Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 8

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 Chapter 8

What’s in it for me?

Jesus models loving others

In the dark and dreary years of the Great Depression, Kitty McCulloch was known as a generous person. As hunger stalked the land, Kitty and her husband often didn’t know for sure about their next week’s food, yet a steady stream of hungry men found their back door to ask for a hot meal. And Kitty always gave it to them.

An especially ragged man came near Christmastime one year. Kitty, feeling great pity for him, gave the man one of her husband’s few suits. Though she didn’t know it for many years, her house had been marked as a message to other needy people that here was a person who cared.

We could define biblical love as a spontaneous desire moving a person to self-giving for the benefit of another. Kitty McCulloch exemplified that kind of love by meeting the needs of others, even when her own resources looked terribly thin.

Jesus Christ modeled such love more than anyone else. He took great personal risks to teach and demonstrate real caring for others. That sets him in stark contrast to the message our modern world gives to each of us. Culturally, we are all trained to ask ourselves, “What’s in it for me?”

Jesus faced the very same attitude when he encountered the religious leaders of Israel. On one particular occasion, he confronted them with the ugly truth about their selfish way of living.

Caring About Others

1 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.
5 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?” 6 And they had nothing to say.
(Luke 14:1–6)

As Jesus traveled south through Perea on his way to Jerusalem, he was invited to dine with a leading Pharisee, probably a member of the Sanhedrin. This banquet took place on the Sabbath, the trickiest day of the week. If God had made the Sabbath holy, the Pharisees had made it burdensome with the dense web of legislation they had created to control Sabbath behavior.

Pharisaic theology called on people to care for others, but their contemporaries considered them uncaring to a fault. They generally turned a blind eye toward the poor, the maimed, and the needy among their people.

One story from rabbinic literature should illustrate the issue quite well. A Pharisee once encountered a woman drowning in a pond. She died while he looked on without making any effort to help. He feared that if he touched her, then he might become ceremonially unclean.

You never can tell about a drowning woman. She might be having her monthly menstrual cycle, thus rendering anyone who touched her ceremonially unclean. That might affect the Pharisee’s income for a few days while he remedied his defilement. So, to avoid such terrible inconvenience, he simply let her drown. (I’m writing with sarcasm!)

We know that Jesus had a hostile audience because of the language used by Luke. He says that Jesus was being “carefully watched” (Luke 14:1), and this translates a verb that means to lie in wait to ambush someone. Beneath the external hospitality of this man lay the treacherous hook of a trap.

The Pharisees earnestly hoped that Jesus would make a big enough mistake so that he could be eliminated once and for all. The Pharisees and scribes had the callousness to use a human being to bait the hook. How else can we account for the fact that a man with a debilitating disease would show up for Sabbath lunch with a member of the Sanhedrin? He was planted there! The scribes and Pharisees were counting on Jesus’ feeling compassion toward this man in spite of the dangerous context.

The Law of Moses permitted miracles to be worked on the Sabbath. However, the super-religious crowd felt that such miracles smacked of working on the Sabbath day, which they abhorred — unless it served their own interests! These men had no concern for this sick individual; he was simply there as a tool to finesse a miracle out of Jesus. Sitting among the guests were scribes who knew every nook and cranny of the Law of Moses as well as the man-made rules that had been added.

Before working the expected miracle, Jesus asked the assembled theologians for a theological opinion about helping others: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” (Luke 14:3). Perhaps fearing the Lord’s well-known abilities, these leaders kept silent.

Jesus then healed the sick man in spite of the grave personal risk he was taking in doing so. He knew they would slander him as someone who had profaned the Sabbath. But such considerations never stopped Jesus; he cared for people even when there was a cost involved.

After sending the healed man away, Jesus confronted the religious leaders with the inconsistency between their own behavior and their super-strict Sabbath rules. Those men could not deny his charge that any one of them would do whatever work was necessary to save his son or his ox on the Sabbath day (Luke 14:5–6).

The Pharisees would gladly do the very thing they were condemning Jesus for, if their own interests would be served by such action. A Pharisee would not necessarily save his own son out of love. Their culture had no such thing as Social Security, and a man’s sons could be depended upon to support him in his elder years.

I think a better translation of Luke 14:6 would be, “they could make no reply to this.” Jesus had them, and they knew it. The hunted one had unexpectedly become the hunter!

The Basis for Caring

7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 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. 10But 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 honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
(Luke 14:7–11)

To understand this parable, notice first that the moral is expressed in Luke 14:11: “All those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The whole parable drives toward this truth.

Second, observe that the word “but” at the beginning of Luke 14:10 divides the parable into two contrasting halves. Jesus firmly rejected self-exalting behavior in the first half, while he affirmed humility in the second half.

Jesus based the parable on his own observations of guests taking their places at the table. The Jewish culture used a very strict pecking order to determine seating assignments at such banquets. Even in the ranks of the Pharisees some had taken stricter vows than others, and so earned the right to a seat of higher honor. To give a banquet like that, with a large number of guests arriving at slightly different times, could involve a tremendous amount of shuffling around.

Jesus poked fun at this self-serving game of musical chairs. The whole system was driven by a desire to say to others, “See how important I am!” Jesus pointedly reminded them that such self-interested behavior could ultimately result in humiliation if a more important guest arrived. In fact, the important people in that society usually did come late so that they could be widely noticed.

In the second half of the parable, Jesus threw social custom to the wind by urging the guests to take the lowest seat upon their arrival. In taking the usual approach, the guest assigns himself the honor, while the method Jesus described would involve the host giving the guest an honor. With his story Jesus said that if you deserve exaltation, let it come from others and not from yourself (applying Prov. 27:2).

Jesus capped off the parable with the principle, “he who humbles himself will be exalted.” By whom? God. Jesus customarily used the passive voice to express God’s actions, as that was considered preferable to the frequent mention of his name. God is also the one who will humble the person who exalts himself.

Unfortunately, you seldom meet a Christian who aspires to be “humble.” This word conjures up an image of a person who is so self-effacing that they will hardly even look you in the eye. They feel bad about themselves and are so shy that they will never talk to anybody.

But that picture bears no resemblance at all to the biblical meaning of humility. Jesus was a humble person, in the biblical sense of the word, yet he never acted in any of those ways. Humility is not denying our own value, but involves granting value to others.

Giving to Others

12 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 neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
(Luke 14:12–14)

A high official like the Sanhedrin leader would have held banquets quite regularly, and invariably such a person would have invited members of his own social class. Strong taboos held the social classes apart from one another.

In my opinion, Jesus was not telling the Pharisees — and by application, he is not telling us — that they had to invite someone who was poor, crippled, lame, or blind every time they held a dinner.

His real point was that they never showed any concern for such people because of their uncaring attitude. Jesus simply used the example of a banquet because he was sitting at one. It served to illustrate the broader problem.

It is amusing that Jesus mentioned “rich neighbors” (Luke 14:12), because that captured the Pharisaic mentality. A Pharisee might well have both rich and poor neighbors, but only the rich neighbor was invited to banquets. Only a rich neighbor could pay the Pharisee back by responding in kind.

In this subtle way Jesus pointed out the inability of the Pharisees to give to others of a lower station than themselves. He was asserting that their whole life revolved around what would ultimately flow back to them in the way of honor, repayment, or social status. Like some members of our own society, the Pharisees were constantly calculating: “What’s in it for me?”

In the place of their intense self-concern, Jesus exhorted the Pharisees and scribes to meet the needs of others, even if they had to wait until the resurrection of the righteous to receive their repayment. To act that way requires a very farsighted view of life. It won’t pay off in the short run. Instead, you have to trust God to reward behavior that pleases him.

Caring About Ourselves

I am not saying that it is wrong to care about yourself. That would simply solve one problem by creating another one!

Caring about ourselves is fundamental to spiritual, emotional, and physical health. What the Pharisees did not have, and what Jesus was seeking to give them, was a healthy allocation of concern for others in addition to their concern for themselves.

Unfortunately, Christians sometimes overreact to the presence of sin. They see self-concern as simply another manifestation of their sin. Yet each of us is made in the image of God and we should value ourselves accordingly! It is not more spiritual to put a low value on what God values highly.

Increasing Our Concern for Others

Use the following applicational ideas to apply the truth that Jesus taught.

1. In our hurried world, the clock seems to work against us as we try to care for others. The urgent can become the enemy of the important. How do you see yourself, in terms of caring for others?

Hiding from them

Overcommitted to them

Involved with them to a reasonable degree

It’s too easy to hide from people’s needs by simply avoiding venues in which we know that their needs will be revealed. Such behavior can betray that we would rather not know about the needs of other people. On the other hand, if we overcommit to meeting the needs of others, then we may be overlooking other priorities that God has given to each one of us.

2. Jesus made it quite clear that we should have a healthy concern for the value and needs of others.

How do you cope with social status and the needs of others in your own life?

Do you find yourself quite conscious of someone else’s social class, income, education, and so on?

A friend of mine told me a disturbing story about a prestigious Christian school. After many years of working there, a man was promoted to a higher level, but he still had friends among his former associates after the promotion. He was soon informed that he could not socialize with those (lower) people anymore! They didn’t share his status, so they couldn’t share his presence, either! Jesus spoke directly against that kind of thinking.

Do you find it difficult to roll up your sleeves and go to work in some thankless but vital job?

Every church has vital jobs that go begging because Christians aspire to something “higher.” Certainly all of us enjoy recognition, but Jesus said we should be willing to forego immediate rewards and recognition and to wait, if necessary, to be rewarded in eternity. After gaining some experience in the ministry, I started looking for people who willingly take such thankless jobs simply because they love Christ. Those are the people I would recommend for positions of leadership.

3. One estimate of our concern for others is whether we can give to them (time, money, a listening ear) without any thought of receiving any return.

When was the last time you gave something to someone who could never repay you?

When was the last time you gave a gift without concern for what had been or would be given to you by the other person?

4. Remember that the person who most needs your caring, serving, and giving may live within your own home. Or they may live next door.

A Final Word

Edith Evans found someone nearby to serve. She was cruising across the Atlantic, bound for New York from Liverpool on one of the most famous ships of history, the Titanic.

Before the Titanic sailed, one of the stewards had told a passenger that not even God could sink the ship, a view which most people aboard had believed as well.

But an iceberg struck the Titanic and ripped away part of the ship’s bottom. The ship began to sink quickly by the bow while the crew attempted to lower the lifeboats. However, over sixteen hundred people had no lifeboat, because the unsinkable ship had set sail without its full number of lifeboats!

Edith Evans and Mrs. John M. Brown showed up at the railing just as the last boat was about to be lowered from the sinking ship. Apart from that boat there was no hope; the dark freezing waters below would kill a person in minutes.

Only one seat remained when the two women got to the rail, and the boat was to be lowered as soon as it was filled. Edith turned to Mrs. Brown and said: “You go first. You have children at home.” Edith quickly pushed her over the rail and into the boat just as the deck officer shouted, “Lower away!”

Edith Evans gave up what I would call the seat of honor — the last seat. She had put the young mother’s needs ahead of her own.

Jesus was certainly like that. He gave his life for our sins, not because we deserved it or because we could ever repay him, but because he loved us that much. Those who follow him have a lot to live up to.

 Coming next . . .

In Chapter 9, Jesus deals with an issue that plagues every disciple: what is already settled in the disciples’ minds can stand in the way of what Jesus wants them to learn. How does he get past that barrier?