True story, many years ago, this bit of gossip was printed in a London newspaper about a famous painter and an equally famous writer: “James McNeil Whistler and Oscar Wilde were seen yesterday at Brighton talking, as usual, about themselves.” When Whistler saw that little tidbit of gossip in the newspaper, he clipped it out and sent it to Oscar Wilde with a note that said, “I wish these reporters would be more accurate. If you remember, Oscar, we were talking about me.”
Oscar Wilde replied in a telegram that said, “It is true, Jimmy, we were talking about you but while we were talking, I was thinking of myself.” Whistler and Wilde were renowned egotists and were pleased that people were watching them. It made them happy. It didn’t bother them that the local media was making a dig at them because they were still getting attention. Today, our media is still watching those people who are famous. They are still looking for slips that show them to be the same as us or even worse than we are.
In our Gospel reading today we are told that Jesus goes to dinner at the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees. In other words this man was on the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Religious Supreme Court. In last week’s gospel we saw Jesus scold a local synagogue leader who objected after he healed on the Sabbath. This is now several weeks later. Now Jesus is in the home of a person who has national prominence.
And everyone was watching him closely. You may have noticed in our service bulletin that the gospel reading text was from Luke 14 verses 1 and then it skips to verse 7. Our minds immediately wonder what was skipped. What was in verses 2 through 6? In those verses it tells of another healing! Right before the dinner a fellow with dropsy shows up at the house. It may have been and probably was a plant although not necessarily. In the first century Jewish villages, people could simply walk in and stand in the back and around. Politeness required that they were allowed to speak or eat at the dinner but they could stand around and watch. And since it is the Sabbath and Jesus is famous there were no doubt many villagers who just showed up. And apparently one of them had dropsy. Today we call this condition edema. The symptoms are swollen limbs and tissue resulting from excess bodily fluids. It is painful and potentially deadly. But it was the Sabbath and now what would Jesus do? What would he do now in front of this really important person? What Jesus does is brilliant. He phrases the situation not in terms of is it legal to heal, but is it against the law to be kind on the Sabbath? Should one have good manners on the Sabbath? They were stuck and couldn’t answer. So then he does what he always does. He heals the man.
The Pharisees had been watching him to see if he would heal on the Sabbath day in front of this very important Pharisee and he does; and the tension in the room has just moved up a couple of notches. Now we know these Pharisees were not watching him because they wanted to learn from Jesus. They weren’t watching him because they admired him; they weren’t his fans. They were watching him closely because they were trying to catch him doing something wrong. They wanted to catch him breaking the Law. But Jesus had neatly avoided their trap. They now had to catch him in something he said. At a first century banquet, I suppose just like in our modern wedding banquets, there is the head table and then there are secondary tables, and then there are tables that keep getting farther and farther away from the head table. In Jewish culture generally speaking the most honored guest was at the host’s left hand, the next most honored was on his right. Apparently the rest were to sit according to rank. So these guys were trying to instinctively pick out where they ranked in the religious pecking order. These guys all wanted to be close to the head table. They all wanted to hear the conversation that their host was going to have with Jesus. They were all eager to be part of this next verbal battle. So you can picture the scene as they are scrambling to get seats from which they can hear and enter the conversation. After the room settled, some of the guests were gloating that they got their really good spot and others were nursing their wounded pride. It is at this point Jesus turns the tables upon them again. They were watching Jesus, but they didn’t realize that he was watching them. He points out to them something about themselves. Look, you guys are trying hard to get to the first table to get to the best place. And then he paraphrases a portion from the Proverbs about not claiming the most honorable place because you might get really embarrassed if you have to move. He then gives a principle from God’s kingdom, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The Pharisees were comparing their relative worth to each other, but that isn’t how God looks at us. It was the comedienne, Lily Tomlin who once said, “The trouble with the rat-race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” They were rats; trying to win the race. And unfortunately we sometimes do the same thing, don’t we? We try to get ahead of the next person; or we try to win other’s admiration and to what end? What are we really winning? The standards God uses are different than our world’s standards. He judges us in reality. He judges our hearts; he judges our motivations. He sees what we really do and what we leave undone. When we compare ourselves to each other we are using invalid measuring tools. When we are trying to impress those around us, we are trying to impress the wrong people. We are shooting at the wrong target. And even if we succeed at impressing those around us, we may have completely failed to please God. And pleasing God is what has eternal value.
And then Jesus talks to the host. Just like today first century people tried to elevate their standing in the community and their social network by hosting social events and strategically inviting the “right people.” Jesus suggests a different approach. Instead invite those people who will not benefit you at all! Invite those who were the city beggars; invite the ones who are crippled or lame blind. These sorts of people could never benefit him socially. The Pharisees said they believed in life after death. They believed that God was going to reward the righteous and punish the sinner. Jesus tells that if they really believe this to really think about eternity. He wants them to change from trying to impress each other to try to please God.
Well, these lessons are ones that we can use in our own lives as well. We all want others to think highly of us too. And on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with that. We live among other people and we need to be socially conscientious. But Jesus raises the bar. We are to be more concerned about others and less concerned about what others think of us. When we try to impress other people it always leads to pride and arrogance. And God hates that. And the other lesson is to think more about eternity. We are only here for a short while. Jesus points out that one day we will all stand in front of God. We will be rewarded or punished. This is a strong motivation to prioritize who we are trying to impress and please. We don’t want to participate in a rat race. Even if we win the race we don’t want to be a rat. We want to be children of God, brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus and live like he did. Amen