“One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching Him carefully.”
Those words set up the whole Gospel reading for today. Jesus is going right into the heart of His enemies. He is walking into the proverbial lion’s den. Everyone is watching Jesus. They want to observe Him closely, wanting to see how this rabbi from
But someone not expected at a Pharisees’ banquet is also present. St. Luke tells us that there is a most unlikely dinner party guest in the house: “And behold, there was a man before [Jesus] who had dropsy.” Why is this man there? The text implies that it was a bit of a set up. Such a man should not be welcome; his disease appears to be a mark of his sin, a curse placed upon him. His presence presents an opportunity for Jesus. The man cannot be helped by anyone’s knowledge of medicine or therapeutic skill. But Jesus can heal his disease and restore the man.
At the same time, the presence of the diseased man presents a problem for Jesus. He is part of the trap. The Pharisees want to ask a question about the man. But the question they want to ask isn’t: “How can we help this man?” Instead, their hearts and minds were racing: “Will Jesus dare to work on the Sabbath?” But knowing the Pharisees’ duplicity, Jesus decides to ask the question for the Pharisees: “And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’” That’s the question the Pharisees were obsessed about. What action will obey not only the Torah, but all the legal commentaries on the Scriptures, all the books of teaching that had been developed and handed down through the generations of Pharisees before them? They hear Jesus’ question, and they want Him to answer. The Evangelist reports: “They remained silent.” But their silence isn’t meant to allow Jesus to teach them; rather, they want Jesus to make the first move, in order to catch Him doing something “wrong.”
But as is usual, Jesus doesn’t answer in words only. He acts. Even when the Pharisees were silent, holding their tongues and waiting to pounce on His words and deeds, Jesus acts: “Then [Jesus] took [the man] and healed him and sent him away.” Now that seems like the right thing to do. Yet, in the world of the Pharisees, it wasn’t. Healing was work, and the Sabbath was to be work free. Nothing was to be done. Even granting health and wellness to this helpless man suffering from dropsy was a “sin” in their eyes. There’s the mistake they’ve been waiting for! The Pharisees think they have Jesus caught.
But even before they can open their mouths, Jesus says something quite profound: “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?” Questions about lawfulness would normally cause great scholarly debate among the Pharisees. You could almost hear the wheels spinning in the lawyers’ heads about lawfulness: “What exactly would break the Sabbath ban on work? How has this ban been interpreted during the past several centuries? What do our law books and our oral tradition have to say about this?”
But this time, Jesus’ second question—the one about falling into a well—reveals the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The answer to Jesus’ question is self-evident. Of course, anyone, even a Pharisee, would rescue their child or animal from a well on the Sabbath, even if it meant doing work. And yet, the Pharisees in that house object to Jesus’ healing of the diseased man. The action that would benefit a stranger is condemned, but what would benefit them is work they would do. Having their hearts exposed by Jesus’ question causes silence. St. Luke even tells us: “And they could not reply to these things.”
Why could the Pharisees not reply? Because they had no concept of what the Lord God’s Law was really all about. It wasn’t so much about rules to follow and earn both salvation and praise from fellow men. No, it was to show what the righteousness, holiness, and goodness of the Lord God looks like. The Law testifies about the Lord God’s nature, how He is greater than any of us. And it certainly shows humanity where they do not meet such a standard.
This was part of the reason for the Third Commandment. Even the Lord God rested on the Sabbath after creating the universe. But what was the point of the Sabbath Day requirement not to work? It was so the Lord God to do saving work in and among His people; so that we sinners could receive salvation, not by our actions, but the Lord God’s work. Luther explains this point about the Third Commandment: “We should fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching and God’s word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” The Sabbath is meant so God can work in hearts and minds. This is so we may be forgiven of all the times we break the Ten Commandments and to be spurred on by our Lord to strive to obey them, being full of fervent love toward Him and to one another.
And what greater love can there be than to provide for someone’s health and well-being? That’s what Jesus does on the Sabbath. He heals the man with dropsy. He demonstrates the full capabilities of divine action and divine love. A life is restored where sin afflicted and corrupted it. The man lived in the chaos that sin and Satan brought to the world; Jesus sets it right again. This is His purpose, His mission. He fulfills the commandments, not just on their face, but in their substance. Jesus meets their true meaning: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
That is what Christ does when He heals the diseased man. He demonstrates goodness to the Pharisees and to us, but not a show-offy goodness or a glossy veneer that hides interior flaws. Rather, Jesus displays divine love and compassion in word and deed. The Law of God would neither be fulfilled by leaving this ill man in his condition nor by letting your child or ox drown. The Pharisees’ manmade rules meant to enhance the commandment “You shall sanctify the Sabbath Day.” cannot trump the full requirements and ramifications of “Do not murder.” For Jesus, there is no debate or question about what is right. Instead, there is only goodness, a full demonstration of what divine love is really all about.
Christ’s actions that day in the Pharisee’s house were not a slip up. They were not a cause of legitimate offense. No, they show how we are to act. But more importantly, they show how our Savior acts for us. The Pharisees may have believed that Jesus was a sinner, no matter how wrong they were. Yet, Jesus accepts that. He does not shy away from such criticism. He would take their accusations, as deceitful and unwarranted they might be. But He would do so in order to bring salvation to the world, to pull men and women out of the depths of Satan’s well of sin to partake of His holiness.
The hateful criticism that Jesus endured on that day in the Pharisee’s house is what He endured on another day for all of us. As the accusations of rebellion and blasphemy were hurled at Him on a Friday dawn and morning in
All this He did for you. And this episode in the Pharisee’s house publicly shows both what Jesus was meant to do and what the Law of God was to teach us. For the questions that Christ asked basically come down to this: “Is it lawful for the Lord God to give healing and forgiveness? Will the Lord God immediately save those who are in danger of eternal death?” In truth, the answer should be “No.” It isn’t right or just for the Lord God to give healing and forgiveness to those who broke His Law, yet He doesn’t do what is only lawful or what only benefits Himself. Instead, He does what is truly good and charitable for you. The Law gives Him the authority to let all of us sinners die forever, but Christ uses such authority to save. Everything that Jesus did in small scale in that Judean house He would surpass on a cosmic scale in His sacrificial death on
We see Jesus as Redeemer in the Gospel Reading today. It is not Christ’s concern of what others may think about Him as He does His work. No, the concern is how He can grant aid to those who must receive it from Him. All who see that will recognize that true righteousness is not obedience to our concept of the law. It isn’t what we display on the exterior to be complimented and praised. No, it is a matter of the heart, a matter of compassion and goodness. That is what Jesus demonstrated in the past by healing the sick man in the Pharisee’s house. It is what He now shows here in His house, as He exalts you from sinfulness to holiness.
Watch closely and observe it frequently, as your Lord Jesus Christ shows compassion and goodness to you, even today as He has invited you to His banquet. For Jesus works in you this morning, as He forgives your transgressions, absolves your sins, and cures your disease. What you cannot cleanse, Christ purifies—even on this Sabbath—as He still works for you and your benefit, taking you and healing you and sending you on your way. For that is what Christ declares is truly good and right so to do, even for you who could never repay.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.