St. Luke records quite a spectacle. As the Gospel was read you could see the painfully awkward situation play out in your head. The Pharisees are all busy jockeying for the best seat at the arch-Pharisee’s table, all while hoping to catch Jesus in a sin. And then the test subject is trotted out—a poor man with dropsy, or as we know it today, congestive heart failure. The Pharisees do not invite him out of compassion or a desire to see him healed, but parade him in front of Jesus to see if He will break the man-made Sabbath laws.
But Jesus, knowing what was going on, turns the tables. He asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He knows the man with dropsy is a pawn in their demonic game. Jesus wasn’t invited as an honored guest, but was part of a set up. The Pharisees thought they had Jesus caught between a rock and a hard place.
They would have, if God’s Law and man’s law aligned. God was very clear on His reason for instituting the Sabbath: Man was to rest. Universally, all people and animals were to stop and spend the day being refreshed. But Jewish tradition has heaped up their own ways of explaining what God meant when He said “The seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work.” The list grew absurdly long. If you go home and search for modern Jewish commentary on Sabbath restrictions you’ll notice that they have even made ordinances for appliances and proper ways to turn the lights on. The point is that instead of the Sabbath being a day of rest, the Pharisees turned it into a more laborious day than the six preceding days because of how much more work you had to do to avoid doing work! Jesus said earlier in His public ministry that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” God does not grow weary like we do. He does not need a day of refreshment. He knew that we would, so He gives us the Sabbath, a day when He refreshes us. The Sabbath is a day for us to rest and be refreshed, renewed by God.
Jesus reveals the Pharisees’ hardness of heart when He asks, “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?” They could not answer His question because their answer would incriminate them! It was long settled that emergency work on the Sabbath was not a violation of the Law. Why? Because it reflected God’s real reason for establishing the Sabbath: showing mercy.
Instead of receiving God’s good gifts on the Sabbath, they turned it into a legalist thing. Legalism is using God’s Law to serve yourself to make others feel inferior. The legalist condemns anyone who does not behave the way he does. The Pharisees were the masters of legalism. They interpreted God’s Law in ways it was never meant, all to prove that they were better than everyone else.
We fall victim to the same way of thinking today. Anyone who doesn’t act or believe the same way I do is on the highway to hell! We see this in our discussions on Christian liberty. For example: is it lawful to enjoy alcohol or to send your kids to public schools, Lutheran schools, or to homeschool? Yes. God can be honored while you enjoy your scotch or while you teach your kids at the dining room table instead of sending them to a school. Where God is not honored nor your neighbor served is when you turn liberty into Law—condemning your neighbor who does not keep the laws you arbitrarily made in your own mind and are now applying to them. If everyone has to play by your law with its constantly moving goalposts, how can anyone be saved or be good enough?
The Law was not designed to make anyone look better than anyone else. It is not a measuring stick of faith. The Law’s purpose is to expose our sin so that we see our need for a Savior, and at the same time instructing us in how to help our neighbors, not judge them. The Gospel’s purpose is not to get us into some club of spiritually mature people, but to forgive our sins and declare us righteous. If I use the Law or the Gospel to hurt my neighbor, to make him feel bad about himself or to make him admire me, I am making myself out to be God.
And that’s exactly what happened at the arch-Pharisee’s house in today’s Gospel. It is obviously lawful to heal on the Sabbath. If it were not, then it would be a sin to love your children on the Sabbath or to do any other good work on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was created for man, not to give us another way to judge one another, but to rest in reception of God’s righteous Word. The Law’s accusations aren’t a contest to see who is better or worse, but its accusations provide a necessary diagnosis and show us that we cannot save ourselves. The Gospel points us to the One who gives us forgiveness and life, giving us the very thing we need.
The Gospel reveals the One who willingly took on the lowest place, not to be exalted, but to exalt us. He worked six long days—entering into Jerusalem, teaching and praying for five days, giving a new testament in His own Body and Blood, and his culminating in a crown of thorns and crucifixion. And on the seventh day He rested in a borrowed tomb, resting from all that He had done to restore man and creation to its original status as “very good.” He kept all the Laws, and finally kept the Law of the Sabbath, even the man-made laws, all to free us from the Law’s accusation and deadly sting. He frees us, not to beat one another with more laws, but to gather together and receive, be fed, be re-created.
Just as the man with dropsy was cured with a Word and a touch, so are you. Jesus brings you His healing and re-creation when He comes to you in Word and Sacrament. By these means God works for you and in you. These are the promises that the work that pleases God has already been done, and the promise that here in Christ you can find true rest. By these gifts you will stay forever in His presence here until He brings you into His presence there for all eternity.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.