Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
September 30, 2012
St. Luke 14:1-11
Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they watched Him closely. And behold, there was a certain man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" But they kept silent. And He took him and healed him, and let him go. Then He answered them, saying, "Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?" And they could not answer Him regarding these things. So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: "When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, 'Give place to this man,' and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, 'Friend, go up higher.' Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 14:1-11
If God’s law is good, it must be good for us. In other words what God commands for us to do must actually be beneficial for us. And it is. It is for our good that we have no other gods besides the only true God, the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In regard to the commandments of the second table – those dealing with our relationship to our neighbor – it is obvious that each of these commandments is designed to show us how to do good to our neighbor. Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, tell lies about people, or make plans to deprive them of what is rightfully theirs. Who can argue that these commandments of God’s law are not written for our own good?
But in reference to the Third Commandment, there has been terrible controversy in the church, and it is not surprising to see that there was controversy over this Commandment during our Lord’s ministry here on earth as well. The Third Commandment, as written in Exodus 20:8-11 reads in its entirety as follows:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
This Commandment had three purposes. The first was that it provided the people with a day off from their work whether the boss wanted to give it to them or not. Centuries before the introduction of modern labor laws designed to protect workers from being overworked, God himself set down the first labor laws by guaranteeing a day of rest for every worker. Even the foreigners and slaves and animals got a day off. It was the law. It was a beneficial law. It served a useful purpose.
The second purpose of the Sabbath law was that it provided the people with an opportunity to gather together to hear the preaching of God’s word. It is not enough that we have food for the body and shelter from the elements. We need to be fed spiritually. We need to receive a well-balanced diet of solid spiritual food. For his ancient nation of Israel, God designed it so that the day for physical rest and spiritual nourishment were to be the same day. Of course, that made sense. People didn’t have to juggle their schedules to figure out when they could gather together for church services. It was always on the same day, the Sabbath or rest day. It was the seventh day of the week. On this day God rested from his work in creating the world. So for many hundreds of years, the seventh day of the week was also the day when God’s people rested from their physical work and were refreshed both physically and spiritually.
The third purpose for the Sabbath law was that it made a clear confession of faith to the heathen nations who lived nearby. Why did the followers of the God of Israel rest every Saturday? Why did they refuse to work? Israel’s neighbors wanted to know why Israel was so devoted to this particular law. The reason was that when Israel rested on the seventh day in imitation of God who rested on the seventh day they were confessing their faith in the true God who created this world in six days. They were rejecting the idols of the nations as being false gods, not worthy to be worshipped or served. Only the Creator God should be feared, loved, and trusted and this is what the people were saying by resting on Saturday. They were confessing that his Son would come into this world to provide true spiritual rest. Honoring the Sabbath law was confessing the true faith, as well as providing for physical and spiritual refreshment.
The Sabbath was made for the benefit of God’s people. The purpose of the Sabbath was to help, not to hurt. This is the purpose of every command God gives. It is to help, not to hurt.
This is the background from which we can understand the lawyers and the Pharisees and their confrontation with Jesus. Jesus, who had already shown that he had the power to heal, came into contact with a man who suffered from dropsy, a disease in which the body retained fluids so that it became horribly disfigured. It was a Saturday. The Sabbath law forbade working on Saturday. The lawyers defined healing as work. So what would Jesus do? Would he obey the law or would he break the law? Obviously, if they could prove Jesus was a law-breaker he could hardly be trusted to represent the lawgiver, could he? And so they watched him carefully to see what he would do.
Of course, Jesus was more than a spokesman for God. Jesus was God in the flesh. He knew what they were thinking and he knew that they were poised to judge him. So he asked them directly: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They didn’t want to answer. How could they answer? If they said, “yes it was,” then they could not judge Jesus for healing the man. But if they said, “no it is not,” how could they defend such a callused disregard for the man who was suffering? Jesus addressed their judgmental attitude by asking them if they would pull a farm animal out of a pit on a Saturday. Clearly, they would. But isn’t this work? And isn’t this man worth more than an ox or a donkey?
The lawyers and Pharisees were legalists. A legalist is someone who uses the law of God to serve himself. He uses the law to make himself look good and his neighbor bad. But that’s a misuse of God’s law. The law is not designed to help me make my neighbor look bad. The law is designed to tell me how to help my neighbor. If I use the law to hurt my neighbor and to help myself I am actually denying the whole law and I am placing myself under its judgment. The law teaches me to love God above all things and to love my neighbor as myself. But when I presume to use that same law to deny love to my neighbor I am attacking the very purpose for which God gave the law.
Legalists have things exactly backwards. They think the law is written so that they can use the law for their own benefit and not for the benefit of their neighbor. But that’s the opposite of the truth. The law is written so that I may know how to help my neighbor. When I use the law to help me I am denying its very purpose. I know by nature how to help me. I know that only too well! What I need to learn is how to help my neighbor!
This is why Jesus goes on to tell the people present that that they should assume the lower place at a dinner and wait until they are honored by being given a higher place. Don’t promote yourself. Don’t exalt yourself. Instead, humble yourself and wait for someone else to promote you. Jesus concludes by saying, “For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It appears that the self-promoters are the ones who get promoted while the humble and self-effacing get nothing in this world. Even if that were true pertaining to the things of this world (which it is not) it is definitely not true when it comes to things in the kingdom of God, that is, in the Church of Christ. In our Epistle Lesson for today, St. Paul tells all Christians to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by living humble lives, patiently bearing with one another. When we promote our own interests, we attack the unity of the Church. That unity is God’s gracious gift. The unity of the Church isn’t something that we establish. It is a unity of faith established by the Holy Spirit who in baptism calls us to confess the gospel together.
The gospel is for those who have been humbled by the law. It is for those who admit their helplessness to help themselves and have learned to admit this from the law. The better we understand God’s law, not only do we better understand how to help our neighbor, we also understand with ever more perfect clarity that we have not helped our neighbor. We have helped ourselves and judged our neighbor. We have used the law to make us look better than he looks. If we had listened to the law, we would have been helping our neighbor instead of judging him.
The law is the great leveler. We are all guilty. Jesus finds us helpless, just as he found the man suffering from dropsy. Even as his body was unable to rid itself of fluids, so we are unable to rid ourselves of our own sin. Is it lawful for Jesus to heal us? Is it right for him to forgive us? May he have mercy on us and help us? Yes, he may, for he is the One who has won the forgiveness we need. He is our true Sabbath rest because he has won our peace with God on the cross. He is the true foundation for the church because he has purchased the church with his own blood. When the humble and suffering Servant chose to die in shame for us, there it was that we were exalted above any position we could have claimed for ourselves. There it was that our sin was taken away. That was work. That was brutal, painful, and unbearably hard work. That was on a Friday. Then on Saturday, the God become flesh rested from all the work he had done. On Sunday he rose from the dead and thereby set us free from death.
So we are free. We are free from the judgment of the law because Jesus has borne it in our place and taken that burden away. In Jesus we have true spiritual rest and peace because he has forgiven us all our sins and given us eternal life. Jesus has fulfilled the Law of Moses, abolishing the ceremonial law – including the Sabbath Law – and replacing its images with the reality of eternal rest in him. Since he has taken away the judgment of God’s law against us, we are now able to use that law to help our neighbor instead of judging him. For if Christ is our true Sabbath rest, he is surely the same for our neighbor who needs from us not our judgment but our Savior. Amen