“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Luther said that however you believe God to be so you have him. So, “is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” Answer, “no” and you have a wrathful God; answer, “yes” and you have a merciful God. Jesus Christ is always stalking and hunting down faith. He cuts away and burns all disbelief and exalts all faith. So of course he cuts right to the heart of the matter and asks the only question worth asking, “is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?”
If we were merely observers tallying the posited bits of data that the history of Jewish religion up to Christ’s time has left for us to observe, I could give a nuanced explanation of the various answers to the question. I could conclude that it’s been a disputed question and then wax poetic about the beauty of truly noble questions, or the academic glory of an unresolved answer. I could claim that the world is a more interesting place with various answers to this question. We could even delve into scripture itself and say the question is undecided, as many scriptures seem to argue that necessity knows no law and would tend toward allowing healing. However, God almighty, the creator of heaven and earth himself, rested on the Sabbath. And if you’re going to take someone as an example, God is a good place to start.
And anyway, what’s the rush? Jesus could observe the Sabbath in an absolute manner and then heal the man with dropsy on Saturday night or Tuesday afternoon. Why does Jesus always cause so much trouble? If he had just used a little diplomacy he could have avoided controversy about the Sabbath and healed the man. As Christians we’re supposed to somehow feel bad about Jesus getting crucified, but we can at least see why it happened. He had it coming. If we imagined that he had messed around with the basic laws and customs of our society we might even be able to look at the cross and say “good riddance.” Why would he mess around with something as harmless as the Sabbath? Jesus shouldn’t have played so fast and loose with the law. You know that liberal understandings of the law can only cause trouble in the world. On day a woman is found not guilty by reason of insanity of systematically drowning her children and the next day some kook-shrink might allow her back on the street. After all, the world needs a little law and order. One day rockets are hitting Haifa, the next they might be hitting Chicago without the law’s crushing retaliation for lawlessness.
But we are not observers observing this interesting question or casting judgment on Jesus Christ. There’s no voting or democracy here. Western civilization and all the King’s tanks can’t help us out with this question. You and I are the one’s with dropsy. We are deathly and eternally ill with sin. You’re eternal fate and mine are bound up with the answer to this question. And Jesus Christ is no interesting character or troublemaker to be observed and later to become the provocative subject of unusually interesting conversation. He is the Lord. He is the living word of God who created the heavens and the earth on the first six days before there ever was a Sabbath. He created you. Before you were, he was. He was a guest at the Pharisee’s house when he asked the question about healing on the Sabbath, but he was running the show. He had the authority to ask the question with power. He rained this question down on his host. And so even when he comes to us today in his living word and living sacraments, it is he who is there to judge us. Christ came from heaven above to save us and whenever he speaks he speaks from above. So enough contemplating the question and judging Jesus Christ. Now it’s time for him to judge.
“Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” You and I will be eternally dead or alive depending on the answer to this question. But if you think you can turn the tables on Christ one last time and answer the question, then you merely prove yourself to be a sinner and you are sorely mistaken. Jesus asks the question. Hearing the Pharisee’s unfaith and our unfaith through their silence, he does what a Lord and Savior does: he answers the question; he decides the case himself. Enough disputing about legalities, Jesus Christ does the deed. It’s not enough that God is love; Christ makes love for his beloved sick creature. When you read this story you can almost see the fiery anger at law-lovers and sickness and death in his eyes and the fiery love in his eyes as he grabs the man with dropsy, heals him, and throws him back into the creation to live the life God has freely given him. Christ hate’s sin and chastises us. He points out that we will gladly ignore the law to help our own child or our own interests. But at the same time he ignores the law to heal one of us, one of his betrayers and enemies. That’s your Christ. That’s your God. God is merciful. “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath?” Yes. God might have rested on the Sabbath when he made the old creation, but now the Son is making a new creation and there is no time for him to rest. He is God’s final word to us. Where Jesus Christ is the end has already come, “Everything old has passed away, behold, everything has become new. (2 Cor. 5)” There’s no time to wait for the day after the Sabbath for healing or believing. Jesus and his words make faith and faith possesses a merciful God.
You can make fun of us Lutherans all you want. You can say we’re weak on good works, or we don’t have fire for the Lord, but praise be to God for Lutherans, because everything in scripture and on this earth is a matter of law and gospel. And the great master who taught the distinction of law and gospel to Martin Luther, was not Augustine or even Paul the apostle, it was Jesus Christ. Here Christ as always is distinguishing law and gospel.
Our English Bible obscures this fact because it has Jesus asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus never spoke English until he ascended into heaven and sent preachers to the Anglo-Saxons. Jesus spoke Aramaic. The oldest New Testament texts we have are in Greek. The Greek word in the quote from Jesus which our bible translates as “lawful” is “eksestin” from the preposition “eks” “out of” or “from” and “estin” meaning “it is.” This word literally means, “out of what is.” In other words is it possible to heal on the Sabbath? The connotation of the word can be “permitted” or “lawful.” However, it can also be “proper.” “Is it proper to heal on the Sabbath?” “Is it possible?” Jesus is not playing the lawyers’ and Pharisee’s games. He is not parsing the limits of the law. We know that when lawyers start playing games with the law the result is pain and destruction. Jesus Christ has not come to cause death and destruction. He has come give life and heal. He is not playing games with the law; he is distinguishing law and gospel.
Finally, no study of Greek words can determine what Christ is aiming at, as he did not speak Greek. Finally, we have to look at his story as a whole and see what he’s doing. He has not come to idolize the law like the lawyers and Pharisees. He has come to end the condemnation of the law and give the gospel, the good news of life. So is it possible to heal on the Sabbath? Is it proper to heal on the Sabbath? Is God merciful? Yes, where Jesus Christ and his words are, God is merciful. Is it possible for God to act and speak from beyond the law? Yes, Christ came to fulfill and suffer the law and create the gospel. The gospel says Christ has suffered the condemnation of the law. No doubt healing on the Sabbath in front of lawyers and Pharisee’s was one act on they way towards the cross. Lawyers cannot tolerate actions that disregard the law. We cannot tolerate a troublemaker who refuses to obey our rules. So we crucified him. But his Father acted beyond the law and the death it always brings and he raised Christ from the dead. So now law and gospel have been distinguished eternally, once and for all. Now the resurrected Christ heals us and gives us his promises from beyond the reality of law and death. There is a new creation, a new reality where there is only healing and no need for lawyers, except to the extent that they themselves are healed.
We see Jesus Christ preaching strange doctrines and creating a strange relationship with the law when he later says, Luke 14:12-14 "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
Moses said, “Honor your Father and your Mother.” Christ says, “don’t invite you Mother or Father when you have a party or get married, instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
We of course know the reality only of the law and we try to interpret Jesus’ statements according to the law. So we wonder about how Jesus is debating Moses. We consider his statement like a new precedent setting decision of the Supreme Court. Perhaps Moses is the conservative old Zionist who believes in family values, while Christ is the new liberal who believes in “social justice.” But this analysis comes up short of reality. Some of you Republicans might not believe this, but Democrats and liberals alike know that the primary social insurance system is the family. Debates about how big social welfare programs should be are debates about what our society should do when families fail to care for their members, and perhaps some of you Republicans would remind me that they are also debates about whether or not such programs can inadvertently damage families. But everyone, liberal and conservative alike, knows that primary family relationships have the greatest effect on a child’s health and prosperity from birth to old age. I know not a single liberal Democrat who hopes that his daughter does not invite him to her wedding banquet or believes that the values he has instilled in her will cause her to neglect him. Conversely it might shock some of you Democrats to know that there are Republicans who believe in caring for the sick and the poor. Some of them even give money and do many other things to help the poor, crippled, lame and blind. Perhaps there has even been a Republican who has invited a member of one of these groups to a banquet.
So when Christ preached mercy to the poor he is not taking up one view of the law in favor of a certain political agenda. Perhaps we could look at this scripture and claim that Jesus was a liberal and that once and for all we have proof that we in mainstream Protestantism are correct and the evil conservative Evangelicals have Jesus all wrong. We could claim that if Christ had only said, “invite the poor and the lame.” It would have been a good and true teaching had Christ only said, “invite the poor and lame.” The Psalms exalt those who feed the poor. Psalm 112:9 “9 They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor.” Not only is it good for the poor when you give to them, but it is good for the rich: Proverbs 25:16 “16 If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, or else, having too much, you will vomit it.” Gluttony and too many riches are bad for you. Give them to the poor. You should give to the poor and free yourself from excess. Even if we were not talking about harmless poor and lame people, even if we were talking about our enemies, we should give to them: Proverbs 25:21 “21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.”
But Jesus did not stop at saying invite the poor or even invite your enemies; instead he also said, “don’t invite your friends and relatives.” With those words he condemns us. Liberal, conservative, he condemns us all. This is a strange kind of ethics that Christ is preaching. No doubt the world would be a better place if more of us invited the poor and lame to our parties. But the world would fall apart if we neglected our relatives and friends. The fourth commandment, “Honor your Father and your Mother,” is the only command with a promise. It promises that our life will be long in the land if we keep this commandment. Our societies in these old lands are held together by family and friendly relationships. So when Christ commands us not to invite our families and friends he is not giving advice that would make the world a better place.
But that’s the whole point. Christ is not Moses. He is not aiming at a better society in this old age. He does not say “don’t invite your mother, invite a beggar, and things will be better on earth.” Christ is in the old creation, but he’s speaking right past it. He’s speaking right past the law and ethics and aiming at heaven, a new creation. So he says not to invite your mother. Why? Because she might reward you for being a good daughter and invite you back. And when you get rewarded on earth you loose your reward in heaven. He says invite the beggar. Why? Because the beggar does not take part in evil corporate society and is therefore more noble than the rich? No. Because the poor lead especially upright lives in accordance with the highest morality, family values, and doing like Jesus would do, and in doing so are unable to become rich? No. Invite the poor because they are unable to repay you and you will be rewarded on the day of the resurrection.
This is a strange type of ethics that Christ is teaching. It sounds selfish. The goal of doing what Christ commands is that it will benefit you, rather than the poor or society. He certainly is not teaching ethics as we understand ethics. He’s not just teaching a new selfish kind of ethics; he’s not just teaching one more system of values. He’s not teaching the superiority of the eternal or heaven and the inferiority of a temporal reward. No doubt we can only hear his teaching this way, as if he were merely teaching a new law and heaven was merely an extension of this world’s values. When Christ asks “is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” we can only think about parsing the law and making a sober legal judgment. But we think this way because we are his betrayers. We are the ones who crucified him for acting beyond the law, for healing on the Sabbath and for forgiving sin.
When Jesus Christ talks about being rewarded in heaven he is describing a whole new creation that has nothing to do with our always-sinful ways of thinking about ethics and economics. He is teaching a whole new way of being and doing. Christ is teaching about the way things work in heaven. Heaven has already broken into the old creation where Christ is. The resurrection has already occurred in faith and hope alone where there is faith in Christ. Faith already has everything, so it glories in giving away gifts that cannot be repaid. Faith glories in love. Faith does not work according to the world’s understanding. It does not believe in quid pro quo. Faith believes in Jesus Christ himself. So faith and its fruits will only be repaid on the day of the resurrection. But this will be a strange kind of repayment. Faith knows that works do not merit heaven, only Christ does. Faith is in Christ alone. It is made by the Holy Spirit through the word. So faith has no merit of its own. It is rejecting one’s own merit for Christ alone. The fruit of faith is simply helping others without any thought of reward. So faith and its fruits will be rewarded and repaid on the day of the resurrection, but this is a new and strange type of repayment.
This is how ethics work in heaven; this is how Christ deals with us, how he makes faith. He takes all the merit we have to offer him, namely sin and death and repays us by giving us his own righteousness and life. In this heavenly ethic the poor don’t mind that their benefit is not the teleological purpose for helping them. What matters is being given a gift or not being given a gift. What matters is being invited to dinner or being uninvited. In this heavenly system, the poor get invited. Here Christ is describing heaven itself. In heaven Christ invites poor sinners to live with him eternally. Somehow this is what Christ wants and he is somehow rewarded in raising the dead. But if this is the reward that Christ is after, if I get to live with him in an eternal Sabbath, then I can say “Amen.” Then I can applaud this divine selfishness and jealousy. I can applaud Jesus Christ wanting all of me all to himself forever. I can even say “Amen,” when I see him jealously stripping away all that keeps me away from him. I can even say “Amen” when he puts me in the grave, because I trust and hope that he is doing it to raise me from the dead and give me a brand new body that will never get sick or die again. This is the justice Christ wants for you and me.
This strange heavenly ethic is also what Christ is aiming at when he commands us to take the lowest seat at wedding banquet. He’s not just repeating Proverbs 25, which already told us to take the lowest seat. We know that in this world humility and bragging can both be self-serving. We all have seen false humility, namely in ourselves. But Christ is talking about the true humility of faith. He is always aiming at faith and the day of the resurrection and doing just that when he says “those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Christ is always preaching about the last day. Where he is the kingdom of heaven has already arrived. So there’s no time to wait until after the Sabbath to heal. Christ already has begun the eternal Sabbath, when God gives all gifts for free and we do nothing.
When Christ speaks he fulfills his words. He took the lowest seat. The Son of God became the lowest of men. He came as a humble servant and served even to the point of death on a cross. He was not sacrificed in the Holy of Holies, but outside the city (Heb. 13: 12).
But we also see that his humility has a limit. When it comes to having mercy, Christ has no humility. For mercy Christ stands up and fights. And so right in front of the lawyers and the Pharisees, the defenders of the Sabbath, he heals the man with dropsy. When it comes to healing and forgiving sin, Christ wants center stage so that he can reveal God’s mercy and so everyone can hear him do it. Christ did not even humbly obey the rules of death. Instead he sprang back to life in order that his words of mercy might go forth to many more.
And so now, having destroyed death and sin, having crushed the dropsy that oppresses us all, Christ comes to fulfill his teaching about inviting only those who cannot pay back the invitation. The wicked are upset that God gives away eternal life for free to the poor (Psalm112:9). Psalm 112:10 10 The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing. But Christ came specifically to do this, 1 Timothy 1:15 Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-- Matthew 9:12 "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
So Christ does not invite those who have their own righteousness according to the law, but only sinners who have no righteousness to pay him back with. You are sinners. Christ forgives you all your sin. Where there is the forgiveness of sin there is life. On the last day you shall rise and live. You will rise into an eternal Sabbath. It will be a healing even more spectacular than that Sabbath day when he healed the man with dropsy.