1. Coping with Change
Whether we like it or not, there have probably been periods in all of our lives, where the things that we have held near and dear have been turned upside down. It may have been the result of someone dying; it may have been the result of a close friend moving away; it may have been the result of a drastic change to something we hold important in life; etc. etc. Regardless of the cause, however, we have probably all faced things that have upset the comfortable routine of life, after which things have never been quite the same again.
Now, at the time, these experiences not have been pleasant. Furthermore we may have had little or no control over what was happening. But after a while, in most cases, we probably learnt to adjust. And for some of us, we may have later wondered what all the fuss was about.
Change isn’t easy for most people. And when the things that we hold near and dear are turned on their head, change can be very difficult indeed.
2. Jesus, the Instigator of Change
Now one of the experts of change, and of turning the world upside down, would have to have been Jesus. Because not only did he overturn the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, but he was also very good at upsetting all the accepted norms and standards of the day—the things that people felt comfortable with. Indeed, he spent much of his time challenging people to put away the past, to think again, and to think in a much more godly manner. And today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, is a very good example of Jesus doing exactly that.
B. JESUS AT A PHARISEE’S HOUSE
1. Introduction (1)
Because in the story we find Jesus, on the Sabbath, having accepted an offer of a meal in the house of a prominent Pharisee, and being surrounded by an elite group of lawyers and Pharisees. And despite being in the company of such an elite group, he challenged them to review their traditions; to radically change their attitudes to the things they held dear; and to start caring for, and considering, those they tended to ignore.
Now with an invitation to eat with a group of elite, one could easily have expected Jesus to be on his guard; to be very careful about what he said. But just as Jesus didn’t hold back from accepting the invitation, he didn’t hold back from challenging their dearly held beliefs either. And he didn’t wait until he got to the house before he started.
2. Tradition v Compassion (2-6)
Indeed, having just come out of the synagogue, and being accompanied by some of the other guests, Jesus, met a man with dropsy—a disease where the body swells up through fluid forming in the cavities and tissues.
Now, we need to remember that this was the Sabbath. And the people who were accompanying Jesus had strict rules about what one could and couldn’t do on a Sabbath. Given the situation, then, what was at stake for the Pharisees was their love of tradition, and particularly their Sabbath rules—and woe betides anyone who suggested, or practised, anything differently. But what was at stake for Jesus was compassion for those bound up by those rules that were imposed on them.
And with those two choices, as far as Jesus was concerned, there was no contest. He felt the Pharisees unspoken challenge to maintain their rules. But he also felt compassion for the man who needed healing. But, this time, instead of healing the man and arguing about it later (which is what he usually did), Jesus did it the other way around. He engaged the religious leaders by discussing their rules about the Sabbath first, and in doing so he embarrassed them into keeping silent. And then, in the absence of any objections, Jesus took the man, healed him and sent him home.
Now you can imagine the tension in the group accompanying Jesus as they arrived and entered the home. The healing hadn’t just been about the man receiving his healing; it had been about throwing out the traditions of the Pharisees and lawyers that they rigorously imposed on others. And, what’s more, Jesus had done it with a man they would have considered to be an outcast.
In other words before they even entered the house, he got under the skin of his host and guests. And that wouldn’t have been helped by the fact that Jesus, taking the initiative once more, raised a question regarding the legitimacy of his act. A question to which they could give no valid answer, because their ways were so obviously contrary to the love of God.
Before they’d even sat down at table, then, Jesus had taken the group of elite dinner guests, and turned the things that they held near and dear upside down. And why? Because the things that they held near and dear were contrary to God’s standards.
3. Pride v Humility (7-11)
Now, having done what he did, one could easily wonder why Jesus didn’t just walk away. After all, hadn’t he stirred the pot enough? However, whilst we’re not told why he stayed, I think we should know Jesus well enough to know that what he had to say was far too important to leave at that point. He wanted to restore God, and the worship of God, to the masses. And he could only do that if he was able to dismantle the burdens placed upon them by a small group of elite. As a consequence, before Jesus even sat down at the table he got stuck into them again.
Because once inside the door, Jesus noticed people hovering around the table, jostling for positions. Social ranking to this group was very important, and they believed in strict adherence to the rules of social standing. As far as they were concerned there were important people in life, and there were insignificant people in life, and there were people in between. Everyone had their place, and that included where people sat around the table. And yet, Jesus wanted nothing to do with that either.
Now what was at stake for the Pharisees was pride; their position in society; the need to be looked up to; the need for recognition; and their need to feel important. But what was at stake for Jesus was the need for humility. He knew that no-one had reason to boast in the eyes of God. And he knew that honour wasn’t something that you could gain for yourself, no matter how much one paraded up and down. Honour was something that could only be given to you by someone else, and even then it wasn’t something to crow about—it simply gave you more responsibility.
So in a room full of people who were obsessed about their position in society, and whose whole lives were surrounded by the need for honour, Jesus continued to rock the boat by making that very point. And if the tension in the house had not been explosive enough regarding the tossing out of the Sabbath traditions, then Jesus certainly made it so in regard to positions of honour.
So for the second time, in short succession, he showed there was a great gulf between the ways of God and the ways of man. And just as they were wrong about the application of their Sabbath rules, so they were wrong regarding their practices of places of honour too.
4. Rich v Poor (12-14)
Now having challenged the authorities twice, in short succession, one could easily think again, “Jesus, why didn’t you get out then, whilst your skin was still intact? Hadn’t you upset them enough?” But the seriousness of what Jesus was trying to say meant that he needed to stay firm; he needed to keep going, regardless of the cost to himself.
Because having finally sat down for the meal, and presumably being sat next to or very near to his host, Jesus was in a very good position to reflect on all the eminent people around the table. And it was then, that he turned to his host, and told him that the invitation list for his dinner party was all wrong. Indeed, when he was entertaining he shouldn’t invite his friends, or his relatives, or any rich people at all. Rather he should invite only those who had less than himself; only those who could not repay his kindness and generosity.
Now what was at stake for the Pharisees was the love of mixing with their own kind; with like-minded people; with the people they felt comfortable with. But what was at stake for Jesus was the need for the leaders to not only say they believed in God, but to demonstrate it, by putting their faith into practice. And they could only do that by caring for those less fortunate than themselves, and by inviting those who were unable to pay them back.
There was an issue of snobbery, and lack of compassion that needed to be tackled. And only a person who looked at the world through God’s eyes could really understand that.
Of course, one of the things about this episode in Jesus’ life is that we don’t really know how it ended. We don’t know whether he survived the meal intact, or whether he was tossed out on his ear. What we do know, however, is that before he left the table Jesus told them a story, a parable (which we haven’t read today). It was a story of the Great Banquet at the end of the age. And it was a story to which, he said, not one of those people sitting around that table with him was going to enjoy.
Yes they’d been invited. But their lack of true faith reflected in their love of their own traditions, their love of being important, and their love of mixing only with people of their own kind. And those were the very things which would exclude them from the banquet. Instead, the people they despised, excluded, and tied up in knots—they would be the ones who would sit down and join in the feast.
Now, talk about turning people’s lives upside down. Jesus was a master at it. All the things that the Pharisees cherished—traditions, position and snobbery—he confronted and swept away. But in the end they really didn’t have much to complain about. Because in doing what Jesus did, he reminded them of God’s principles—all that God stood for. And that was something that they had claimed to believe in, in the first place.
Now, of course, it’s easy to look back; it’s easy to smile at the mistakes of the past. And I guess for many of us the mistakes of the Pharisees are fair game.
But if we were to reflect on the history of our denomination, our parish and our church—if we were to reflect on the things that we accept as normal and acceptable—how would they stack up in the light of this gospel story? Indeed if Jesus walked in our church right now, what would he say to us? Would he be pleased, or would he have something to say too?
In other words, what this Gospel does is to ask the question, “Do we need to turn our world upside down too?” After all, do the way we do things, and the rules we expect people to keep, tie people up in knots, or are we actively involved in removing the obstacles to faith? Are our churches only open to the elite, or do we actually encourage the unalike to join our ranks, and even make them feel important?
And if we should reflect on the declining interest in the church, and the loss of contact with people in the areas that we serve, does this mean that we need a bit of a shake-up too? Do we need to be challenged to think again, and to think again from God’s perspective?
After all, Jesus was a controversial character; he wasn’t afraid to speak out when it came to the issue of restoring God, and Godly principles to people’s lives. And if we should find things which are contrary to God’s ways, even if they are being done in God’s name, then shouldn’t we be outspoken like Jesus too.
Of course that may well open us to a very hostile environment, and much of that hostility may well come from within the church. But that doesn’t mean that we can just hide away, or run at the first bit of unpleasantness. Rather, like Jesus, we may need to stick with it. Because we need to make sure, that even today, God and his church are accessible to everyone. But not just because the existence of our church buildings or our parishes are at stake. But because people’s relationship with God, and their eternal well-being, are on the line.
1. Tradition v Compassion
So, when it comes to a choice between keeping tradition, and making God (and the church) accessible to everyday ordinary people, we need to follow Jesus’ example.
Yes there maybe things that we hold near and dear, we may have our own personal preferences, there maybe things that we hold sacred, but what we have to ask ourselves is, “Are these things obstacles for others having faith?” And, “Do they pose an intolerable burden discouraging others from receiving what we have received for ourselves?” Because if the answer to either of these questions is yes, then like Jesus we need to wipe them away.
God, and his church, should be accessible to all people and at all times, and no obstacle should be allowed to get in people’s ways. The Pharisees might have liked things done their way, with their traditions and rules, but as Jesus quite clearly demonstrated that isn’t that way we should go. Indeed we should be actively dismantling any barriers that we find, and making it possible for people to have a relationship with God.
2. Pride v Humility
When it comes to a choice between social standing and the need for humility, we need to follow Jesus’ example too.
There is a big difference between man’s way of doing things and God’s way. And no matter what honour or position we hold, or to which other people elevate us, it’s not something we should hold on to with pride.
Humility, not abusing our position, but rather using the responsibilities we have for the benefit of others, are the things to which we should hold dear. God’s way is not for us to lord it over others, or expect people to look up to us. Instead we are to be humble and the servant of all.
3. Rich v Poor
And, when it comes to the choice between mixing with the people we feel comfortable with, or putting our beliefs into practice, particularly in regard to the care of the poor, we need to follow Jesus’ example too.
Yes, it might be nice to surround ourselves with like-minded people, people of similar standards, people we feel comfortable with, but that is not the Christian way either. Rather we should go out of our way to feel uncomfortable, and to care for those who would otherwise be unable to pay us back.
Now, we all face periods in our lives where our whole world is turned upside down. And the process of change can be pretty upsetting at times. Yet the example of Jesus is one we can all learn from. Because Jesus was the master of turning people’s worlds upside down—but for a very good reason.
In all things, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way. There’s God’s way and there’s man’s worldly way. But no matter how uncomfortable it may seem, it is God’s way that we need to hold on to. And a good place to start to understand the difference is to examine our traditions, our place in society (and what we do with it), and whether we really do care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
Left to our own devices the lesson is that we will do things our way, and that the gulf between our way and God’s way will get wider and wider. That’s why Jesus stuck with it, and pronounced shock after shock after shock—shaking the foundations of everything that the Pharisees held near and dear.
And if we do the same exercise today? Well I’m sure it won’t be easy for us either. Indeed we may become very uncomfortable. But it is part of the responsibility of having faith, and we do have God’s help to help us through.
Posted: 26th August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis