You are living in a very amazing city. I’m sure those of you who are linked by live stream in other cities of the world are also living in amazing cities – Tokyo, Auckland, Canberra, Melbourne, Birmingham, Liverpool, Wichita, Portland, Seattle and others. But if you move to your city from this city, I think you will agree with me that Hong Kong is a very amazing city. In the midst of all the tension and apprehension, the Holy Spirit is at work in your city. Yesterday, members of the Conference committee took Jeremy and me around the city. We visited Yan Fook Church and heard of the ministries the LORD is working in that community. We visited the Chinese Bible International Translation Center, and we are stirred by the work of Dr. Victoria Kwok and her team. Last night we attended the evening session at Truth Lutheran Church across the street from our hotel, and I was deeply moved as the choir sang “It is well with my soul”. They were singing with such conviction and joy. And I was ministered too by the sign language singing of the song. So, please be encouraged. The Spirit of God is alive in your city.
And again, I want to thank our translators and interpreters – James, who is doing Cantonese; Gary, who is doing the Mandarin; and Josephine and Carol, who are in the basement doing the sign language.
Let us pray.
Living God, we believe that you enabled Luke, the physician, to write these words we have just read. And we believe that you have preserved them for us over all of these centuries. And now, with your mercy and grace, will you cause these words to come alive in our experience as never before. For we pray in Jesus’ name.
I invite you this morning to give your attention to a parable Jesus teaches at a dinner party. If you have read any of the four Gospels, you will know how much Jesus teaching and ministry takes place at dinner parties. So much of his self-revelation – and thus the revelation of the nature and character of his Father, and thus the revelation of the nature and character of the kingdom of God – take place at dinner parties. So much so that the American evangelist Tony Campolo could write a book on Jesus life and ministry and given the title The Kingdom of God is a Party.
Dinner parties, of course, are not the only place Jesus makes himself and his Father and his kingdom known. It is in the Jordon River where we hear the voice of the Father said to Jesus as he comes out of the water, “You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.” It is on a mountain shrouded in thick clouds, that we hear the voice of the Father speaking to Jesus’ disciples, “This is my son. Listen to him.” It is on a mountain called Calvary that the glory of God most fully is displayed. When the beloved son of God, being obedient in his Father’s plan, offered himself up as the final, sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the world. It is in a cemetery that he then emerges as the resurrection and life, as victor over the power of sin, evil and death, and as the first fruits of a new humanity.
But it is around meals that Jesus especially likes to make himself and his agenda for the world known. This is especially the case in the Gospel according to Luke. More than the other three Gospel writers, Luke records what happens when Jesus comes to dinner, building to what happened on that Thursday night before Jesus goes to the cross, when Jesus transforms the Passover meal into of the central act of Christian worship God. And then that wonderful surprise meal on Easter afternoon, Luke tells the moving story of the disciples in the village of Emmaus, who invite the stranger they do not know it is Jesus to have dinner with them. The stranger Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, gives it to them, and Luke says, “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.” They run back to Jerusalem and joyfully tell the other disciples the LORD has really risen. And how he was made himself known in the breaking of the bread. He made himself known in the meal.
Thus, here we have the story recorded in Luke ch.14. Jesus makes himself and his vision for a new human society known at the meal. Jesus loves to meet people at meals, although sometimes that’s the story before us when he makes known radically changes the dynamics of the meal.
As we have been doing each of the morning of this Conference, let us do our best to understand the setting of Luke ch.14. It is a complex setting, meaning that we are going to have to read this story very careful. Every little thing Luke says matters.
Luke says the meal took place in the home of a Pharisee. This time, it is the home of “one of the leaders of the Pharisees”, Luke emphasizes. That is, this Pharisee is a high-ranking Pharisee. He is probably a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel. He is high ranking, and he cares very much about his high ranking. This is important to realize about the setting. This Pharisee cares very much about gaining and keeping a high ranking, and sadly it is also the case with most Pharisees.
i.The Shifted Meaning of Sabbath
Luke tells us the meal takes place on a Sabbath, presumably, after the worship service held in the synagogue that morning. There is no way to exaggerate the importance of the Sabbath to the Jews of the 1st Century. It is a day of worship and rest, and therefore a day of great blessing. But in the 1st Century, it has also become a way to mark out a boundary, a boundary between those who are in and those who are out. Honoring the Sabbath became a way in the 1st Century to declare that one was on the inside, and those who did not keep the Sabbath are on the outside. The word “Pharisee” is related to the word that means “to separate”. Keeping the Sabbath in the 1st Century was one of the ways – if not the only way – one lives separately, high above the others.
To make sure that the day was separate, the Pharisees came up with all kinds of rules and regulations. It was thought that, if you kept these rules and regulations, you would end up keeping the Sabbath. There were lots of rules. One document lists 39 things you could not do on Sabbath, including not carrying anything (especially heavy things like carts or mattresses), not planting, not plowing, not reaping, not sifting, not cooking, no winnowing or spinning, no untying, no lighting a fire etc. That is why even today, strict orthodox Jews do not drive on Sabbath – in order to drive, one has to turn the key which lights a fire in the car engine. And there are rules about not doing medicine on Sabbath. To do medicine and to heal people is work, and one does not work on Sabbath.
ii.Jesus’ Actions in the Sabbath
So, Jesus is at a meal in a Pharisee’s home on Sabbath. And at this meal, Jesus does medicine, Jesus heals. And at this meal, Jesus speaks to the social and spiritual dynamics of the meal. In Luke 14:1-6, Jesus heals. And in 14:7-14, Jesus speaks to the social and spiritual dynamics of the meal. The two were related – Jesus healing, and Jesus is speaking to be the meal celebration. They are intricately related, because both involve dropsy. I will tell you later what dropsy is. But for now, Luke wants us to realize that both Jesus act of healing and his parable involve dropsy. Jesus act of healing is dealing with the medical form of dropsy. Jesus is teaching the parable, dealing with the social relational spiritual form of dropsy.
2. Jesus’ Healing
Let us dig a bit deeper into the setting by asking some questions. (You might have noticed, throughout my talks, I ask a lot of questions. This is a good way to do Bible study.) So, let us ask, why is the man with dropsy at this particular party? And why is Jesus at this particular party?
i.Why is the Man with Dropsy at this Dinner Party?
In his medical condition, the man was judged to be unclean. His presence in the home of a Pharisee on the Sabbath is therefore very problematic. This leading Pharisee has done everything he can to make sure that he is clean, to make sure, according to his understanding of purity, that he is pure. The man with a medical condition in the Pharisee’s mind impure and unclean. The presence of this man brings uncleanness and impurity into the Pharisee’s house. The man is untouchable, and he is contaminating the Pharisee’s home.
Then, what is the man doing there? How did he get in the house? Who lead him in? And why did the one who let him in let him in? In Luke 14:2, “AND THERE in front of Jesus is the man suffering from dropsy. . .” Literally, Luke says, “And behold. . .” “Behold” is not a declaration, it is an exhortation, “Look!” It is a command, a command which in the New Testament always introduces a surprise. As you read your Bible, pay very attention to the word “behold”. In the Gospels, “behold” always introduces a surprise. And in the last book of the Bible, the revelation of Jesus Christ, “behold” always introduces a big surprise. “Behold, in front of Jesus. . .” says Luke. The point is, the man should not be there. It is a big surprise. Then why he is there? We will come back to that in a moment.
ii.Why is Jesus at this Dinner Party?
Then, why is Jesus there? He is on his way to Jerusalem. The story takes place in the so-called travel narrative. We know it yesterday that, from Luke 9:51 to 19:28, Luke tells us what happens that Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. What Luke particularly wants to show us is that, along the way, there is growing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. Indeed, there is growing hostility towards Jesus from the religious leaders – Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, and Priests. Why then is Jesus at this meal in a Pharisee’s home?
Some suggest that the Pharisee is simply acting on basic cultural expectations. As we learned when we studied the parable in Luke ch.11, when someone comes on a journey into your village or town, you are expected to provide hospitality to him or her. Even if you do not particularly like the sojourner, you are expected to bring them into your home and feed them, so they can be nurtured for the journey. Last year, I helped lead a trip to the Holy Land (and I get to lead another next February). In Bethlehem, our Arab Christian guide told us at least three times that, if we wanted to stay in Bethlehem and not return to Jerusalem, he was culturally obligated to house and feed us for three and a half days. Why that number? He did not explain. But he made it very clear that we could stay. He did not even know us. But it does not matter. We were on a journey, and he was obligated to care for us. So, this Pharisee may simply be extending hospitality to Jesus, the sojourner.
Other suggest that, on that Sabbath, Jesus had spoken in the synagogue service. That is, he had been the guest preacher. As the leader, the Pharisee was obligated to extend hospitality to the preacher on behalf of the synagogue in the village. It would have been shameful for Jesus to have preached and then not be invited to someone’s home for dinner. Even if the people gathered for the service did not like the preacher’s sermon, someone had to invite him to dinner, and the most appropriate “someone” was the leader of the Pharisees.
iii.The Trap of the Pharisees
So, cultural expectations could explain why Jesus is at this meal. But notice in 14:3, the phrase, “And Jesus answered . . .” Jesus noticed, in v.1, that the Pharisees are watching him closely. In v.2, the man with dropsy is in front of Jesus. Presumably, someone has raise up a question to Jesus, otherwise Jesus would not be answering them. But has someone asked the question? No, not audibly anyway. But they have spoken, and they are posing a question. How have they spoken? They have spoken by bringing the man with dropsy into the house. The man is there, because they brought him in the house. Let me say that again – the man is there, because the Pharisees brought him into the house. And so doing they were posing a question: what would Jesus do with the man? What would Jesus do with this unclean man in the house of a clean Pharisee on the Sabbath?
I think you can see it is a trap. The leaders have an unclean man in front of Jesus in a clean house on the Sabbath. The Pharisees have put up a trap that is clothed in the cultural dynamics around hospitality. Jesus is being set up to see if he will make a misstep. That’s why Luke says they were watching him. So, how does Jesus answer? He heals the man with dropsy, and he tells a parable, a parable about hospitality. The two answers go together. Jesus’ healing and Jesus’ parable about hospitality are intricately related around the phenomena of dropsy.
Dropsy is a condition in our day that goes by the name “edema”. There are, as I understand, many forms of dropsy or edema. The disease involves an abnormal buildup of fluid below the skin or in small cavities on the body. The buildup of fluid causes swelling of parts of the body. But paradoxically, one of the symptoms of this excess fluid is insatiable thirst. The body retains too much fluid, and yet it is very thirsty.
3. Jesus’ Parable
Jesus answered the Pharisee’s unspoken question with a spoken question. V.3, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They do not answer. The answer is: yes, and no, but the “no” is no match for the “yes”. Jesus heals the man. Luke, the physician, did not tell us how. On other occasions, Jesus simply speaks or touches. Here, it just happens. Jesus heals a man and then sent him on his way, out of the place where he is being used as a trap. And then Jesus says, “Which one of you shall have a son or ox fall into a well and immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” Again, they do not answer, for they will all pull out their son or ox. None of them would have waited for sundown when the Sabbath ended to pull their son or ox out of the well.
i.The True Meaning of Sabbath
Do you see and hear what Jesus is doing? He is taking the Pharisees back to God’s original intention for the Sabbath. The Sabbath is all about wholeness. The Sabbath is a day of wholeness. Worship and rest and wholeness, which means Jesus is not violating the Sabbath. He would never violate his Father’s good law. Healing the man, Jesus is living the Sabbath. He is bringing about the wholeness, i.e. God’s will for Sabbath. And he is showing what the ultimate Sabbath will involve – he is giving the man and the Pharisee a taste of the great jubilee, where we are free from everything that keeps us from wholeness. Pull out of the well, literally the verb is “release”, “release from the well”. Jesus comes set captives free. It is what the God of Sabbath wants for the whole of creation.
ii.Jesus’ Purpose of Not Waiting
Now, Jesus could have gotten out of this trap by simply stalling for a few hours. He could have waited for sundown to heal the man, and there would be no controversy. Wonder, yes. Wonder that a human being had been released to be whole. But if he had just waited a few more hours for sundown, he would not have been in trouble. Then why did he not wait? Because too much was at stake. The medical form of dropsy was threatening the wellbeing of the man. And the social, relational, spiritual form of dropsy was threatening the wellbeing of the Pharisees. Had Jesus waited until sundown, he would have missed the opportunity to release the Pharisees from what was keeping them from entering the kingdom. In the 1st Century, the word “dropsy” was also used in a metaphorical way. The word was used for lovers of money, for the greedy, and for those who crave recognition and status, the very things that drove so many Pharisees. The Greek philosopher Diogenes compared money lovers to dropsy. He wrote, “As dropsies, though filled with fluid, crave drink, so money lovers, though loaded with money, crave more of it, and adds both to their demise.”
Do you see what is going on at this dinner party? New Testament scholar Joe Green helped me the most, and this is how he puts is. “The presence of the man with dropsy constitutes a vivid parable, a vivid parable of Jesus’ socially elite pharisaical table companions. Just as in front of Jesus stood a man with dropsy, so around the table said persons whose disorder was no less self-detrimental. As Jesus moves to heal the one, so he moves to heal other.” Jesus speaks the parable to bring about social, relational spirit to heal social, relational, spiritual dropsy. It is an amazing thing, and quite scandalous. Jesus, the guest, dares to criticize the host publicly, running the risk of getting even more trouble. But Jesus does not mind. Too much is at stake not to speak.
iii.The Shifted Meaning of Hospitality
The sad reality is, in the 1st Century, meals have become a way to advertise one’s social status. They have become a way to enhance one’s social status. Simple hospitality was co-opted by craving for status. Who was present at your dinner party determine your status in the larger community. Where you sat relative to who was at the dinner either enhance your status or decrease your status. Which means people have fallen into a well, a deep well, an imprisoning well, for once one starts down the road of getting oneself worth from other human beings, there is no end. Once our sense of self gets hooked into what others think of us, how thirst for more kicks in. Once we gain a measure of status, and finds our worth status, we will thirst for greater and greater status. Never enough, filled and yet craving.
It happens with all forms of dropsy. Take wealth for example. Once I began to get a sense of self-worth from wealth, I would crave more wealth. I would gain more, and I crave more, and there is never enough. So as to degrees. Once I began to get my self-worth from my degree, I would crave more, one another. There is never enough. I would like more titles behind my name. So too with preaching. Once I get to get my sense of self-worth from preaching, I will crave other opportunities to preach, and I will get more opportunities, and I will crave more, but there will never be enough. Nothing is wrong with preaching, nothing is wrong being called to preach. But it cannot become the basis of my self-worth, or I will crave preaching for the wrong reason, and the craving will affect the preaching.
At a dinner party, a high-ranking Pharisee takes hospitality and distorts it by spiritual dropsy, because one needed to protect and increase one’s status. People would only invite to dinner people who could reciprocate, who could invite you to their dinner, whom you then could invite back to your next dinner, and they have to invite you to their dinner. And they will go into a deep well. In the process, excluding those who could not reciprocate, excluding those judged to be unclean, excluding the poor who could never repay, excluding those who really needed the hospitality, but whose presence would not enhance your reputation. And because one needed to protect and increase one’s status, one needed to get the right seat at the party, falling deeper into the well. One sense of self-being tied up with who you were seeing with the last dinner – what a vulnerable way to live. For Jesus points out, “You might stick out the best seat, go take your place there, only to the host to tell you the seat is reserved for somebody else. Better to come to dinner and not worry about what seat is the best seat.” Better to come to dinner with your self-worth and self-esteem based on something else, like the love of Jesus, at whose dinner party there is no best seat. They are all best seats, and he sits at every table in the room, especially with those whom the status cravers excluded. Jesus comes to dinner to free us from all that dropsy.
At a meal of the Pharisee’s home, Jesus heals a human being of a medical condition, and then offers help to those with a spiritual condition. He cuts through all the perversion of hospitality, and thereby brings us into the hospitality of the kingdom of God, into his new society. We are included simply because he includes us. He invites us. It is all we need. When someone says, why are you at the party? The answer is, because the king invited me – rich and poor, master or servant, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female, clean and unclean. And Jesus says, blessed are those who then invite those whom Jesus invites. Blessed are those who join Jesus in bringing to the dinner party – those from the rest of the world ignored. Blessed are those who join Jesus in bringing to the dinner party – those who can get nothing in return. It means we’re free from dropsy. The horrible condition of craving what cannot satisfy.
So, how do we respond today? May I suggest three ways.
First, since so much of Jesus ministry takes place around meals, why not hold a dinner party for our neighbors? This is a big thing for me to think about. I am an introvert, and I am a “paid extrovert”. And to think of taking an evening to invite my neighbors to dinner, that is a hard thing. But I think that is what I am supposed to do, especially those I do not know yet, and especially those who do not ordinarily get invited to parties. Hold a hospitality meal, a kingdom meal. No best seats. To which we invite Jesus and watch him work in surprises.
Second, ask Jesus, what do I need to be healed in order to truly be alive in your kingdom? From what do I need to be released? Out of what well do you want to pull me? What form of dropsy do I need healing?
And third, thank Jesus for inviting you to his party, thank Jesus for inviting you to his table, where Jesus himself is the host. There is no pecking order, no one needs to achieve any kind of status. The only status one need is the status of being in need of what only Jesus can give. Here is Jesus’ benediction, “Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Blessed indeed. Wait until tomorrow, where Jesus teaches the most famous parable at another dinner party.
Let us pray,
Once again we acknowledge, LORD, that there is no one like you. You are amazing. How you are able to enter into the complexity of our hearts, and act and speak in ways that set us free. I pray, dear LORD, this day, that you would free each of us from any false ways in which we are seeking self-worth and self-identity. And will you help us, simply tell us who we are, and may your love be enough to give us worth.