I remember setting a trap for someone who had a history of stealing. I’d leave a fiver or a tenner lying around in a place where I knew they would notice it, and would have an opportunity to take it. I pretended not to be watching, but actually I was watching like a hawk. I’m glad to say that the money wasn’t taken, and trust was established. I think this trap was fair and was made with good intentions.
Here in Luke chapter 14, the Pharisees seem to be setting a trap for Jesus. Jesus has accepted a lunch invitation from a prominent Pharisee after the synagogue service. The Sunday lunch tradition has very old roots! What is the trap? Well, three times already in Luke we read of Jesus healing on the Sabbath day (Luke 4 :31-41; Luke 6:6-11; and Luke 13:10-17). This usually resulted in great tension between Jesus and Pharisees, as the Pharisees believed healing on the holy day was ‘a work’ and thus a breach of the 4th commandment. Perhaps it was no coincidence that a man with dropsy or some kind of abnormal swelling was present. It seems like they are baiting Jesus to heal again, and to catch him in the act. They think they have Jesus trapped, and they are watching him like a hawk.
Jesus turns a potentially tricky situation upside-down (or the right way up) by asking two simple questions. First of all (verse 3), he asks: ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?’ The answer to this question is clearly ‘Yes’. There’s nothing wrong with healing on the Sabbath! If there were, Jesus wouldn’t do it. But this simple question proves too much for the Pharisees, because if they say, ‘Yes, healing is permitted’ then they would come across as ‘going soft’ on the harsh man-made Sabbath laws they clung to so tightly. However, if they said, ‘No, it’s unlawful to heal’ then the people would see them as hard-hearted and uncaring. So, they decide to remain silent. These experts in the law cannot even answer such a simple question.
Jesus then performs a wonderful healing on the man with swelling and sends him on his way. This outstanding miracle should have resulted in their praise and trust. It is further evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. Sadly, the Pharisees, care more about their own positions than they do about evidence. Jesus is not finished yet. He wants to unmask their hypocrisy and selfishness, and so he asks another question (verse 5): ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’
What point is Jesus making here? He’s saying in effect, when it comes to their own interests, whether their own animals or even family, they are happy to make exceptions to their own rules. They wouldn’t apply strict Sabbath laws to themselves if it resulted in their own personal loss! However, they are all too quick to apply the strictest interpretations of laws on other people. They know from their own experience that, of course, there are certain works of necessity and mercy which need to be done on the Sabbath. This is just common sense. They will apply common sense for themselves, but then will load burdensome man-made laws on others.
It’s important to remember that Jesus is never negative about the Sabbath day itself. This was given to be a blessing for us. It’s given for physical rest from work, and for spiritual refreshment as we gather for worship and fellowship. So many Christians today live as if there are only nine commandments, and just ignore the 4th one, treating it like any other day, except for going to church. If you do this, you are robbing yourself of rest and blessing, and breaking God’s command. Jesus never attacks the 4th commandment, only the Pharisees’ abuse and distortion of it. They had made the day a nightmare. It should be a day of resting and worship and blessing others.
The Pharisees might have seemed so pious and devout, but Jesus unmasks them again and again, showing that they lack compassion for their neighbours, they lack love for God, and they act with selfish motives. They do not understand the commands they claim to be experts in.
How can we apply this passage to our own lives today? We are no longer in a country where the Lord’s Day is considered. In most of church culture, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, with so many Christians ignoring this command altogether. As I said, we are robbing ourselves of much blessing. However, we are also robbing God. I was struck by JC Ryle’s comments here: “If others are determined to rob God, and take possession of the Lord’s Day for their own selfish ends, let us not be partakers in their sins.” Sunday is meant to be the Lord’s Day – the day belonging in a special way to the Lord. How can we use it more wisely than we do? This is a question we all need to think about, pray about, and then make certain changes, so that we can rest, bless others by doing good, and worship together, as we have opportunity.
Do you ever just sit and people-watch? For example, you are on a plane which has just landed, and are told to remain strapped into your seat. However, you observe several people unclipping their belts, and making a bee-line for the front. Perhaps you’re the person doing that! You want to be first to get off the plane. Why should you wait behind everyone else? You’ve so much to do. What the others have ahead of them isn’t in your thinking at all.
Jesus is ‘people watching’ at this Sabbath lunch. He’s watching how the guests are all jostling for what they see as the most important seats. They are full of pride and self-importance. Jesus tells them a story of a man who seats himself at the top table at a wedding, only to be moved to a table at the back of the hall. How utterly embarrassing! Has that ever happened to you? I hope not. But let’s be honest, we all struggle with putting others ahead of ourselves at times. We can all, perhaps subtly, do things to be noticed by others. We can all be blinkered to what others around us are going through, and think far too much about our own needs and wants. Jesus isn’t just giving us common-sense advice at how to behave at a wedding or similar function. He’s giving us life-principle to live by, and that principle is humility. He’s warning us against the danger of selfishness. Kent Hughes says: “selfishness always reduces the importance of others, and enlarges the importance of one’s own life.” That is very true. As Christians, the gospel ought to increase the importance of others, and reduce our own importance. The gospel should keep us humble. Remember every day that we are but sinners saved by God’s grace, and that should help you keep perspective of your own importance.
‘Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among his great men; it is better for him to say to you, “Come up here,” than for him to humiliate you before his nobles.’ (Proverbs 25:6-7)
‘Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you…’ (1 Peter 5 vs 5-6: 5)
When you come into a room, are you the kind of person who wants others to notice you, and think well of you, or do you enter the room thinking about others, and who might be in need, or might need encouraged? There’s a big difference.
My grandfather was once in a meeting with lots of high-flyers who were all introducing themselves as Dr so and so and the Very Rev so and so, and subtly or even unsubtly displaying their credentials like peacocks. It came to my grandfather’s turn to introduce himself and he said : ‘I’m Willie Johnstone WFFG’. ‘What’s that?’, they said? ‘Wee fella fae Glasgow.’
More seriously, what will happen to us if we live our lives with an inflated sense of our own importance? Will our pride really matter in the long run? Yes, it will. God will humble us. Those who think they are good people, and self-made, and are proud, God will humble you at the end of time, and you will not be included in the Kingdom of God. ‘For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)
True Christians will not boast in themselves but in Christ, and in what he accomplished for us. We should have a keen sense of our own sin, and that all we have has been given to us by God. We ought to be humble. If we live like this, what will happen in the life to come? God will exalt us!
If someone were to describe your character, would ‘humble’ be a word on their list? It ought to be. We are followers of Jesus, and so we must follow him in his humility. ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant…’ (Philippians 2:3-7)
In a strong marriage, each partner will be more concerned with the needs and interests of the other than they will about their own needs and wants. Is that how we live? How we need the help of the Holy Spirit! Left to ourselves, we’d be experts in seeing their faults and oblivious to our own. Humility is the lubricant of unity. Think of a church where each person in the church family serves, and looks to the needs of others. Will that church be united? Of course, it will.
JC Ryle: “The root of humility is right knowledge. The man who really knows himself and his own heart – who knows God and his infinite majesty and holiness – who knows Christ, and the price at which he was redeemed – that man will never be a proud man.” Perhaps we should all begin the day in prayer, and at the foot of the cross we can recalibrate and remind ourselves what we have been saved from. Where would we be, were it not for the grace of God?
Next, Jesus moves from the guests to focus on the host. In the culture of Jesus’ day, most would invite people to their homes of a similar or higher social standing. Those at the bottom of the rung were excluded. Jesus challenges this negative aspect of their culture. Christians should not behave like this. ‘Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.’ (Romans 12:6) This is something I love about the church – it is (or ought to be when working properly) the most inclusive group on earth. We have people of all nationalities, all social classes, all kinds of education and gifts and interests, and yet we are one in Christ. We are united by the fact that we are sinners saved by the grace of God.
We shouldn’t just invite people to our homes because we feel we’ll get an invite in return, or some other kind of benefit. I don’t think Jesus is saying we can’t have good friends and family round on a regular basis. Jesus himself enjoyed being with his friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. But the principle is this: don’t give in order to get. Don’t restrict your guest list to those you find easy company, or get on well with your children, or who are the best company. Invite those who are struggling and depressed and unemployed and mourning the loss of loved ones and lonely and those who are a bit eccentric and socially awkward.
Your motive in hospitality ought to be love, and not what you get out of it. And it’s a particularly beautiful thing to give to those who cannot repay you in any way. Kent Hughes makes a bold statement here: “If we do not reach out to others who cannot benefit us (and we should not limit this to dinners), we must ask ourselves if we are true believers.” Is he right? That’s quite a statement. I think he is right. The gospel we claim to believe in must make a difference in how we think and how we live. Those who know they are undeserving sinners whom God has rescued form the pit will delight in, at least in some measure, in extending that same unconditional love to others.