In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
St. Luke 14:11 “For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… When you get friends and people together for a meal, what is the purpose? Generally, isn’t it simply for the enjoyment of one another’s company? Yet sometimes, there can be other agendas at work. What benefit can I gain from the other people here? How can I impress them? How can I make use of this occasion and turn it to my advantage?
It is that latter thing that is happening in today’s Gospel. The people at this particular meal were jockeying for position, they were wanting the top spot, they were jealous of where other people sat. In our equalitarian, American culture, seating positions are not emphasized very much. You’ve got to look for other more subtle signs as to who is in the position of top dog and who is lower on the pecking order. But the same type of thing still goes on.
Jesus accepted the invitation to this feast from a man who certainly was no real friend of His. Luke writes that “they watched Him closely.” Jesus was being scrutinized; His “friends” were looking for some flaw to exploit, some advantage they could gain from Him. They were not real friends.
Now, in those days the tradition at meals like this was to leave your door open for the traveler or the poor to come in if they wished to share in your meal. Of course, this was all fine and dandy as long as some fool of a stranger or person in need didn’t take this seriously and actually walk in: “If that happens we’ll just give him some food at the bottom place or in the corner which would make him feel uncomfortable and speed up his departure.”
It may well be that one such person showed up at this meal with Jesus, for a certain man with dropsy was there. Today we would call his condition edema, painful swelling of the joints and severe retention of fluid in the bodily tissues, especially the hands and feet. Jesus isn’t there to impress the others or to climb the social ladder; He is there to help that lowly man in need. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus asked. “Is it OK for Me to help this man and make him glad?”
Some there didn’t think so. Healing was considered to be work, and there was to be none of that on the Sabbath. You see, the Pharisees had jacked up the requirements of what it truly meant to keep the Sabbath. The day of rest which God had appointed for rejoicing in all of His good gifts they, instead, had made into a strict performance. By keeping their more demanding Sabbath standards, they could then compare themselves to others and declare themselves superior – which was really nothing different than their jockeying for the better position at the tables.
No problem for Jesus; He went ahead and healed the man anyway. And then He gave these theological windbags an illustration: “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?” “Hey, boys, that’s work, and yet you would do that. How much more should I heal this man who is in the pit of a bodily ailment and pain?” In the supposedly “higher” exercise of their religion, they were actually treating this man worse than they would treat an animal!
The fact of the matter is that Jesus’ actions were in perfect harmony with the Sabbath. You see, the whole purpose of the Sabbath, the day of rest, is for people to stop their work to focus on God’s work. The Pharisees failed to see that in Christ God was the one doing the work here. And that’s exactly what the Sabbath is all about. We stop our endless, futile efforts and striving so that we might receive good gifts from the Lord of the Sabbath – and not because we have the top spot at the table, not because we have earned some sort of reward for ourselves by our holier life, but simply because Jesus is good and merciful and delights in giving Himself to us, even to those at the bottom of the table, even to us whose bodies and souls are deformed by sin. He has come to release us from that bondage.
In Colossians 2:16-17, St. Paul says, “Sabbaths…are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” The Old Testament day of rest does this; it points us forward to Him who is Himself our rest and our peace, namely, Jesus. So it is not about following regulations, it is about receiving the Gospel Word of the Savior who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). To keep the Sabbath, therefore, is to keep and hold on to Jesus and to hear and believe His Word.
That is why the meaning to the Third Commandment in the Small Catechism doesn’t mention anything about a day of the week, but rather states, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Remember, the Sabbath day is about you stopping your work and God doing His work on you and for you and in you.
And this is God’s work: to preach His words of repentance and forgiveness, to lead you to see your sin and to rely on Christ ever more deeply who died to make full payment for your sin. Coming to church is not your occasion to do something for God; it is not your opportunity to give Him anything. It is God’s occasion to do something for you and to give Himself to you.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to spiritual and eternal things, you cannot do anything for God anyway; neither can you do anything for yourself. You are like that donkey or that ox that has fallen into the pit and cannot get out. You are in bondage to sin and death, and there is nothing you can do to get up over the edge and free yourself
But Christ comes along on the Sabbath, and by the power of His descent into the pit of death, He pulls you out through His resurrection, He frees you through the preaching of His Word of forgiveness and the supper of His living body and blood.
The weekly Sabbath, then, is not a Pharasaical burden; it is a wonderfully divine gift, for Jesus is still exercising His authority to heal you and restore you. No wonder so many people have such a hard time finding rest and peace when they cut themselves off from the source by staying away from Divine Service or take in its fullness. They don’t yet know the peace and the rest which passes all understanding and transcends all the daily troubles of this life.
There is no greater calm that your conscience can have than hearing and believing that your sins are forgiven through the shedding of Christ’s blood, you are reconciled to God in Jesus. He is on your side. He is with you every day that you must yet live in this troubled and fallen world, and He will surely bring you to Himself to share in the fullness of His life in heaven. That is the sure word of Christ to you today. That is your Sabbath rest, the work Jesus does for you.
Only that work of Jesus can create true humility in us – that lowliness and gentleness toward one another that St. Paul speaks of in today’s Epistle reading. We can’t work it up in ourselves. In fact, even if we would make it our goal to become humble, even if we would make it our goal to work hard to be humble every day, we’d never, ever be humble, because then we would be paying attention to ourselves, we would be paying attention to our own improvement. We would be like those lousy Pharisees, always comparing ourselves to others, which is the opposite of humility. Anyone who thinks they’re really making progress at being humble and being a better Christian is bound to be a phony pain-in-the-neck rather than a help to those who have to live with them and deal with them every day.
Only Jesus – the only true God, who humbled Himself to be born of a Virgin – only He is truly humble; only He is truly gentle and lowly in heart; only He gives freely and abundantly to us without calculating what’s in it for Him. That is why humility is to be found only by living outside of yourself in Him. Only in Christ are you freed from the petty rivalries and the manipulation of using people. Only in Christ are you free to show real love to others, to do good to them and to be a happiness for them without any concern of their worthiness or whether or not you’ll get anything in return.
That is what Jesus is talking about when He says to invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind to your feasts. Be free from considering what you are going to get out of the deal, and simply pass on the good gifts of God for the benefit of others. By faith you receive the bounty of what God gives, with no strings attached. By love you get to share His gifts with your neighbor, with no strings attached. It is all grace, it is all His undeserved love for you.
Our Lord Jesus is the one who took the lowest place. Jesus humbled Himself, even to the point of death on a cross, to rescue you and restore your honor. And now, having been raised from the dead, Jesus is exalted to the highest place at the table by His heavenly Father. He has raised you up with Himself. By baptismal faith you are united with Him in such a way that you share in His exaltation as members of His body.
Remember, this is a wedding feast that Jesus speaks of. It is the celebration of His holy union with the Church, His bride. And if He is honored, then she also is honored with Him. If He goes up higher, then so does she. This is what Jesus means when He says, “He who humbles himself will be exalted.” You, who in lowly faith follow Christ and share in His cross in this world, will ascend with Him in the next and share in His everlasting life.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus comes among us regularly at the head of the table, His Table. We take the lowest place, that is, we come in all humility before God as a repentant sinner. We come empty-handed as the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, knowing that there is no way we will ever be able to pay Jesus back. To every penitent heart He says, “Friend, go up higher.” “Share in My honor. Receive My own body and blood. Be filled with My forgiveness and My life. I am your Sabbath rest; I am your healing. Here is the foretaste of that Last Day when, in the resurrection of the body, you will go up higher forever.”
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.