18 Jan 2021
Jesus headed to those at the bottom of the pile. Will our children follow him?
She was six years old, eating lunch at school. At the next table was the class naughty boy, with only a chocolate bar in his lunchbox. She had two thoughts. Firstly, chocolate bars were not allowed in lunchboxes. Secondly, his was no proper lunch. She wondered about sharing her sandwiches with him. She didn’t do it.
How do we want our children to treat the naughty boy, the unpopular girl and the kid whose shirt is always dirty? Should they stay far away from the unlovely? If we want them to achieve at school, should they avoid sitting next to the child who can’t keep up? Will the intense pressure to fit in make it feel too costly to befriend the one no-one talks to?
Reading through Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus’s concern for the marginalised, including tax collectors, infamous women and beggars. Chapters 13 and 14 tell us that on the final day it will be those on the bottom rung of society who 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. (Luke 13:29-30)
This comes at the end of a section where Jesus taught that some will be surprised to find themselves shut out, being told by the master, “I do not know where you come from.” (Luke 13:25)
This is an encouragement to those considered last in this life but a warning to those who find themselves comfortable and popular. Before we close our Bibles feeling unsettled, we see Jesus demonstrate this teaching in practice, 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. (Luke 14:1-2)
The Pharisees had staged a situation where Jesus had to choose. Would he conform to respectable religious expectations and leave the man to fend for himself? Or face the outrage of the vocal majority to care for a lonely, untouchable man?
Let’s pause 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. Who will you stand with? Who do you pray your child stands with?
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. (Luke 14:3-4)
As I watch Jesus, I remain silent too, in awe. And then I smile at his care and gentleness, as the wretched, filthy man straightens up and walks out of the room. Jesus is far more courageous and far kinder than we are. But we do not have to be the 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.
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." (Luke 14:10-11)
This teaching is simple to understand, but incredibly challenging. Those who search for the ‘lowest place’ now will be seated with Jesus in the very highest place for all eternity. The incentive for obedience is huge. Living such a life remains incredibly difficult. Raising children to live this way 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 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.
Twenty years later, my colleague still wishes she had offered the naughty boy her sandwich. Perhaps we can be the generation of parents whose children walk over to the next table. By grace, in the power of the Spirit, that is possible.