Who’s Watching Whom?
Preached by Jason Abbott
When I was still pastoring in Jefferson City, Missouri, I had an old friend— from a different Christian tradition than my own—invite me over for an evening with some other guys, presumably to have a drink and some casual conversation. But, after arriving, I realized that wasn’t the intention. After a couple introductions and a few more arrivals, it became clear I was being watched closely by the others at this little gathering; it was clear they were looking for an opportunity to pounce on anything I’d say which they didn’t believe. When they finally did challenge me, I wish I could say I was awesome in reply, but I wasn’t. (It’s one of those times that you look back on for years—re-imagining the exchange so that you’re the hero in the end: If I’d have just said that, that would have shown them!)
Well, unlike me—your feeble pastor—Jesus is awesome in such situations. And, today we’re going to look at one of them. Let’s read the passage together.
14 One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. 2 And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. 5 And he said to them, “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?” 6 And they could not reply to these things.
7 Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9 and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In this text, there’s a bunch of watching going on: (1st) the Pharisees are watching Jesus. They want to find something that will incriminate him. However, to their great surprise, they find that (2nd) Jesus is watching them and that they’re, in reality, the ones who stand incriminated. Let’s study this together.
1. Watching Jesus (vv. 1-6)
This dinner party is an ambush. The Pharisees watch Jesus “carefully” (v. 1), Luke tells us. These Pharisees are looking for something to incriminate Jesus with. Many commentators think the man with dropsy—meaning this man has swollen limbs and tissue—has been invited solely for the purpose of gathering evidence against Jesus so they can make a charge against him. In this case, they want Jesus to heal the man, so they can accuse him of breaking the Sabbath. These Pharisees hope to discredit Jesus as a rabbi or expert in the laws of God.
So, let’s be clear about this, Jesus has a choice to make. He can say and do whatever the Pharisees would say and do; in other words, he can play by their rules and not heal this man on the Sabbath. Or, Jesus can heal the man who has dropsy, thereby offending the Pharisees and opening himself up to criticism. The first is, without question, the safer route; it’s conventional and prudent. It won’t get Jesus into hot water. And, after all, what’s being lost by playing by the Pharisees’ rules? A few hours of relief for this man? Jesus could simply tell him that he’ll cure him at sunset. That wouldn’t stir the pot. What harm would that do?
Dropsy, or edema, is a condition where the individual experiences swelling in the feet, legs, ankles, and occasionally the hands and the face. The person’s skin will appear stretched and glossy. So, it’s noticeable—others will see that you’re ill. And, it’s also painful. Symptoms can include breathlessness as well as chest pain and abdominal pain. That, however, is simply the cost physically. The social costs, in Christ’s day, were much higher. Darrell Bock explains:
Dropsy was discussed in ancient Jewish material…. Some rabbis argued that dropsy resulted from sexual offenses…or from intentionally failing to have bowel movements…. [This demonstrates] that dropsy was often viewed [in society] as God’s judgment, either for sin or uncleanness. 1
Friends, who knows how long this man has suffered? Who knows how long he’s been in physical pain? Who knows how long he’s been under social ridicule? Who knows how long he’s been judged and mocked and laughed at for a condition he has through no fault of his own? Waiting for sunset doubtlessly matters to him! A few hours matter for him! And, they matter for Jesus too! He will not wait a day or an hour. Jesus chooses compassion and mercy…now. Look at his choice:
“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” [Jesus asks all those who are watching him.] But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “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?” And they could not reply to these things (vv. 3-6).
How often do we choose the path of least resistance? How often do we imagine that acts of compassion and mercy can wait another day or another hour? How often are we more like the Pharisees than the Lord Jesus here?
Friends, our world has constructed all kinds of rules just like these Pharisees. Those rules tell you what to do and when to do it. They say don’t offend others. They say don’t disturb the peace. Yet, if what the Bible says about sin and death, about the coming judgment of the Lord, is true, then are we being compassionate and merciful when we play by the world’s rules? I believe that Jesus would say no. I think Christ calls us to disturb the peace for the sake of compassion and mercy. After all, that’s what he did.
Before we move to our second point, I want you to notice something subtle which takes place here. Remember that the man with dropsy, whom Jesus cured, had been marginalized, judged, and ridiculed before being cured. However, now, he is vindicated and redeemed. His life’s been restored. This is good new for him; but, at what cost and to whom? The answer is that Jesus pays the cost.
When Jesus chooses compassion and mercy, he chooses to be marginalized and judged and ridiculed by the authorities. He gives them exactly what they want, precisely what they need to condemn him. We can’t miss that the man with dropsy is now vindicated because Jesus has chosen to be condemned.
This is a picture of the gospel. This is expensive mercy and grace.
Please do not imagine, if you follow Jesus, that it will be easy. We’re called, by our Lord, to be “living sacrifices” as we serve him in this world (Romans 12:1). As you step out against the laws and rules of society, you will be condemned for it. Claiming that the Bible is God’s word and to be obeyed will get you marginalized. Sharing the gospel will get you judged. There is ridicule for all those who trust in and follow after Jesus (Matthew 10:22). Friends…count the costs of following him and be prepared to persevere to the end.
Well, if we are paying attention, we will see Jesus make some observations of his own in this text. Let’s look at what happens next. Let’s look at:
2. Jesus watching (vv. 7-11)
Luke moves past this healing and on into the evening and to the dinner party. Apparently, things moved forward—some awkward silence, a few nervous laughs, no doubt—but the festivities eventually resumed, at least for a little while, anyway. Then, Luke records this:
Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (vv. 7-11).
When we read this, we might wonder why Jesus busts their chops like this. We might wonder why Jesus won’t simply leave them alone with his little lesson which reveals all their sinful hypocrisy concerning Sabbath rules and regulations. Why does Jesus have to continue to create tension at this party?
Friends, the answer is simple. Jesus knows there are more important things than maintaining peace at a dinner party. He knows there’s an illness more terrible (and far deadlier!) than dropsy in the room. And Jesus cares deeply for all those who are suffering from it. So…he begins to operate.
Before we began having kids, I lived a pretty healthy life. No broken bones, no surgeries, just a few stitches here and there. Then, when Natalie went into labor for the first time, my view of what it looks like for someone to have an operation changed drastically. I always imagined (and Hollywood certainly perpetuated this) that surgery is like the game Operation—like a surgeon wouldn’t touch anything but the organ or bone needing care. But, this isn’t at all how surgery works!
Natalie had to have an emergency caesarean section while delivering Josiah. So, they rushed her to the operating room, and the doctors and nurses went to work in order to secure a healthy baby and healthy mommy. And, there I was watching it thinking it was going to be this delicate and gentle medical procedure—no sirree! That operation was like a combination between the World Wrestling Federation and the Spanish Inquisition. They were cutting and sawing and pushing and pulling in various directions. I mean, there were points that I was ready to fight our doctor for what, I thought, she was doing to my wife and son.
In the end, however, all of them were working for the health and wellbeing of my family. What I saw as being too harsh and too traumatic to my wife and son were actually the very things that had to be done to save them.
Friends, this is something like what Jesus is doing, here, at this dinner party. Our Lord is confronting these guests for their arrogance and selfishness and pride in seeking the seats of honor. And, this seems so harsh to us. It seems unnecessary to us. Yet, Jesus knows that a lesson in humility is precisely what they really need. They need humility to admit they’re not perfect; in fact, they are rebellious sinners. And, they’ll need it to recognize that they can’t make themselves holy before God. Humility is necessary because, without it, they won’t know they need a savior—they won’t know they need Jesus.
Christ Jesus, consequently, continues to flaunt this not-very-kosher behavior throughout this little banquet. Yet, if you can believe it, he’s not behaving like this because he dislikes the guests but, conversely, because he cares deeply about them. He longs for their wellbeing. He longs for their safety. And, therefore, our Lord must shake things up. He must confront them.
Friends, sometimes, confronting those who are running obliviously after sin is the most loving thing we can do for them. So, do it and do it with humility.
As we close, let me reflect for just a moment on what Jesus says at the end of this passage. I want to consider his last little sentence in terms of how it applies to us as his followers. Here’s what he says:
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (v. 11).
What would it look like in Christ’s church if this was what characterized us? If this was what we really believed in and lived out? What would this world think about us?
There’s a congregation in Harrisburg where the first three parking spots—the spots nearest to the front door—are reserved with signs reading: Senior Pastor, Associate Pastor, and Church Secretary. What does that indicate about authority and importance? At least, I guess, no one has to scramble for the spaces of honor on Sunday morning…since they know who gets them.
But, this isn’t that church. And, we will not answer for their pretentiousness. We will answer for our own. Consequently, we must take a hard look at our sins. How do we commit the very same kinds of sin; how do we do the very same thing, in our own unique ways? How do you do this?
– When someone is sharing something with you, do you immediately think about how you can top whatever story they just shared with you? Is this how you scramble for the seats of honor, the spotlight? Instead of humbly and compassionately listening, are you planning how to steal the show?
– Or, maybe, at work or at home, you’re tempted to just do the visible tasks in opposition to the thankless ones. Do you want to be known for service as long as you’re known for service—as long as people see what you do? Is this how you subtly exalt yourself?
Friends, Jesus warns you and me against such strivings. These are the ways of the world, not the ways of God’s kingdom. And, there’s true and radiant beauty in genuine humility. There’s true and radiant beauty when one—who is humble—is exalted by another. It’s the beauty of Christ Jesus himself. And, it’s that beauty, which Paul tells us, we’re to imitate. Let’s close with Paul’s inspired words.
Notice Christ’s humility—a true and radiant humility—and notice how God exalts him because of it. This is our calling and future when we follow Christ.
So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11).