She was six years old. She sat in the school hall, quietly eating out of her lunchbox. The class troublemaker sat at the next table. In his lunch box was only one item: a chocolate bar. She remembers having two thoughts in that moment. First, chocolate bars were not allowed in lunch boxes. Yet again, here he was being mischievous. Secondly, she knew that his was no proper lunch. Looking at her own sandwiches, she wondered about giving him some. She didn’t. Twenty years later, my colleague tells me that she still thinks about her failure to show love to the naughty boy.
How do we want our children to treat the naughty boy, the unpopular girl, and the kid whose shirt is always dirty? Will we repeat the saying, “Birds of a feather flock together” and tell our children to stay far away from the unlovely? Every parent wants their children to achieve at school, so should they avoid sitting next to the child who can’t keep up? In the teenage years, will the intense pressure to fit in make it feel too costly to befriend the one no-one talks to?
As we read through Luke’s Gospel, we can’t miss Jesus’s concern for the marginalised (the tax collectors, the infamous women, and the beggars). In chapters 13 and 14 we are confronted with the uncomfortable message that, on the final day, we will see that the most humble, even those on the bottom rung of society, are the first into the kingdom.
And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last (Lk. 13:29-30).
This comes at the end of a section where Jesus taught that some will be surprised to find themselves on the wrong side of a closed door, being told by the master, “I do not know where you come from” (Lk. 13:25). Being in the general vicinity of Christian things and hearing Jesus’ teaching are not enough. A close, dependent relationship is needed, so that Jesus won’t say of us, “I don’t know you” (Lk 13:27). And that saving faith in Christ is available to, “some who are last”, those who seemed furthest from the kingdom of God: the Gentiles, the poor, the unclean, and the sinful.
Luke’s words are an encouragement for those believers who are considered “last” in this life but a warning to those who find themselves comfortable and popular, but lacking genuine, saving faith in Christ. Before we close our Bibles feeling unsettled, we see Jesus live out an example of this teaching to help us understand.
One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy (Lk. 14:1-2).
The Pharisees had staged a situation, on the Sabbath, to see what Jesus would choose to do. Would Jesus conform to the established, religious expectations and leave the man to fend for himself? Or would Jesus choose to care for the lonely, disabled, untouchable man despite outrage from the vocal majority?
Let us hit pause here for a moment. Place yourself in a modern equivalent of this situation. If you’re a parent, imagine your child is standing beside you. On one side stand the influential, the popular, the wealthy, and the morally respectable. On the other stands a lonely, broken, diseased, filthy, poor individual. With whom will you stand? And as a parent, whom do you pray your child chooses? Which side are you longing for your child to walk toward? Where does your ache of parental hopes rest? Let’s learn from Jesus.
And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him [the man with dropsy] and healed him and sent him away (Lk. 14:3-4).
As I watch Jesus, I remain silent, too. I am in awe. And then I smile with the wretched, filthy man as I watch him straighten up and walk out of the room. My children would smile, too. They would see the care and the gentleness of their Lord. I suspect they know, as I do, that Jesus is far more courageous and far kinder than we are. But we do not have to be the Messiah. There is only one Messiah. By grace, his goodness can be credited to us and to our children. That is the miracle of the gospel.
But Jesus Christ is not done. He points us to what we can do, and what we can pray that our children will do. He answers the Pharisees’ silence with a parable about a seating plan at a wedding banquet. Let me jump to Jesus’ conclusion:
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 (Lk. 14:10-11).
The teaching is simple. It’s easy to understand, but incredibly challenging. Jesus is asking his followers to always search for the ‘lowest place’ in each situation, because those who seek humility in this life will be seated with Christ in that very, very highest place for all eternity. The incentive for obedience is huge. Living such a life remains incredibly difficult. Raising children to live searching for the “lowly” feels truly radical. Our culture tells us to raise our children to occupy the exalted seats—in board rooms, in gated houses, and at prestigious parties. Can you imagine training the heart of your child to be more concerned about those who clean the board rooms, those who paint the gates and those who are never invited to any parties? The first, difficult step is to make peace with the idea that this is the sort of parent you want to be. Even that will require prayer, and perhaps repentance.
Twenty years later, my colleague still wishes she had offered her sandwich to that difficult classmate. Perhaps we can be the generation of parents whose children walk over to the next table, following in the footsteps of Jesus. By grace, in the power of the Spirit, that is possible.