If you made a list of History’s Top 10 Best Party Guests, would Jesus make your list? You may reconsider after reading this biblical story from Who Is This Man. Author John Ortberg invites us to a dinner that’s surely the most awkward party these guests would ever attend. In the encounter we glimpse the depth of Jesus’ compassion, and discover how his “crankiness and compassion” arise from the same source. Read, enjoy, embrace the awkwardness. -Adam Forrest
Jesus could be a very irritating person to be around. We are going to look at a dinner where he deliberately picked arguments four times running.
I say this because compassion is a quality Jesus might be most famous for. When a leper asked for healing, Jesus was “filled with compassion.” When a widow cried out to him, “his heart went out to her, and he said, ‘Don’t cry.’ ” Adulterers and tax collectors and prodigals and Samaritans all evoked his compassion. A compassion makeover was coming to the world.
There is a general perception that Jesus was one of those extremely tender feelers who just couldn’t stand pain. Elaine Aron has written a book called Highly Sensitive People about folks who startle easily, who are easily affected by others’ mood or pain, who care deeply about others’ opinions. There is nothing wrong with being a Highly Sensitive Person. I am one myself. What’s it to you?
But other parts of Jesus’ story do not make him look like an HSP. In a story told in all four Gospels, he saw people exploiting the poor in the temple; he took out a whip and drove them away, scattering their money and overturning their tables and saying, “How dare you.”
Most of us Highly Sensitive People do not throw furniture… Jesus was as militant as he was compassionate. How can this man be that man?
There was a day when he exhibited both qualities together.
The awkward dinner party, topic #1
It was one of the most awkward dinner parties of all time. Jesus had been invited to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, and Jesus was being carefully watched. A man with edema — a painful, unattractive, sometimes dangerous condition in which parts of the body fill with fluid — was present.
It was a Sabbath. In that Jewish society, no medical treatment was to be offered on the Sabbath unless someone’s life was in jeopardy. If Jesus had been an affable guest, he would have pretended not to notice the man.
But Jesus was not affable. He called everyone’s attention to the man.
Jesus was sensitive to suffering. He asked if it was permissible to heal this man on the Sabbath. This was not an abstract discussion; the man was listening. Making religious leaders have this discussion with the man looking right at them, seems insensitive on Jesus’ part.
No one said a word. Jesus touched the man and healed him. The diners were not happy about this. The host did not invite the man to stay for dinner, so Jesus did what the host should have done and bade the man farewell. This was awkward. If Jesus had smooth social radar, he would have recognized that now was the time to change the subject.
Jesus did not have smooth social radar. He asked, “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. This was not a comfortable silence. A storm was about to break.
The issue was not that Judaism was a religion of legalism and Jesus came to start a new religion called Christianity… The issue was what was the worth of a human being? …
The Jewish leaders thought they were going to watch Jesus. It turned out that Jesus was watching them. They thought they were going to judge Jesus. It turned out that Jesus was judging them. This was really awkward. The host who convened the dinner thought, I hope whoever talks next picks a safer topic. Jesus talked next. He did not pick a safer topic.
Dinner topic #2 was not safer
Jesus noticed how the leaders picked places of honor at the table. This is simply one more way we value some people over others… So Jesus gave some tongue-in-cheek advice: When somebody invites you to a feast, don’t go for the seat of honor. Go sit in the kitchen. Humble yourself.
Jesus was essentially saying to the host, “Hey, host! Let me give you some advice. Your seating chart is all wrong. You think healing the sick on the Sabbath is wrong and that competing with people for status is right. Let me redo your table assignment. Exalt somebody else.”
The leaders were all embarrassed; they were all furious. For sure, now they didn’t know where they should sit. The host was thinking, I hope Jesus doesn’t have any more advice.
Jesus turned to the host and said, “Let me give you some more advice.” Jesus was on a roll now. “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. 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.”
Jesus was not giving a law here. He was contrasting God’s [values] with ours. Inviting the poor for dinner might be a possibility, if unusual. But the crippled, the lame, and the blind — that’s another matter. Anything malformed or defective was considered by Pharisees to be unable to reflect the perfect holiness of God [and they treated] their homes as miniature temples… For Jesus to tell this prominent Pharisee to deliberately invite [these human beings] into his holy little temple was a deliberate slap in the face. Jesus was telling him to put on his guest list people whose defects offended him.
Jesus’ crankiness and compassion came from the same source: his outrageous love for every individual, and his pain when anyone is undervalued. In all the stories of Jesus’ compassion, we are never told that he had compassion on someone because they deserved it. It was only because they were in need.
A more sensitive guest tries to distract Jesus
By this time at the gathering, everybody’s blood pressure was going off the charts. A Highly Sensitive Guest tried to distract Jesus with a little platitude: “Blessed is anyone who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
Jesus would not be distracted. He began a story about who is on the guest list for the feast in the kingdom. The host was thinking, Here we go again. In Jesus’ story, the man who threw the feast was insulted by expected guests who rejected him at the last minute with lame excuses. As we would expect, the master was angry. As we would not expect, he turned his anger into grace. He told his servant to go to the streets and alleys of the town and bring in “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.”
Them again! What was it with Jesus? He just couldn’t let it go! The servant did what his master said but informed him that empty spaces remained around the table. The master sent him on a second sweep — this time to the “roads and country lanes.” Non-villagers. Outsiders.
According to Nicholas Wolterstorff, ” Jesus’ understanding of who are the downtrodden has been expanded well beyond the Old Testament understanding, to include not just the victims of social structures and practices — widows, orphans, aliens, the poor, the imprisoned — but also those excluded from full participation in society because they are defective, malformed, or seen as religiously inferior. The coming of God’s just reign requires that these too be lifted up.” …
Read now what might be familiar words: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” [see Matthew 25:31-46].
The idea that “the least of these” were to be treasured — that somehow the Jesus that they followed was present in despised suffering — was essentially a Copernican revolution of humanity. It created a new vision of the human being. People actually took Jesus at his word.
-John Ortberg (@johnortberg)
Learn more in John Orberg’s new book Who Is This Man: Daring to Do what God Calls You to Do
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