|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at
Verse 1 gives the setting for vv. 2-24. Jesus is going to the house of a Pharisee to eat bread on the sabbath. This presents three different contexts that we have seen before: Jesus and Pharisees; table-fellowship; and sabbath events.
Luke Timothy Johnson (Luke) makes the statement: "If Jesus eats a meal with a Pharisee on the Sabbath, there surely will be conflict!" [p. 223]
There are four different episodes in these verses (unfortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary only looks at the middle two):
* Healing of the man with dropsy (vv. 2-6)
* Teaching about being a guest (vv. 7-11)
* Teaching about being a host (vv. 12-14)
* Teaching about the great banquet (vv. 15-24)
Besides the image of a meal, the three teaching events are also connected to each other by the word kaleo (= usually, "to invite") which occurs 10 times in vv 7-24: v. 7 ("guests" in NRSV = lit. "those having been invited"), v. 8 (twice), v. 9, v. 10, v. 12 (the second "invite" in NRSV = phoneo, "invite in return" = antikaleo), v. 13, v. 16, v. 17, v. 24.
Paul uses the same word in terms of being called by God (see Rom 8:30; 1 Cor 1:9; Gal 1:6, 15; Ep 4, 4). Could one look at these "invitations" in Luke as parables of God's "call"?
In the verses (2-6) that are skipped over in our reading, there is the sixth Sabbath day event in Luke and the fourth healing on the Sabbath. The "sabbath day stories" in Luke are (with healing stories marked in bold):
4:16-30 Jesus preaches in the synagogue at Nazareth on the Sabbath
4:31-37 Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit
6:1-5 The disciples pluck grain on the sabbath
6:6-11 Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath
13:10-17 Jesus heals a crippled woman
14:1-6 Jesus heals a man with dropsy and teaches about proper hospitality
As I mentioned last week, most of the sabbath healings could have been postponed for a day without endangering the sick person's life. Thus, the healing stories turned into controversy stories.
Generally, the Pharisees' relationships with Jesus were antagonistic. They complain because he eats with "tax collectors and sinners" (5:30, 33; 15:2). Jesus may be quoting their complaint about him in 7:34: "The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"
Yet, Luke (and only Luke) tells us that Jesus ate with Pharisees (7:36; 11:37; 14:1), but each time he eats with them there are controversies: about the "sinful" woman who anoints Jesus; about proper ritual washings before eating; and the healing and teachings in our text. Apparently Jesus (the glutton that he was) would eat (and probably drink) with anybody -- perhaps even with you and me! <g>
It may be that this dinner invitation on the sabbath was a setup. "They (note the plural) are watching him closely" (paratereo, v. 1, also used in 6:7 & 20:20). In all three cases, the "watchers" are expecting Jesus to do something wrong.
We can also ask, "Where did the sick man come from?" Had he been invited, too? Did he just wander into the Pharisee's house as the "sinful" woman did in 7:37-38? Was he brought there as a "set up" to see what Jesus would do?
We can also look at this healing event symbolically as a lead-in to the teaching that's included in our verses. Tannehill (Luke) suggests:
Just as there was a connection in 13:15-16 between releasing the woman and releasing an animal, it is possible that there is an implied connection between falling into a well and having dropsy. The Greek term translated "dropsy" is formed on the word for water and means something like "waterlogged." There may be another connotation of dropsy that is significant, however. While the body is swollen with fluid, dropsy is accompanied by an unquenchable craving for drink. Hence this disease became a metaphor for insatiable desire, viewed as a moral failing. Jesus cures this man with dropsy, and then turns to the Pharisees and lawyers, who are driven by their own insatiable desire for places of honor. Can he cure them by his teaching? [p. 228]
Green (The Gospel of Luke) also notes an expanded application of "dropsy":
From a biomedical point of view, "dropsy," an almost obsolete term for generalized edema, refers to bodily swelling due to an excess of fluid; not a disease itself, dropsy is an indication of malfunction in the body, especially congestive heart failure or kidney disease. Already in antiquity, the paradoxical fate of the person with dropsy was proverbial: "nothing is as dray as a person with dropsy" -- signifying the insatiable thirst of one whose body is already retaining too much fluid. Also known in antiquity is the metaphorical use of "dropsy" as a label for money-lovers, the greedy, the rapacious -- that is, for persons who share the very condition for which the Pharisees are indicted in the Gospel of Luke (11:37-44; cf. 16:14). The presence of the dropsical man, according to this reading, would constitute a vivid parable of Jesus' socially elite Pharisaical table companions. Just as in front of Jesus stood a man who had dropsy, so, around the table, sat persons whose disorder was no less self-detrimental. As Jesus moves to heal the one, so with regard to the others is diagnosis pronounced and the prospect of health extended [pp. 546-7]
Banquets were times for philosophers and teachers to impart their wisdom.
In the intertestamental Letter of Aristeas there are over 100 verses (187-300) of a question and answer session at a banquet. The following is one such exchange (286-287):
The king was well pleased with what had just been said, and addressed the ninth guest, "How ought one to conduct himself at banquets?"
The reply was, "By inviting men of learning, with the ability to remind him of matters advantageous to the kingdom and to the lives of the subjects. Better harmony or music than these you would never find, because these men are beloved of God, having trained their minds for the noblest ends. This is your practice also, all your plans being directed aright by God." [translation by R.J. H. Shutt in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2]
It would seem that Jesus changes the guest list and redefines who is "beloved of God". Eating together continues to be an important part of the Christian community -- both the sacrament and potlucks, etc. and "the mutual conversation and consolation" that takes place. [For non-Lutherans who receive these notes, "mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters" is a phrase Luther used in the Smalcald Articles concerning one of the ways of participating in God's grace, see The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, p. 319.]
The advice given by Jesus in these verses has no religious significance. It's common sense as suggested by similar pictures in the wisdom literature.
Proverbs 25:6-7 [the First Lesson in RCL thematic readings]
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.
If they make you master of the feast, do not exalt yourself;
be among them as one of their number
Take care of them first and then sit down;
when you have fulfilled all your duties, take your place;
so that you may be merry along with them
and receive a wreath for your excellent leadership.
Luke also calls this teaching a "parable" (v. 7), although it really doesn't fit that genre.
The exalting/humbling reversal presented in v. 11 is also found in Lk 1:52; 18:14; Mt 23:12. The humbling is related to being like a child in Mt 18:4.
What does it mean to "exalt" oneself?
The basic meaning of the Greek word-group (hypsoo, et. al.) is "high" -- such as a "high" mountain or "high above" the earth = sky, heaven. They also have the sense of "high position or rank", thus carrying the sense "very valuable or important". Sometimes there is a negative connotation of "proud or arrogant." The verb means to make something or someone "high" (not in the drug sense <g>), but to raise them up, to give them a high status; to make them important, to exalt them.
There are times when it is appropriate to sit at the head table, e.g., at a wedding reception when you are the bride or groom.
As people who are gifted by God for the good of the kingdom, shouldn't we promote our gifts? Is that exalting oneself? Does one determine his/her own gifts or does the community determine (or help determine) one's gifts and how they best fit into the community?
The Contemporary English Version translates this phrase: "If you put yourself above others."
A noun form of the verb is used as a name of God -- "The Most High". Perhaps the problem occurs when we try to play god.
"Being exalted" isn't necessarily bad. That's what will happen to the humble. (The grammar would suggest that God exalts them.) Paul says that he "elevates" others by his preaching" (1C 11:7). This leads me to suggest the exaltation isn't necessarily the problem, but where it comes from: from self? from others? from God? Another problem may be when it comes: is it sought in the present time? is it a gift to be received in the future?
What does it mean to "humble" oneself?
The basic meaning Greek word-group is "low" in height or in status. This verb (tapeino) can mean "to make something or someone low." Thus "to make humble," but it also carries the meaning, "to humiliate" or "to put to shame." Perhaps "Don't take yourself too seriously" may be a paraphrase of "humbling oneself"?
If exaltation is trying to be god-like, then humbling oneself may mean coming back to our human reality, being human, "down to earth."
How do we as leaders in the church, humble ourselves and yet promote the training and calling we have received to lead and guide a particular group of Christians?
How do we keep from using "humbling ourselves" as a back-door way of "exalting ourselves" in anticipation of God's exalting us? That could lead to a new Christian game: Who can be the most humble?
I think that we need to be careful about the way we approach this verse. I've heard it suggested that the "big sin" of many males is to try to be super-human -- to proudly become too god-like. In contrast, the "big sin" of females is often being sub-human -- not being the gifted people God has created and called them to be.
How can we promote godly self-esteem without self-exaltation or arrogance?
How can we promote humility without self-degradation or shame or "door-mat-ness" (that is, letting others "walk all over" us)?
Sometime ago, I received an article by William Easum entitled, "On Not Being Nice for the Sake of the Gospel." He begins by writing:
Throughout my consulting ministry, I have seen a disturbing pattern: Most established churches are held hostage by bullies. Some individual or small group of individuals usually opposes the church's making any radical change, even if it means the change would give the church a chance to thrive again.
Later on he makes this statement with boldface:
I'm convinced that one of the main sins of the Church is that we have taught ourselves to be nice instead of Christian. In spite of aspiring to be Jesus' disciples, we teach that the essence of Christianity is to be nice.
Near the end he states:
One of the basic lessons I'm learning as a consultant: Before renewal begins in a church or denomination, normally someone has to leave or be denied. Almost every time a dying church attempts to thrive once again, someone tries to bully the leaders out of the attempt. And almost every time a turn-around takes place, such persons are lost along the way because they are no longer allowed to get their way. When they can't get their way, they leave. Not even Jesus got through the journey with all of the Disciples. Why should we expect to?
Of course, we should not set out to intimidate the bully or to kick people out of the church. But a strong response means that we care enough about the future of our church not to allow anyone to stifle its ability to liberate people from bondage or victimization. It also means that we care enough about the bully that we will not allow him or her to intimidate the church, because we know the spiritual vitality of both the bully and the church is at stake.
I quote from him because I often think that "being humble" is similar to his description of "being nice." Humility becomes being passive. Letting others walk all over us. Jesus shows by his life that being humble didn't mean being passive, but, when necessary, it meant taking out the whip and driving the self-centered bullies out of the temple.
The passive of "will be exalted/humbled" would suggest God is the actor -- it is God who will exalt and will humble; but could it not also be a suggestion for our actions? How do we raise up low people? How do we put the high and mighty in their proper place? Are these things we should try to do, or is it solely God's job? Do we fail to do them because of fear? Doesn't perfect love drive out all fear?
What does it imply when we may preach from "high" pulpits? This is quite a contrast to Jesus teaching while seated (or lying?) around a table in our text (or sitting down to teach in the synagogue -- Lk 4:20).
A related contrast in these verses is between being "shamed" or "disgraced" in v. 9 (aischune, its only instance in Luke). This happens when one is "humbled" by the host. In contrast, the one who is exalted by the host is also "honored" or "glorified" in v. 10 (doxa -- frequently used of God) before all the other guests.
I've never known any church to take vv. 12-14 literally and I think that Jesus meant this as a picture about the kingdom, not proper table etiquette for church suppers. The same handicaps are listed in v. 21 in the parable of the banquet. However, the Methodist church in town has sponsored free dinners for anyone who wants to come -- and it is fairly close to a men's shelter.
Tannehill writes about this section (Luke):
A formal dinner was a way in which an elite family (the kind of family who could afford such a dinner) proclaimed and maintained its elite status. The guest list was important, for the invitation indicated that one was accepted as a member of the elite. Family members and important people of the community needed to be honored in this way, and they would be expected to reciprocate. Jesus' instructions in verses 12-14 conflict with this social function of dinners. It might be a source of honor for someone to give charity to the poor, but it is quite another thing to invite them to a social function in place of family and people of wealth, and eat with them. By doing this, the host is dishonoring family and rich neighbors and in their place is honoring the poor; or, in the eyes of the elite, the host is dishonoring himself by identifying with the poor. Therefore, verse 11 may apply to what follows as well as to what precedes. Those who invite family and people of status are exalting themselves by proclaiming their place in this group. Those who invite the poor and crippled are humbling themselves. [p. 230]
In a similar vein Johnson (Luke) writes about v. 10: "To be greeted as 'friend' and invited higher suggests a special intimacy and, more than that, equality with the host" [p. 224]
The thought strikes me that the host is identified by whom s/he invites and dines with -- either being "elevated" by the presence of society's elite or being "humbled" by the presence of society's outcasts -- the poor and handicapped.
There are four groups whom the host is not to invite (v. 12) because they could reciprocate the invitation and four groups whom the host is to invite (v. 13). Besides being unable to reciprocate, "such persons were explicitly forbidden to serve as priests (Lev 21:17-23) and were barred from entry into the Qumran community:
And let no person smitten with any human impurity whatever enter the Assembly of God. And every person smitten with these impurities, unfit to occupy a place in the midst of the Congregation, and every (person) smitten in his flesh, paralyzed in his feet or hands, lame or blind or deaf, or dumb or smitten in his flesh with a blemish visible to the eye, or any aged person that totters and is unable to stand firm in the midst of the Congregation: let these persons not enter." [1QSa 2:3-8, quoted by Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreters Bible, p. 287)]
The contrast between these restrictions and Jesus' teaching is striking. This may be even more poignant when we note that the word pharisee can mean "to separate". The Pharisees were a group of people who separated themselves from the riffraff of society. They sought to live holy and pure lives, keeping all of the written and oral Jewish laws. Often in the gospels, Pharisees are pictured as being holier-than-thou types, the religious elite. They felt that they had earned the right to sit at the table with God. They criticize Jesus because he doesn't separate himself from the "sinners and tax collectors."
Do we prefer to identify with the wealthy elite or the outcasts? We have a word of hope and promise for the outcasts -- the humbled will be exalted. What word do we have for the wealthy? Earlier the poor had been blessed and woes pronounced on the rich (6:20-25).
Now the Lukan audience learns that there is a way for the rich to be blessed, but it requires them to humble themselves by identifying with the poor. This is likely to offend family, friends, and rich neighbors, with the resulting risk of losing one's elite status and perhaps one's share of the family wealth. [Tannehill, Luke, p. 230]
How do we minister with the wealthy? I served a church that was in a county with the 9th highest per capita income in the U.S. (They might have been 8th if we hadn't lived there <g>.) The pastor at the congregation that bordered one of the most exclusive and wealthy areas of the county talked about the difficulties of ministering with the wealthy and successful. I don't believe that he had any members from that neighboring community. We discussed whether or not we had an adequate theology for such highly successful people. We know how to proclaim the resurrection in the midst of death. We know how to proclaim forgiveness to those burdened by sin and guilt. What's the good news for those who are don't feel such burdens, who have more than everything they need or want, who are living the "blessed" life?
I recall Garth Brooks stating something like he had more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes. What's the good news Christ would address to him?
I think that there is a sense in Luke/Acts that no individual can live the "blessed" life as long as there are some people who are suffering and poor and hungry and sick. The ideal situation presented in Acts 4:34 is that there will be no needy among us. That can only happen when the wealthy are willing to share with the needy.
Some other ways of approaching this text are:
It is another statement against self-serving. How many people do good things for the rewards they may receive in return: praise from others, a good feeling inside, promise of heaven. In contrast, Luther stated somewhere, "We need to do good works because our neighbor needs them." (The good works don't win us "brownie points" with God, but they do help the neighbor.)
This text presents a "hands on" approach to service ministry. Helping the needy is more than just sending money, but getting involved with the people -- perhaps sitting down together with them as equals at a supper table. What the "helpers" frequently discover is that Christ serves them through the needy. "As you have done to the least of these ...."
We might picture God as the host of the meal and all of us as the defective people who are the invited guests, who are unable to repay God. (As I noted above, the word for "invite" is also the word used for God "calling" us into his family.) The good news is that we don't have to repay God! However, this can be hard for some people to grasp. I've heard many state that "It's our turn to have so-and-so over, since we had been invited their house." They don't want to be beholdin' to anyone.
We might relate this text to our table fellowship in Holy Communion. Who do we invite to this supper? Do we keep some people out? Are their subtle ways that we discourage some groups of people from participating, e.g., the illiterate or blind when so much of our worship involves reading; the poor, when we have ritual about offering money; the children, who, in some churches, are not welcomed as communicants at the table; the handicapped when there are steps into the worship area or when the congregation is frequently asked to stand? Perhaps we can ask, "Who is welcomed here?" (or "Who is not welcome here?") and "How do we show it?" Or to use terms from our text: "Whom do we invite to the banquet?" and "How are we inviting them?"
Finally, we could approach this as a text about "bucking the system" -- doing what is contrary to the expectations of family and society. It is risking the scorn of family and society for the sake of spreading the gospel. Are our congregations willing to do that? How willing are we as church leaders, willing to buck the establishment in a congregation in order to be more effective in bringing good news to the outsiders?
Brian Stoffregen, Marysville, CA