“The Sabbath Work of Jesus”
St. Luke 14:1-14
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
St. Luke 14:11 [Jesus said,] “For whoever exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… It was the Sabbath day. Jesus had been invited to eat at the house of one of the religious leaders. But the invitation was not necessarily meant to honor Jesus. More that likely it was because the religious leaders were trying to study Him to see if they might be able to find some problem with Him. The Gospel says that they were watching Jesus closely. It’s sort of like the TV talking heads watching the presidential debates: “Is this candidate going to stumble over His words? Is that candidate going to lie again?” They were studying Jesus carefully to see if they could find an opportunity to condemn Him.
Now there was a particular man at this meal who had what the Scriptures call “dropsy.” Today we would call it “edema,” a medical condition in which fluid abnormally collects in the joints and tissues causing severe swelling and discomfort. Many people have had to deal with something like that with the swelling of feet or ankles or arms. Today we can take water pills for it; back then, there was no such thing. This man’s condition was something that would have caused a good deal of suffering, both because of the physical pain and because of the outward disfigurement that resulted.
And so Jesus, knowing the thoughts of those at the table with Him, answers their thinking by asking them a question. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” You see, the religious leaders had taken God’s command not to work on the Sabbath and had made up all sorts of extra rules about what was permissible and what was not. For instance, they said you could only travel so far on the Sabbath, and if you went beyond a certain number of steps, you were sinning. Oddly enough, one of the things they considered to be inappropriate to be doing on the Sabbath was healing. They thought Jesus should do that on the other six days of the week. And so Jesus asked, “Is it allowed, do I have permission and authority to heal on the Sabbath?”
In response the religious leaders “kept silent.” And while they were silent Jesus took the man, healed him, and released him. Verse 4 of the translation in our Gospel says that Jesus “let him go,” giving the impression that the man then left the meal. But the Greek word here literally means “released.” Jesus released this man from his ailment; He set him free from the bondage of his illness.
But this word can also mean “to forgive.” Jesus took away one of the effects of sin for this man, for He came for that very purpose of overcoming the curse by the cross. Jesus still has that authority among His people today; He still has the authority to release you from the bondage of sin and Satan and the grave, to set you free by His forgiveness.
Jesus then asked those at the table another question: “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?” “That’s work. And yet you would do that. So how much more should I heal this human being who is in the pit of a bodily ailment and pain.” And they could not answer Him or come up with any intelligent response.
The religious leaders were wrong about the Sabbath for two reasons. First, they failed to recognize what Jesus said on a different occasion, namely, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a day to rest the body and especially to hear what God had done for His people, to meditate on His Word. It was meant for the good of His people, not as something to enslave them. It is always lawful to do good and to show mercy on the Sabbath.
The second reason the religious leaders were wrong about the Sabbath was that they failed to see that in Christ God was the one doing the work here; He is the Lord of the Sabbath. For Christ to heal on the Sabbath is perfectly in keeping with the intent of the day, since the Sabbath is all about people stopping their work to focus on God’s work. That is what the Sabbath was about in the Old Testament, and that is what it is still about today in the New Testament: you stop your work so that you may receive God’s work for you in Christ.
Now it is true that in the Old Testament the day of rest had to be the 7th day of the week, namely, Saturday. But with Christ’s coming that Law was fulfilled so that the requirement to worship on a particular day no longer applies. In Colossians 2 St. Paul writes, “Sabbaths are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” The Old Testament day of rest pointed us forward to Him who is our rest and our peace, namely, Jesus. Now we may worship on any day of the week, as long as the focus of that worship is the Word of the Savior who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The Sabbath is all about Jesus. The church has chosen Sunday as its primary day of worship because that is the day of our Lord’s resurrection by which He won for us eternal rest and peace in heaven.
That is why the meaning to the Third Commandment in the catechism does not 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 letting God do His work on you and for you. And God’s work is to preach His words of repentance and forgiveness, to lead you to see your sin and to bring you to faith in Christ who died to make full payment for your sin. Coming to church is not your opportunity to do something for God; it is God’s opportunity to do something for you.
For, you see, when it comes to spiritual and eternal things, you cannot do anything for God anyway. 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 free yourself. But Christ comes along on the Sabbath; and by the power of His suffering and His resurrection, He pulls you out of the pit. He releases you. He gives you new life through the preaching of His Word of forgiveness and through the supper of His living body and blood.
That is why it is so important for every one of you to be here in divine service every single week – not because it is some burdensome requirement as the Pharisees made it, but because Jesus still exercises His authority to heal and restore you on the Sabbath. This is for your spiritual and eternal good, not only that you may rest your bodies by taking some time off from work, but also that in resting you may receive God’s work for you in Christ His Son.
It is no wonder that so many people find it so hard to find rest and peace when they cut themselves off from the very source of their rest and peace by staying away from preaching and the Lord’s Supper. If they are not working, they sleep in, or they take part in various sorts of recreation and relaxation. But all of that is only temporary; and when it is over they are back to the same restless way of life and daily grind that they had before. They do not yet know the peace and the rest which passes all understanding and which transcends all the daily troubles of this life.
Dear friends, there is no greater calm that one’s conscience can have than in hearing and therefore believing that your sins are forgiven through the shedding of Christ’s blood. There is no greater calm than that 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 of Jesus for you.
Since the Sabbath is therefore all about God’s work – all about what Jesus is doing – it is necessary that we come before Him with an attitude of humility. It is not about us and our works. This is His show, His teaching, His meal. Our place at the table is not something for us to take but for Him to give. We all come before God as beggars, without any right to exalt ourselves in His presence. No one here is greater or lesser than another. Whatever we are is a gift of His grace.
In our text Jesus was noticing at the Sabbath meal how everyone was jockeying for the better position, to get the higher and more honored seats near the head of the table. And so He said, “When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place.” This is the way of those who think that they deserve to be honored by God because of their exemplary life or who think they have earned for themselves a certain status in His presence. They try to take for themselves what God alone can give, and in so doing they fail to honor Him as the Lord. Their true love is not with God but with themselves, and in the end these who engaged in self-exaltation will be humbled and put to everlasting shame.
Rather, Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you.” Humble yourself before God. Acknowledge your sin in true repentance, trusting in His mercy. Do not come to assert your spiritual rights, but come recognizing that it is the Lord’s place to bestow honor and glory, and it your place simply to receive what His good and gracious will gives. Those who love and honor the Lord in humble faith will be exalted by Him and brought to everlasting glory in the presence of the whole creation.
After all, that is the way of Christ. He put Himself in the lowest place, the place of suffering and death, in order to save you. He bore your shame on the cross to restore your honor. And now, having been raised from the dead, Jesus is exalted to the highest place at the right hand of the Father. He is lifted up to that position of unsurpassable honor where you also, through faith and trust in Him, will be on the Last Day.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.