I am deeply fascinated by the stories Jesus told. Imagine what it would be like to be in the room the first time He told this story.
Here’s how it might have gone:
…In all his years of service to Avishai, Yigal couldn’t remember his master ever inviting this kind into his home. Though the room was packed with clusters of men engaged in animated pre-dinner conversations, Avishai’s “guest” stood alone in a corner. He looked as out of place as a python in a birdcage. Yigal couldn’t imagine he’d really stick around for the meal.
Even now, Avishai, a man known for his discriminating taste in righteousness, was orchestrating the seating arrangement in the crowded room. He shot a welcoming glance toward one of his protégés, Shmuel, giving the young man a subtle nod. Yigal watched as Shmuel caught the nod with a broad smile, maneuvering through the warm, noisy space toward his reward: a first-time spot at Avishai’s head table. Apparently, Shmuel had given himself a promotion this week. One of Shmuel’s friends followed in his wake, claiming the last spot at the table. It was a plum social score for the pair.
This act served as today’s cue for the other men in the room to sort themselves around the low tables ringing three sides of the room. V.I.P’s up front, lesser lights in less-desirable seats. Moving up in position at these gatherings usually came in increments, though rising stars like Shmuel found ways to circumvent the usual process.
Everyone managed to find a spot except the strange visitor tucked into the far corner of the room. Despite his greasy beard, he looked like a woman heavy with child, his hunched posture accentuating his grotesquely distended abdomen. The room’s tsks of disapproval at the untouchable man’s presence rustled like dry leaves across the mosaic floor. What on earth was this disgusting man doing in the same room with them?
From his post just outside the doorway behind his master’s table, Yigal could almost taste the untouchable man’s excruciating sense of humiliation. Yigal’s soul offered up word-incense for the man: “O God, please…have mercy on him.” He knew the religious professionals in the room had pronounced this man, and all others like him, guilty of sin. If it were otherwise, those second-class, no-class creatures would be enjoying God’s blessing of good health.
Yigal couldn’t understand why Avishai had “invited” this man to today’s Sabbath meal. Avishai was a very pure man, a professional’s professional. Having someone like this man in the house would surely defile the sacredness of the space. There must be a reason that Avishai was willing to risk infecting his home’s whitewashed purity this day, when thousands of other days had been uncontaminated by sinners like this man.
But what could that reason be?
Yigal has served Avishai for years, assisting Avishai as he sculpted his life with rules the same way the Roman wrestlers sculpted their bodies with their extreme, punishing training regimens. Avishai’s reputation for professional righteousness was the stuff of legend.
Yigal was surprised earlier that week when Avishai had mentioned that a different guest, Yeshua…Jesus, would be joining them for today’s gathering. Avishai and his cadre had been dissecting this upstart rabbi’s words and motives in their never-ending debates in recent weeks and found him lacking. However, Avishai had insisted Jesus join him today at the head table. Jesus laughed as he and Shmuel conversed.
As if on cue, one or two at a time, the raucous discussions in the room fell silent as the men looked expectantly toward the head table. Yigal took a step into the room, watching intently for Avishai’s nod so he could begin the task of serving the Shabbat meal. Avishai shook his head almost imperceptibly, warning Yigal off. Not yet.
Avishai pointed toward the swollen, deformed man in the far corner of the room, motioning him to the open center of the crowded room. The man swallowed hard and obeyed.
“What about today, Jesus? You wouldn’t heal a man like this on Shabbat?” Avishai’s question wasn’t a question, but a challenge.
A quiet murmur of approval rippled through those righteous, healthy men ringing the tables in the room. No one questioned Jesus’ reputation as a healer. Word had spread like a firestorm about his miracle ways. But everyone knew that there were six other days in a week in which to attempt the work of re-creation. After all, God Himself rested from labor on the seventh day.
Now Yigal understood why this man had been invited. It was a trap, a set-up.
“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?”(Luke 14:3) Jesus question was the kind of thing Avishai and his other high-ranking religious professionals loved to debate. That they’d never been called upon to heal was irrelevant to their discussions; instead, they volleyed a question amongst themselves for years, launching it to one another with “what if?” and “what then?”, all the while closing possible loopholes in their answers as if they were tightening a hangman’s noose.
There was no debate in this moment. Even the air in the room seemed to be holding its breath. Jesus rose from his place and walked over to the man, placing one hand on his head. A benediction. He touched his other hand to the man’s swollen midsection, a wordless invocation. As he did, the man’s distended belly deflated.
The men ringing the room’s perimeter erupted into furious analysis with one another, burying the miracle in a slag heap of words.
Until this moment, these animated discussions had always fascinated Yigal. He longed for the kind of righteousness Avishai enjoyed, and hoped…somehow…that Avishai’s life and knowledge had polished his own rough virtue into something he could offer the Almighty.
Melting to his knees in an attitude of prayer, Yigal trembled like a newborn exposed to the elements as he alone watched the two men in the center of the room. They were seemingly oblivious to the commotion swirling around them. The healed man was weeping, laughing, thanking God. Jesus responded with pure delight in the man’s unfettered joy. This delight was so terrifyingly beautiful and intimate that Yigal covered his face with his hands and whispered, “O God, have mercy on me.”
Jesus took His eyes off of the man and spoke. His words sliced through the uproar in the room like a sword. “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5)
Again, stunned silence. No one dared voice a jot or tittle of dissent. Jesus spoke into that silence with a pair of parables meant to rescue a roomful of men trapped in a well they – and their forefathers – had been digging for generations:
A guest at a wedding reception marches up to the head table and grabs a prime seat, only to be very publicly asked to move so someone more important to the host’s family can be seated there OR An honored guest comes to a wedding reception and takes a seat at the far edge of the festivities. Spotting him across the crowded room, the stunned host rushes over to the guest, wrapping his arm around the guest’s shoulders and escorting him to the head table.
A host invites only his friends, family and wealthy neighbors to his parties, ensuring the reciprocation he craves will be immediate, temporary…and ultimately worthless OR A host invites the sick, the broken and the poor to the party of the year without ever expecting payback. Surprise! At the end of time, there will be justice; a blessing from One hosting a very different kind of banquet.
The truth hinging this pair of parables together? “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (vs.11)
There was palpable discomfort in the room. There were no deep hidden meanings in these stories, waiting to be excavated through years of academic debate and endless discussion. Jesus had wiped away the “we’ve always done it this way” seating chart of privilege, politics and power with his words.
Even as Avishai’s brilliant protégé posed a loophole-seeking question in response, Yigal closed his eyes and reached in prayer for his rescuer’s hand.