This is an edited manuscript of my sermon on Luke 14:1–6 for February 8, 2015.
Today in Luke we join the story as the Pharisees were getting ready to examine Jesus. They wanted to see what this guy was all about. Jesus, after all, had a growing reputation and they probably wanted to see if he was “worthy enough” to be associated with them. The Pharisees were the cool kids of early first century Judaism, getting invited to be examined by this was quite an accomplishment.
Our savior, however, wasn’t all that impressed. The Pharisees may have wanted to examine him but on his the table he altered the script. Instead of being examined by the Pharisees Jesus performed a cross-examination He checked them out to see how cool they were. The opportunity to do came when he encountered a man along the way who had dropsy, an old catch-all term referring to swollen soft tissues 1 – particularly the legs. It was painful affliction, so when our Lord saw the man he challenged the Sabbath rules.
See, the rules said that healing on the Sabbath was “work,” and therefore was prohibited on the Sabbath. The problem was, however, that the rules were not the actual Law. The Law says not to work on the Sabbath – and gives some general guidelines about it (especially about preparing or gathering food). The Pharisees came from a line of Jewish folks who asked, “But what constitutes work?” They came up with all sorts of interpretations to this question, and argued about them constantly (the rabbis are a lot of fun to read). We might be tempted to think how wrong these folks were, but please understand – the Pharisees’ main goal was to see the people of Israel keep the Law meticulously so that the Messiah would come. All their little rules and interpretations were meant to help people become more devoted to the LORD. It was an admirable endeavor – which Jesus happened to think was misguided.
See, when human beings create rules designed to make sure we don’t step across God’s line we often start out well. We recognize that the boundaries we set up are not the ones God devised – our rules are just meant to keep people from stepping too far off track. The classic example for Baptists is, “Don’t dance, because dancing leads to all sorts of sinful behavior!” 2 Early on people understood that was our rule, but then the rule got passed on to a new generation who didn’t understand that we were the ones who set up that rule. Once this happened folks begin thinking God was the one who said, “No dancing.” Eventually, as people are wont to do, a whole lot of Baptists began to think the “real Christians” were those who don’t dance, and that Christians who did dance were blatantly disobedient to God. This is what we call legalism – it’s the confusion of our rules with God’s will. We’ve all had these moments of confusion in our lives, and so did the Pharisees. You see they’d forgotten that their rules were not God’s Law. Or, at least, they didn’t want to admit they weren’t the same.
So when Jesus asked, “Is it Lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” the Pharisees couldn’t answer. The truth was, the Law says nothing about healing on the Sabbath, but for the Pharisees to admit that would have forced them to concede too much about their own traditions – so they kept their mouths shut and didn’t answer. In response to their silence, Jesus healed the man and sent him off. After this, Jesus showed the Pharisees why their rules were misguided.
The answer is quite simple, their rules were preventing the Pharisees from doing good. As such, they were missing the point of the Law. He showed these Pharisees how deficient their rules were by bringing up a hypothetical situation. If one of their sons 3, or an animal, fell into a well they’d absolutely go into immediate action to pull them out – even if it was on the Sabbath. What was the difference between doing that and healing someone who was suffering? The former directly impacted them, the latter…. not so much. Shown up by the very man they had expected to inspect, all the Pharisees could do was remain silent.
So what’s this got to do with us? Well, as I pointed out, we all have a tendency to lean towards legalism. In fact, the more serious and earnest we are about our faith, the more we seem to fall into that trap – we become so desirous of being pure before God we forget be the presence of the Kingdom in this world. Legalism isn’t a conservative, liberal, Protestant, Catholic, or American problem – it’s a human one – and if we’re to learn to avoid it’s pitfalls we must acknowledge it’s siren call. This doesn’t’ mean we don’t have rules and guidelines – we’re a community and these things are necessary for us to function. After all, where would we be if we didn’t have a guidelines about using our shared space, financially supporting this ministry, or the proper forums for us to have serious discussions? We need these things, but they aren’t God’s rules – they are ours. And if we want to make conclusions about our own spiritual journeys then our rules can’t be the reference point which we use. What we need to ask ourselves is, even if we do keep all the “right” rules, “How much like Christ do I look?” Amen.