“Is It Lawful?” Is the Wrong Question – Trinity 17 2022

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09. October 2022

Trinity 17

Luke 14:1-14

Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” But they kept silent… And they could not answer Him regarding these things.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Pastor, is it lawful to skip church and watch the Packers play in London? One “Lutheran” congregation in Oconomowoc’s answer was broadcast, and clips went viral this week. Their answer was, “How about both!” They offer a quick service of the Word during pregame and the sacrament of the tailgate in their fellowship hall during halftime. The pastors’ suggested the parishioners could offer prayers during the game that God would give victory over the ungodly Nephalim of New York. Perhaps our Daniel would slay them with his smooth, stitched pigskin? 

Most viewers would undoubtedly find this congregation’s approach amusing and clever. Along with the green and gold of the season of Trinity on the altar and pastor, the congregants were encouraged to wear matching jerseys. Why can’t we both love God and love our beloved team at the same time? Perhaps we should have taken a survey this morning and asked if we should delay God’s service to the evening, devise some clever scheme like the church up north, or cancel altogether?

And based on the Facebook shares and comments by pastors and laypeople alike, this question is beyond the pale. To put the Divine Service in competition with the Game of the Week is misplaced. There are only brief, temporary consequences to what happens at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The day’s events will soon be forgotten, as memorable as they might be. Whereas the Divine Service offers lasting promises and delivers eternal gifts, not so quickly lost or forgotten. 

This question will come up again when you’re faced with a choice to receive Christ’s gifts in Divine Service on Christmas Day, which also happens to fall on a Sunday, or “spend time with your family” or “celebrate the day” by some other means. And this question is implicit in all the mundane Sundays where the choice is significant. It’s your day off. You’re tired. The cows need milking. The harvest needs to come in. Family is in town. So, you see, this question of the Sabbath is as relevant today as it was in that house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees some two-thousand years ago. 

The problem is that you neither believe in God nor do you understand the gift of the Sabbath. Even the most skilled experts in God’s Word, the scribes and Pharisees, don’t have it straight. They can’t seem to get their priorities straight. So, Jesus repeatedly catechizes them with Word and deed. 

In chapter six of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and His disciples got themselves in trouble. As they went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, they picked heads of grain to eat. The Pharisees were aghast. That’s not lawful! But Jesus reminded them how David and his soldiers ate some of the showbreads of the temple, which was also forbidden. “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath,” He said. 

And then, on another Sabbath, while Jesus taught in the synagogue, He took a break to heal a man with a withered hand. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or evil, to save life or to destroy?” And then He healed him, and the Pharisees were filled with rage for this gross violation. 

And again, in chapter thirteen, while Jesus was teaching, a woman held captive by an infirmity was released and healed. Furthermore, a ruler of the synagogue was outraged, exclaiming, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore, come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” But Jesus brought them to shame by pointing out their hypocrisy: “Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”

Now, having been put in their place and ashamed, one of the rulers of the Pharisees has set Jesus up. Jesus is invited, and they’re all watching closely as the man disfigured with edema is put forward. What will Jesus do? Will He slip up and violate the law of Moses? Will Jesus finally give them some cause to get Him out of the picture? But, of course, Jesus sees through the ruse. “And Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’”

His catechesis is working. This time, they don’t dare answer. They’re silent. Why? Because they know they have no excuse. This man is in pain and suffering. He needs mercy and healing. And so Jesus took him and healed him, and let him go. Like any reasonable man who would rescue his donkey or ox that has fallen into a pit, Jesus saves this man plagued by edema on the Sabbath day. 

You’ll notice the common question that is repeated in all these exchanges. “Is it lawful?” And this is the essential question to consider as you decide to attend Divine Service or not, explicitly given in the third word, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” How do we, as Christians, deal with the law, and in what way is it kept? 

According to Jesus, in His actions and teaching, all human and divine laws dealing with outward works are no more binding than love demands. Love is the exposition of all law. Without love, all law is worthless. And worse than that, the law where love is wanting is tyrannical, oppressive, and injurious. It doesn’t matter if that law is explicit in God’s Word, tradition to culture or church, or developed by philosophers and politicians. Without love or where love is wanting, the law is worthless.

As St. Paul says, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8,10). And the Apostle is not unique. Since Moses, God gave His people prophets who explain the law, not according to its strictness, but accordingly, love for neighbor. When you serve your neighbor and him, you have kept the Sabbath right and well, even though you did work on it. 

Why? Because love for neighbor is God the Holy Spirit’s work! This is the purpose of the Sabbath you hear God’s Word and, by God’s giving, live according to it. Without God’s Word, you would neither know God nor know how to love your neighbor. Therefore, God puts His Word into your ears not just today but every day, so your whole life will be lived in faith toward God and love toward one another. And it’s best we set aside one day to restrain the flesh with all its distractions and desires and gather together in faith to listen to Jesus and receive mercy, grace, and love in His blood-bought forgiveness from Him. 

So, I suppose you’re still waiting for my explicit judgment on whether it is lawful to watch the foot-Baal game or not. Elsewhere Jesus deals with all those excuses those invited make to avoid the wedding feast of the Lamb, which has no end. You’ll get another sermon on the silliness of our reasons to avoid Jesus and listen to Him. But today has to do with the purpose of the Sabbath in the first place. Is attending Divine Service an obedient service for God, even “sacrificing” your real-time ability to watch a game? “Is it lawful?” is the wrong question! Instead, go back to the beginning!

Just as “God rested on the seventh day from all His works that He had made” (Gen 2:2), so He still desires you and your children, workers, and livestock, to rest and pause on the seventh day. God is the Lord and Maker of all creation. He knows your need and provides them well. He doesn’t want or even needs you to be worn out with constant labor. He wants you to rest your bodies and even let the creation He has given you care for a chance to rest. And to this, it doesn’t matter what the law requires or what your ethic demands because both law and life must defer to love. 

There is a famous passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions (Lib 1,1-2,2.5,5: CSEL 33, 1-5) in which he says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” This ancient father confessed another reason for the Sabbath. Without Jesus’ Word and gifts being given, your faith in God becomes starved, and thus your love for one another will also fail. This is why “Is it lawful?” is the wrong question. The Sabbath was not made for you to serve God but for Him to serve you! The Sabbath was given for you, that you would be renewed and refreshed in faith and love. This refreshment comes in the proclamation of Christ crucified for you for the forgiveness of sins and that forgiveness delivered to you with water, Word, bread, and wine. 

Instead of thinking of today as the day you make sacrifices to be faithful to God, receive today as God’s gift to you. Jesus comes to you, forgives you, restores you to holiness, renews your faith, enlivens you to love, and inspires you to testify to others of Christ’s love. And God the Spirit will continue to use your voices, confessing, singing, consoling, encouraging, and boldly exclaiming “amen” for faith and love for one another.  

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin