If you ask people what they like about being American, what will they say? I’d be shocked if they didn’t say: “Freedom!” We like our freedom, our liberty. We like to do what we want, when we want, and nobody better tell us otherwise.
We have lots of freedom. We get to choose what to wear, what to eat or drink, what to watch. We get to choose where to go on vacation, what sports to play, who to marry. We get to choose what classes to take in college, which college to attend, what to do on our days off, to shop in store or online. We get to choose to watch any number of channels on TV or play video games. The number of choices in life seem endless. We like it that way.
The lawyers and Pharisees of Jesus’ day did not like it that way. They were students of God’s Law. They wanted to make sure they kept every single law God gave them through Moses absolutely perfect. So they filled books with rules and regulations on how to keep each of God’s commands. They were trying to protect The Law, to keep it from being broken. They tried to imagine every way that could happen and come up with a way to stop it.
But that created a problem. In their haste to protect God’s Law, they managed to forget God’s Law. They forgot the whole purpose of The Law. God didn’t give The Law to control us like robots. He gave The Law to teach us how to be like Him. He gave it to us to teach us how to love. He didn’t tell us what not to do to take the fun out of our lives. He did it to help us understand what we are to do. Dr. Luther shows this very well in his explanations to each of the Ten Commandments.
But the rules they wrote knew nothing about love. In the Gospels we read that they even devised a rule that said you could give something to the temple that was supposed to go towards taking care of your parents. They forgot you cannot keep the First Commandment by breaking the Fourth. The root of their problem was this: they forgot their rules could never improve the sinful inclinations of our hearts.
So I’m not surprised they had a problem with Jesus. They thought keeping the Sabbath day and doing no work on it meant doing absolutely nothing. They didn’t even allow people to walk very far, probably only to synagogue and back home and couldn’t do much else – I imagine their idea of the Sabbath was much like what Charles Ingalls describes in one of the Little House books. They didn’t like it when Jesus’ disciples took some food from the fields on a Sabbath even though they were starving, and they sure weren’t going to like it when Jesus healed somebody that day – after all He was working, even though it was obviously quite easy for Him to do.
So Jesus put them on the spot. He wanted to teach them the purpose of The Law. He asked them if it was free to heal on the Sabbath day or not. They couldn’t answer. They knew what He was doing. They didn’t want to incriminate themselves. Had they said no, they knew He would tell them they did not love God above all things and their neighbors as themselves. But if they said it was OK, they would be throwing all their rules and regulations under the bus. They wanted to do neither. They wanted to keep their rules and their lack of love, but they didn’t want the people to stop listening to them either. They hoped nothing would happen.
Something did happen. Jesus wasn’t going to let them off the hook. It was time for Him to show them just exactly what love looks like. Love looked like Him healing somebody. He wanted to do it. The Fifth Commandment teaches us to help and support our neighbor in every physical way. So He helped His neighbor that day. He healed him. He freed him from his dropsy. He showed that The God Who gave Moses The Law on Sinai – and He is that God – did not approve of all their little rules and regulations.
Then He continued to show them what The Law is all about. He told them to stop being full of it. He watched them take the seats of honor, and He knew they didn’t deserve them. They were setting themselves up through their pride not for exaltation, but for humiliation!
So He told them not to go take the highest seat when they go to a wedding. They wouldn’t know the full guest list. They might think they were the most important, but they might be wrong. How humiliating it is to get benched as the last unused man on the roster, with a spot on the bench you’ll surely slide off at any moment. Better to humbly take that spot first and then be asked to move up to the spot chosen just for you.
This is how The Law wants you to act. It wants you to be humble. The whole point of loving your neighbor like yourself is that you won’t be always looking out for yourself. In other words, you won’t get selfish. The Law encourages us to cast off our pride and serve everyone around us. It teaches us God did not create us to work to please ourselves but to work to please others, certainly not by catering to sinful desires but by coming to their aid in time of need.
This is so much like our Lord. He came down from heaven in no way befitting God. He was not born in a palace, but in a stable, with a manger for a crib. His people did not warmly greet Him, but their ruler chased Him into Egypt. He showed Himself to them and they nailed Him to a cross. How humiliating! God was treated like an outcast unloved loser! But He did it for their sake, for our sake. He allowed Himself to die in order to raise us up.
By nature we are humiliated. Sin has cast us down to the lowest place, hell. It has made the crown of God’s creation, all people, thoroughly corrupted. This corruption is completed by eternal death. The way out of this corruption is not by keeping The Law. The Law says you deserve to die because of your sins. You can only be cleansed of it by Christ. He endured all our shame as He hung naked on The Cross. He suffered for all our corruption. Now He exalts us to the highest place. He pulls us up out of hell into heaven. He did it when you were baptized.
You belong to Him now. You are free of sin. The Law can no longer condemn you. Sin made us utterly incapable of keeping God’s Law. Now His Spirit helps us keep it. He awakens in us good desires. He gives us grace to withstand the devil’s temptations so we will follow Jesus with pure hearts and minds. With His help, through faith in Jesus, we are the undefiled in the way who walk in The Law of The LORD.
See how richly your Lord has served you. See His love for you. Believe He has forgiven all your sins. Then go show that mercy to others. Show His love to all people. Show them, bring them to Jesus in both word and deed. That does not mean let anything go and call sin good. It does mean keep God’s commandments. Do it willingly. Do it because you’ve been freed from sin to do what is good. Do it because you want to please your dear Father in heaven.