Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity 17)


Luke 7:11-17; Ephesians 3:13-21; 1 Kings 17-24

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The First Table of the Law, the first three commandments, establish our relationship with God: You shall have no other gods. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. In sum, you should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Or, to put it another way, you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

The rest of the commandments, numbered four through ten, establish our relationship with our fellow man, our neighbor. Thus, the Second Table of the Law can be summed up in this way: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. However, our obedience to the Second Table of the Law, our love of our neighbor, depends upon and flows from our obedience to the First Table, our fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

As it is, then, the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy,” serves as a transitional commandment from obedience to the First Table of the Law to obedience to the Second Table of the Law, for, the Sabbath Day of rest is a day to rest from the labors of serving one’s self that you might be freed to serve your neighbor. And, in God’s wisdom and by His design, in serving your neighbor, you serve and glorify God, thus placing your fear, your love, and your trust in Him above all things and loving your neighbor as yourself.

This understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath Day, a day of rest from self-service that you may be freed to serve your neighbor, serves to illumine the merciful healing Jesus performed on the particular Sabbath Day depicted in our Gospel lesson. Jesus celebrated that Sabbath with a group of Pharisees at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees. These teachers of the Law still respected Jesus and considered Him one of their own, but Luke is certain to point out to us that they were watching Him carefully. Coincidentally, or not, Luke tells us that a man suffering from dropsy, a retaining of water in the tissues of the flesh known today as Edema, appeared before Him. Luke’s use of “Behold,” seems to indicate the surprise nature of this man’s appearance. Perhaps, however, it was no surprise at all, but the man was intentionally brought into the house to see what Jesus would do. Why else would this unclean man be in the house of a ruler of the Pharisees? Thus, Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees and He asked them a question in accord with what He knew they were thinking in their hearts, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent.

Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. That’s what the Law of God commands. But, how did the Pharisees and the lawyers interpret this Law? Well, from other Sabbath encounters with Jesus recorded in the Gospels, it is apparent that they interpreted the Law by the letter without understanding the spirit of the Law at all. If Jesus would heal this man with dropsy on the Sabbath, then, they concluded, He could not be the Prophet or the Messiah for, in their eyes, He would have broken the Law. Their answer to Jesus’ question would be, “No, it is not lawful to heal on the Sabbath.” However, they knew that they couldn’t say that, right? So, they remained silent. They would watch and see what Jesus would do (as if they didn’t already know). Then, they would go and stir up the people and bring charges against Him before the Sanhedrin.

So, Jesus took the man and healed him and then sent him away. And, then He said to the lawyers and Pharisees, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” Once again, they could not answer Him a word. They couldn’t answer Jesus because they knew that He was right. They would, immediately and without hesitation, help out their son or beast of burden that was in need. However, Jesus knew that they would object to His Sabbath healing of the poor man suffering from dropsy. But, why?

It is because they know the letter of the Law, but they do not know the spirit of the Law. Further, in their attempt to obey the letter of the Law they disregard the First Commandment, that is, they do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Oh, they fear God, but they do not honor Him and revere Him, they do not love God, but they fear Him as tyrant and as a merciless lord. They do not trust in His promises of mercy and grace. Therefore, the Law of God is a rigid rule placing burdensome, impossible demands upon them. Since they know that they cannot possibly obey, they have to water them down and make them more doable. Then they could stand up with pride before others and boast of their holiness and piety. Additionally, in their denial of grace and mercy they would use the Law of God against people, adding their own laws to it, so that they appeared all the more deserving of honor and praise while imprisoning others, along with themselves, under the Law’s judgment. The lawyers and the Pharisees would not lift a finger to help someone in need because they interpreted the Law of the Sabbath only in terms of what they must do to merit God’s favor. God said to rest and not to work. So they rested and they would not help someone in need, and they were ready to condemn anyone who would. But their hypocrisy is exposed by Jesus’ question, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.

What the lawyers and the Pharisees could not understand and did not believe was the spirit of the Sabbath Law. The day of rest was meant to be a day of rest from self-serving activities, working to earn a wage, working to earn merit with God, so that one could be free to selflessly serve others and to glorify God. Their eyes were blind to the spirit of God’s Law. They could not see that the letter of the Law meant their death, thus they could not see that only by surrendering to the Law and being crushed by it, only by dying, could they be raised to new life in God’s mercy and grace. No, the lawyers and the Pharisees had constructed a law unto themselves, their own rules, their own morality, where they were the judge of right and wrong, good and evil, and by their law they judged themselves good, and they judged Jesus to be evil. They abhorred Jesus’ disregard for the law as they imagined it. They abhorred the mercy and grace that He showed to unclean, diseased, and demon-possessed sinners. Jesus literally turned the tables of the Law upside down and showed that the only fulfillment of God’s Law is love – love toward God and love toward your neighbor.

The letter of the Law is meant to expose your selfishness, how you are turned in to yourself and are motivated by selfish desires and passions. But the spirit of the law frees you from obedience to the Law in order to earn or merit God’s favor. In His Law God says to you, “There is no hope of earning or meriting My favor. There is nothing that you can do to remove your sin. You are spiritually dead, cut off, like a branch withering by the roadside. But take heart and be comforted, I love you, I have always loved you, and I will take away your sin, and I will die your death, and I will give you My life. I will draw you into Me and you will be My people, and I will be your God. In Holy Communion with Me, you will love with My love, you will give with My gifts, and you will forgive with My forgiveness. I will restore in you My image, and they will know that you are Mine when you have love for one another.”

Selfishness and self-interest is the very opposite of love. One who thinks only of his own wants, needs, desires, and passions cannot consider the needs of others. The lawyers and the Pharisees need not to worry about breaking the letter of the Law if they would only act in love. As St. Paul has written, “against such things there is no law.” Symbolically, the self-centered will always choose the best seats at a banquet and the place of honor. They are motivated by an ungodly standard of measurement, a law of men that values such things. They are concerned only with themselves and their own honor and glory. But the one who lives by the spirit of the law is concerned with elevating others and will take the lowest position for themselves, being thankful to be at the banquet at all. Jesus concludes His teaching saying, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Find rest from your labors in God’s mercy and grace and be freed to serve your neighbor in selfless love and thus glorify God. As the Lutheran Confessions state, the highest worship of God is to receive His gifts. For, only by receiving from God do you have something to share. You can give to others only of what God has given to you. You can be merciful to others only as God has been merciful to you. You can forgive others only as God has forgiven you. And, only by finding your rest in the Lord from having to earn or merit His favor can you be truly refreshed and equipped to serve others and truly worship and glorify Him.

Today is a day of rest. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” says your Jesus. Here, at the altar this day, and in His Word and Absolution, is the rest that you need and the rest that your soul craves and desires. Here is the merit of Jesus’ labor and the fruit of His work which is finished. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” says the Lord. Ask not what you must do, but only receive what He has done.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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