answers, because they know the answer is that there is no Biblical law against healing on the Sabbath. There may be something in their Oral Tradition of the Elders, which is outside the Biblical law, but there is nothing inside it. Jesus heals the man then asks them which of them would not immediately pull an ox or a child out of a well on the Sabbath. They could not reply, but the answer is no one would. Oxen (and children) are of great value, and when an ox fell in a well, the whole village would rally to save the animal, usually taking ALL DAY to get the beast out. That's a lot of work on the Sabbath.
So, the mocking has begun. Jesus hits them hard with a parable about humility. The implication is that these Pharisees are not humble in the least. They fight for the place of honor, thinking highly of themselves, and Jesus isn't giving them advice here. He's not teaching them how to trick a host into giving them the highest seats at the table. "Just take the lowest place, and you will be moved up!" He knows they are incapable of taking the lowest seat. This is pure mocking, and it shows a universal truth. Remember, there are two kinds of people who won't repent: the first are those who think they have done something so horrible that God won't forgive them. These are the people who need a doctor, who know they need a doctor, and Jesus came to save them. These people heard his words of repentance and faith and became his disciples. The second kind of people are the Pharisees. These are they who don't think that they have done anything wrong, that they have broken no laws, that they do not need to humble themselves, because they are good people, and God approves of them. This does not just include Pharisees. This includes everyone from everywhere through all time periods: those who do not need God. That is most of the world. That's a lot of Pharisees. That is why Jesus attacks them so vigilantly. He needs to hit the Pharisees over and over and over, so that we will someday see ourselves as the Pharisees, wake up from our prideful stupor, realize that we deserve death and Hell, and finally repent of our sins and put our complete trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of those sins. It takes a lot of Pharisee bashing to do that, and yet the world is still full of people who think they are good people.
Jesus hits them again, starting with the host:
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Instead of talking about taking the lowest place at the table, he now extends the humility to the entire banquet. The Pharisees shouldn't be invited to such things. Instead, invite the people who cannot pay you back: the poor, the downtrodden. Is this an exhortation of the social gospel? One Pharisee responds as if it is:
When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”
Here's a nice excuse: what good can helping the poor do? They are unclean. They are rejected by God. This banquet we are having is irrelevant. We could feed the poor all we wanted and it wouldn't matter. What matters is who is going to be eating with the Lord in Heaven! So, this Pharisee has responded to what he hears as liberal politics with conservative politics. Jesus clobbers them all one more time:
But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”
Party is over. Jesus essentially says to them, "you're missing my point. I'm not advocating the social gospel. I'm telling you to repent!" This final parable at the feast outright shouts at the Pharisees that they will not be inheriting the kingdom of God, and the "unclean" will. What's more, we are all unclean, even the Pharisees, and its those who understand this fact who repent. Did you see all the clues throughout everything Jesus said?
We are the son who has fallen in the well. Jesus rescues us IMMEDIATELY. There's no waiting for the Sabbath to pass. The proclamation of the Gospel happens in season and out of season, not just on Sundays. God's plan for the salvation of mankind was prepared from the beginning.
Who has the greatest place of honor at the feast? Who deserves it? Jesus himself. Philippians 2:1-11 says:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus performed the ultimate act of humility. Being the real host of the party, he takes the lowest place at the table for our sakes, and only he is exalted to the highest place of honor at the table, for taking the punishment we deserve. For laying down his life on our behalf, the greatest act of love.
His exhortation to invite the poor to the party is not a social gospel exhortation but a clue to what he has done for us. He has invited the whole world of people who cannot save themselves to his everlasting banquet. The people who believe they can repay God for inviting them to his banquet have not repented and are therefore not really invited. The Pharisees of the world are those who think they are good, have the means to repay their debts, and never repent. But they aren't good. They don't have the means to repay, and will therefore be repaying for eternity. They never repent.
"Come," Jesus calls to us. "Everything is now ready." The Pharisees of the world make excuses. They would rather have their best life now, but it's the suffering ones of the world, the repentant, the humble, out of all economic conditions who come to the Lord on their knees who are saved. This is the Good News: repent and be forgiven. Even you can be saved, just like many Pharisees. In Matthew 3, many Pharisees and Sadducees came to John the Baptist and repented. In John 3, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He also helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus' body for burial. Paul the Apostle is the most famous saved Pharisee of them all. These Pharisees' names are written in the Book of Life. By the grace of God, yours may be, too. Repent and be forgiven, take the lowest place at the table, bear fruit in keeping with repentance.