Preach, The Seed

When we read through the Gospels, it seems that Jesus and the pharisees were in constant conflict. Perhaps they were, but there is enough information in the Gospels about his interactions with the pharisees for us to understand why: Jesus’ problem with the pharisees, was NOT because they were pharisees; it was because they were hypocrites. In other words, Jesus was as open to eating with and associating with pharisees, and presenting the gospel to them, every bit as much as He was with the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’. This is one such occasion.

V1-6 sets a scene. Jesus is at a meal hosted by a leader of the Pharisees. At the house of this man is someone who has something called ‘dropsy’. We don’t use the term ‘dropsy’ any more, but people still suffer from it. The term we use nowadays is ‘oedema’, and it is a build up of fluid under the skin and can be caused by all sorts of medical conditions. So this man has a problem with his skin. There are all sorts of laws in the Old Testament about people with skin complaints, and often they make a person unclean. The most obvious example is all the laws about leprosy. I haven’t done a deep dive into the OT books of the law about dropsy. This man’s condition, being a skin complaint, may well have made him ‘unclean’ and it is probable that his presence was unusual at a meal thrown by a pharisee. Was he put there as a plant to manoeuvre Jesus into breaking God’s law? Unlike other accounts in the gospels, Luke doesn’t answer this question for us, but the man’s presence, his position in front of Jesus, and Jesus’ reaction to him suggests he might well have been.

V1: Jesus was being ‘carefully watched’.

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched.

We must understand the challenges we encounter when we come into contact people are not always genuine attempts to find truth. They are sometimes cynical attempts to trick us, to manoeuvre us into doing or saying something which will somehow invalidate our message and give them a justification for rejecting the gospel. This is, so very frequently, EXACTLY the motivation of the Pharisees. So, HOW Jesus responds gives us some information on how we might recognise the questions and how to respond to them.

For a start, although there is no question asked openly, we read that Jesus ‘responded’ to the pharisees. Even if there wasn’t a direct question, accusation, or challenge spoken, there was still an implied one.

We must understand that the situations we find ourselves in often have greater implications than might first appear.

AND note: These may simply be situations that arise, and not necessarily ones which have been manipulated. Just as Luke tells us that Jesus was being carefully watched, the people around us are watching and taking note of how we act and what we say.

Secondly, Jesus healed the man. On the Sabbath. For a pharisee, this constitutes work and is forbidden by the Law. Jesus was breaking the law. Or was he?

The point I am making here is that Jesus is not complying with their flawed understanding of how the law should be applied. He follows God’s law, not their interpretation of God’s law.

We know this because of his question. V3 tells us that Jesus says: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” He speaks out loud what they are thinking. He goes on to point out an inconsistency in their application 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?” (v5). This isn’t really a question Jesus wants them to answer, he’s making a point—that they also believe in and practice acts of mercy, even on the Sabbath. This man was, metaphorically speaking, in a hole that was every bit as real as a well. And Jesus wasn’t about to be manipulated into allowing his suffering to continue; He did exactly what the pharisees would do for their son or for their ox. Jesus lifted the man out of the well of illness he was trapped in. Even if it was a Sabbath. Remember, elsewhere Jesus says: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Jesus effectively says to the Pharisees, “all I have done is precisely what you yourselves would do if this was your son or your ox”.

What can we learn from Jesus’ actions and words to help as we live our faith out in front of people?

  1. He did not allow their interpretation of the law to determine how He would act. Our primary source for living our lives as people of faith is the Bible itself, not the commentaries we have available to us. That includes written commentary, but also verbal commentary such as: YouTube videos, podcasts, even my preaches which should ALL be subservient to the word of God. When I preach, or when you watch or listen to something on Social Media, read your Bible. Look up the verses quoted and read them for yourselves. Ask questions like, ‘is the text being handled properly?”, and, “is the person saying things that are consistent with the teachings of the Bible, or is he being influenced by culture?’
    Be aware of a tension here though. We must not interpret the Bible according to our feelings or smart ideas. Jeremiah tells us that our hearts are deceitful above all things and not to be trusted (Jeremiah 17:9). So, I am NOT saying we only listen to or take on board the stuff we agree with, or the stuff we like. I am saying we discard the things which we hear which are condemned in or at odds with the Bible. Your assessment of a message, or a podcast or a YouTube video is not determined by whether or not you like it, it is determined by whether it is true. Is it consistent with Biblical revelation? If it is not, reject it.
  2. He acted even though it might create conflict. We cannot shy away from doing what is right before God. We cannot allow other’s opinions of us to allow us to temper how we express our faith, or even to stop us from expressing it at all. Nor can we allow our fear of what others might say or do to define and influence how we act. A key to this is found in Nehemiah 7:2. This is a phrase I want at my funeral. It describes a man called Hananiah and says, “he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most”. Proverbs 29:25 says: “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe”. Paul says to the Romans, “do not conform to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The point here is that our priority in life and action is The Lord. Our mantra should be “Better to stand with God and be judged by the world than to stand with the world and be judged by God”.
  3. He explained his motivations to people. In doing so, he also pointed out to them that they also would have acted as He did under certain circumstances. This is a good thing for us to remember. Everyone has a line or standard by which they judge others. Even those who would vociferously shout “don’t judge!!” have a line. Show people that they have a line too and that the only difference is that our lines are in different places. Ours are defined by Scripture, theirs are defined by the culture in which they live, but don’t let them get away with it—they have a line too.

V2-6: What about the Sabbath?

“There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So, taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.

Then he asked them, “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?” And they had nothing to say.

Thinking about the sabbath, I want to pick up on the Sabbath question/issue itself. Jesus responded to this challenge by asking the unspoken question out loud. He voiced in the open something which they wanted to obfuscate and imply.

The people there remained silent to this. Why? Remember they were Pharisees and ‘experts in the law’, they would have loved this kind of theological discussion. Perhaps previous encounters with Jesus had taught them that He had such a grasp of the law and the things of God that He would make them look and feel stupid. After all, it has been said: ‘better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are stupid than open it and remove all doubt’!

Nevertheless, Jesus heals the man. The fact He sent the man away (rather than sitting him down to finish the meal) gives weight to the probability that the man was simply a plant intended to trap Jesus in some way.

What can we take home from this? I’m not actually going to talk about the sabbath per-se. Most Christians don’t mark the Sabbath, but we DO tend to see Sunday in the same way. So, there is a strong case for considering how the Sabbath customs of the Jews speak into how we approach Sundays. But I believe what we can learn from this runs much deeper than our observance of a specific day.

Jesus has a habit of taking our beliefs about what faith or obedience to God ‘should’ look like, and pointing out its weaknesses and flaws. We SO love discussions about what ‘proper Christians’ should believe, do or act. What does being a Christian look like in the 21st Century? What do “Real” Christians do?

  1. Go to church?
  2. Read the Bible every day?
  3. Have a daily quiet time? (Similar but not identical to the above)
  4. Pray the ‘right’ prayers?
  5. Wear the right clothes?
  6. Abstain from drinking alcohol / eating dead animals.
  7. Real Christians don’t watch certain films / read certain books.
  8. “Keeping Sunday special”?
  9. How about, attitudes towards the Bible, from: ‘I don’t worship scripture—I worship Jesus!’—to— ‘absolutely everything the Bible says or appears to say is to be taken as law for us to follow’.
  10. God is love, so “real” Christians love everybody and anyone who judges someone else for any reason whatsoever isn’t being loving and therefore isn’t a real Christian.
  11. If you oppose certain political parties, you’re not a proper Christian. I remember in the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was our Prime Minister, I heard a preacher declare from the pulpit that he believed anyone who voted for her wasn’t a true Christian.

Paul quite regularly had to speak to the things people were doing which were getting in the way of what true faith looked like.

In Corinth, people were splitting into factions around leaders “One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12). Paul says this is wrong. They were also preoccupied with gaining ‘wisdom’. True followers of Jesus gained wisdom and were articulate. No, says Paul, “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

In Galatia, the believers were saying that true Christians obeyed the Law—including the law of circumcision. NO! Says Paul, whether someone is circumcised (or not) is of no value: the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6).

I could go on, but you get the point, too often we think that we know what a follower of Jesus looks like, and how he/she will act. But when we look carefully at the teaching of the Bible we cut through all the extraneous things and getting to the heart of the matter.

Which is this: You and I don’t get to determine who is and who isn’t a legitimate follower of Christ. God does that. The parable of the wheat and the weeds teaches us that at the final harvest, the harvesters will separate the two. (Incidentally, the harvesters are the angels and not us!).

We must be careful that we don’t do what the pharisees did and create rules out of the things we do which help us to walk more closely with Christ. We must not turn the customs of our particular flavour of Christianity, or the marks which we, personally, believe are marks of a follower of Jesus into rules and regulations that we impose on everyone else.

V7-11 A place of honour

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers, or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Reading back into v1, we notice that the Pharisee wasn’t just a pharisee, the NIV says he was a ‘prominent’ pharisee, the ESV/NLT/NKJV describes him as ‘a leader of the pharisees’. He wasn’t just someone who led, he was a leader of leaders. An important man, who would have been very familiar with cultural and religious rules of his day.

This is significant to understand this because it adds context to the customs surrounding meals and where people should sit. This next section of Luke’s account picks up on this and speaks to how people are forever striving to move up in the pecking order.

I often think of wedding meals when I read this account. Organising seating plans for a wedding is a nightmare, not only do you have to worry about whom you sit with whom, but there is the added stress of which table they get put on. Just like the meals of Jesus’ day, we have a pecking order of sitting down. Even if it’s not intended, people who are sat at the tables at the back of the room at a wedding reception will feel that they are less important to the bride and groom than those who sit closer. Basically, the closer you get to the host, the more influential you are.

Weddings nowadays have a seating plan, where their position is determined by the host beforehand. This was not the case at this meal. In this culture, you arrived, and you sat down where you liked. But — the host could ask you to move if you were in the place he felt belonged to someone else. This produced a dilemma. Where to sit? The seat you choose says something about how you see yourself.

Just as we must be careful we don’t make inaccurate determinations about what Christians are and do, and we must be careful not to make an inaccurate determination about how important we are. To take this situation and apply it as a metaphor, we must be careful where we sit down, or we might find ourselves being moved.

How we view ourselves is king, it seems. From self-identification, through all forms of self-image issues. It seems like people think anything and everything wrong with our world would be solved if only people could think more highly of themselves. We believe that our ‘self-identification’ trumps everything anyone else might think of or about us. We believe we have the right to compel someone to accept and even promote that self-image, EVEN IF it means forcing them to say things they don’t believe are true. “I am the boss of my life, and every one else is subservient to my self-image” is the mantra of the age.

Far from the narrative of the media which suggests that people have very low self-esteem nowadays, my experience is that the opposite is more frequently true. I meet far more people who have an inflated opinion of themselves than those who genuinely have low self-esteem. Most people I meet believe that what they think, what they feel and what they believe is far more important than what anyone else says. It seems to me, as I have ministered to people over the last 30 years, as I have observed people’s actions and attitudes towards one another, pride is far more prevalent than humility. Self-image IS generally speaking twisted in people, but usually people are far more self-absorbed and prideful than they think.

Here and in other places, Jesus speaks right into this attitude. He serves the disciples and tells them that they should serve one another (John 13:13-14—“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet).

He says in Luke 22:25-26: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

While people around us in what we would describe as “the world” are doing everything in their power to increase their prominence, Romans 11:20 warns us not to become proud (or arrogant, depending on your translation). Romans 12:3 calls us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. And Romans 12:16 says we should be willing to associate with people of low position.

Jesus calls out the pharisees for making a great show of their righteousness to ‘be seen by men’, and that they love to be leaders of the people.

The Corinthians also had a tendency to put people onto pedestals. I believe Apollos left Corinth as a result of it. I’ve already referenced 1 Corinthians where the people were splitting into factions around different leaders. Apollos, it seems, was one of those leaders. Paul mentions him three times more in his letter:

1 Corinthians 3:5,6: What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

1 Corinthians 3:21-23: So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

1 Corinthians 4:6,7: Now, brothers and sisters, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

Each time, he reinforces the point that trying to get one up on others is unbecoming of a follower of Christ. I believe Apollos passed this test, though, because although he clearly was one of the leaders who became a focus of factions in the Corinthian church. I do not believe that he participated in or was in any way complicit in them. In fact, as we will see, I think there is evidence that he absolutely was not.

1 Corinthians 16:12: Now, about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity.

It is unclear from the text why Apollos left Corinth, but he clearly did at some point, and he is reluctant to return — despite Paul’s urgings. Given his willingness to learn from Priscilla and Aquila, I don’t believe he was just being intransigent — I think something else was at play here.

Since Apollos had been a focus of factions in the church in Corinth, I suspect that his reluctance was not one of disobedience towards Paul, but rather it was a reluctance to repeat them.

My point here is that we must be careful to always resist the urge to put ourselves forward, and even resist the urge to allow others to put us forward as well. Jesus teaches this in all sorts of ways throughout the gospels. The Bible teaches it in both testaments. If there is to be any boasting in our lives, we must know that the only valuable type is that which God approves of.

Jeremiah 9:23-4 “let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.

Psalms 34:1-3
“I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!”

Luke 1:53 tells us that “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty”.

My point here, is that my status before God, my position in heaven is neither affirmed, nor negated by any human status or values which we either adopt for ourselves or even get given to use by others.

Even Christians

Think of the most holy, most humble, most effective Christian you can …

  • Jackie Pullinger
  • Smith Wigglesworth
  • Martin Luther
  • Billy Graham
  • R.T. Kendall
  • Heidi Baker
  • Mother Teresa
  • John Wesley

The list is endless (and will probably be different for each person). The point is found in this question: Do you think any one of these famous Christians will get a higher honour at the marriage supper of the lamb than, for example, the unnamed man beheaded by ISIS a few years ago and listed among the martyrs simply as ‘a believer from Awl village’?

What did Jesus say about John the Baptist? “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet, the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).

You may be completely unnoticed and invisible in the church (not here at the Seed, but in the worldwide church). But you are of immeasurable value to God. That is where your self worth should be rooted.

Finally, quite often we find that when people gather in community, say in a church, or club, even in a family, there are some who are the popular ones, and other who are … not.

Were you ever at school when you lined up, two people were chosen as captains, and they picked their teams one-by-one? You knew immediately who were popular and who were unpopular!

I believe that one measure of someone’s character is revealed in how they treat the unpopular people. The odd people, the ones in church you see sat on their own. Watch how people treat shop assistants and waiting staff, and you will quickly see who the nice people and who the thoroughly unpleasant ones are!

Our experience over the years has been that our life has been enriched when we’ve overcome an initial resistance to someone who we saw a a bit ‘odd’ and got to know them. Jesus says don’t spend time on the top table with the movers and shakers. Go to the bottom table and show honour to the odd ones, the overlooked and the forgotten ones.

The promise God give us is this: WE probably won’t get a return on that kind of investment in this world. BUT in Jesus’ own words :

“You will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:14)