Sermon on Luke 14:1-11 (by Martin Damašek)

Dear brothers and sisters,

            in today´s Gospel text, we see a dinner at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees that Jesus attended and, at that occasion, we hear two parts of Christ´s teaching or encounter with the party. First, the healing of a man with dropsy. Second, the parable about those who are invited to a wedding feast, taking seats of different honor and are humbled or exalted.

            Brothers and sisters, we can and we easy do fall into the temptation to see both parts as a nice moral story, as a motivation talk or a way how to fix the world. So, let us take this seductive path and see where it will lead us.

            First, the record of Jesus healing the man with dropsy. We tend to fix ourselves on the act of healing and on Jesus “defying” the Sabbath law. It is an act of love by Jesus over and against the law, we almost tend to think. Or to be even more provocative, it is a surprise this act of love done by Jesus has not been used by some modern people to see in it the march of progress that defies and breaks down old and obsolete “religious law”. We, too, sometime are tempted the same way: If only love takes over men, all will be overcome, and the world will be fixed. In this respect we can even be tempted to sing the seductive song: “All we need is love…” But we get in troubles when we take a more careful look of the text. The man who appears before Jesus poses a couple problems to our happy and loving feeling, we will see our bitter and sinful nature. The man did not fall from a tree. No, probably, he was supposed to be an object of provocation and scandal. We do not know what disease the man suffered, but dropsy was manifested by a large swelling that disfigured a parson and turned him into an object of ridicule. Putting such a person before Jesus at a dinner was a comedy and a scandal. Let us stop here and be honest with ourselves: Do we not do kind of the same thing with other people when we make fun of somebody or when we ridicule somebody or when we play more sophisticated social tricks with somebody? We are no better than the Pharisees, when a brother or a sister is an object of our fun or ridicule. The second problem we have when we take a closer look is the man´s desperate and painful position as an object of the law that the Pharisees demand. On one hand, they put the sick man before Jesus clearly because they allude to the commandment to love a neighbor, but the difficulty is with their vicious provocation when implicitly demanding Jesus to keep the Sabbath. The Pharisees intended to put Jesus in between the demands of the law to discredit Him; but by this, they point to themselves and to the sick man. They represent you and me, brothers and sisters, they represent all men: We are stuck in the law and like the man with dropsy, we can only face the law and do nothing, but wait and cry for help.

            The second part of the text, the invitations to the wedding feast, almost seduces us to read it as a great vindication of a social justice: The poor and the low in a society will be moved higher. Again, I am so surprised, someone in the 20th century did not misuse this as John Hus was misused and turned into a revolutionary for social justice by the Communists. But when reading carefully, we again become less content. In verse 7, we see ourselves clearly: “…they chose the places of honor…”. Brothers and sisters, let us see it clearly, it is against our nature not to choose the better places and we see the world and the society teaching us this on every occasion. We would be seen as insane not to choose the more comfortable seats, better jobs, more beautiful woman, or more successful man. Moreover, wedding feasts of the old days had a set seating order, so, probably, the guests were following the law of the occasion. In this light, the parable seems strange for two reasons. Why would a person break the law of the social occasion and humble himself? And then, why would the host behave in such a striking and scandalous way to put somebody in shame who could have not deserved it? And why would the host move somebody else higher instead when that person chose a lower place by himself and should have been let alone since it was his “free will”? Do you see the clash? Do you see the strangeness? Do you get the same irritating feeling? Is this really a social justice that we have dreamed of? Why does observing the laws of the social occasion not pay off? Brothers and sisters, in this irritation, do you see yourselves? Do I see myself? We wish and would like to see our “keeping” of the law to pay off to our benefit. If only, if only we could keep it in bigger things than seating. But what do we see in our irritation with the parable? We see our pride and envy. This is what the Pharisees must have felt when listening to Jesus and pride blinded them so they could not see that the Lord was pointing to somewhere else than the law that did not change their envious hearts.

            So, if the law does not change the envious heart of man and if the law is unable to help the sick man because it is Sabbath and holds the Pharisees in the same desperate check, then, where to go, where to find help and release from this grip of the law?

            Verse 1 of the 14th chapter points to the salvation from the terrors of the law: “…they were watching him carefully.” Both the healing of the man with dropsy and the wedding feast parable are happening within the context of this “…watching him carefully.” This explains why there is not social justice going on in both of the stories. Both refer somewhere else, because they clearly bring an answer to the question of who is the One who is being watched carefully. The eyes of the present are staring on Jesus, He is the One who is at play, who is in the focus.

            The Pharisees and the sick man are both stuck in no way to go. Jesus rightly asked them: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (v. 3) Do you see how stuck in the law they are? But brothers and sisters, the Pharisees, they are us, we are stuck, helpless, and hopeless when stuck in the law. But Jesus took the sick man! And immediately Jesus explains the new reality that came among them and explains the help to all who are stuck in the condemnation of the law: “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?” Brothers and sister, you are the son, I am the son who is stuck in the well and who is drowning in the bottomless water of the law. And Jesus, by the healing and this sentence of rescue has just pulled us out so we do not die in the dark well. Jesus clearly acts and speaks with all divine authority here. This man among the people who is collecting His Church is the Lord of the Sabbath.

            When we come to the parable of the wedding feast, it clearly is again about the One who is being watched by the Pharisees. The parable is told by Jesus in the context of the Pharisees coming to the meal and choosing places of honor. The wedding feast of the parable is clearly the eschatological wedding feast of the kingdom of heaven and Jesus Himself is the host who humbles the puffed up and exalts the poor in spirit. We may exclaim with the martyrs and the persecuted: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10) However, something else is going on here as well. “…he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (v. 11) We, prideful people do not do that on our own and such humbleness is craziness and weakness in the eyes of the world. Again, the first One who humbled Himself is the One who is being watched by the Pharisees. What is going on in this parable is the actual coming of the Gospel among people in the very moment and at the very dinner in the person of Jesus. At that dinner and at that moment, the kingdom of God descended among people in the presence of Jesus and in His teaching. And this gospel, this good news of a rescue of man had started already in Nazareth when God “…has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden…” and the Lord “…took upon (Himself) to deliver man…” This new reality, this new world had already then broken into the world in the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus. And on the cross, during the ultimate humbling, Christ “…overcame the sharpness of death…” and “…opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” Christ is the host of the wedding feast of the kingdom of heaven that broke into the world and is carried by the Church to all lands and all peoples. In His Church, the Host of the wedding feast exalts the lowly and fills the hungry with good things, namely with His peace in absolution of our sins and with His body and blood that the Lamb is breaking for you and for me and by which our Lord preserves us in faith to life everlasting.