In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Today’s gospel reading seems divided—first the healing, then a Parable. It’s tempting, especially for the preacher, to only tackle one half of the Gospel. It’s easy to miss the connection. The connection is specifically missed if you read the Parable as Jesus writing as a guest columnist for Emily Post or Miss Manners. The Gospel today is not a disjointed healing followed by Jesus telling the Pharisees How to Win Friends and Influence People. Rather, the Gospel as a whole reveals what God has done for His children through Jesus Christ.
Our situation is very clearly seen in both the Pharisees and the man with dropsy. The Pharisees are overtaken by pride, and the man’s body is filling with fluids, which will drown him if he is not treated, a symbol of how sin fills us and can overtake us if not forgiven by Jesus. First, the Pharisees hope to catch Jesus in a Law-breaking scenario. It is likely that they intentionally brought in the man with dropsy to see if Jesus will heal him or not. They viewed healing as work, something forbidden on the Sabbath. If Jesus heals the man, He will be violating the Law of the Sabbath, and then they will have clear grounds to put Him to death because by His life He will be teaching false doctrine! Jesus heals the man, because that if what He is sent to do. But because He knows their intentions, Jesus asks them a 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?” The answer is that, of course they would pull out an animal! Rabbis had already tackled this question generations prior and ruled that saving a life on the Sabbath was not work at all, but rather something commanded by God. That’s why they could not answer him, or, more literally, “they were not capable of answering Him.” No matter how they answered they condemned themselves.
But before all of this happened while they were seated at the table, they fought for seats at the table. Much like we do today, the people who sit closest to the host or guest of honor are the most important people at the table. Those people who were invited, but are of least importance, sat the farthest away. Jesus watched as the Pharisees grappled for seats closest to the head of the table. Then He told the Parable, not to instruct them, but to humble them, almost mocking them. He tells them to willingly sit at the end of the table, in the place of lowest honor, so they can be brought up higher. Then, not only do they dishonor the person who must be moved down, but they are honored because of their humility. But in reality, there is no humility in taking Jesus’ Parable at face value. Intentionally dishonoring yourself to be exalted in the public eye is just pride run amok with a cheap veneer of humility.
There’s more of us in the Pharisees than we’d like to admit. We all want glory and honor. We want our fifteen minutes of fame, and then some. Our pride fills us like fluids filled that man with dropsy. After the Parable about where to sit at the table, Jesus told them to invite outcasts—the poor and the diseased—to their dinner parties. We like to scratch the back of those who can turn around and scratch ours. We don’t like to be charitable for the sake of being charitable. How many of us give to our favorite causes so our name can be on a brick or listed in a program that will be seen by everyone else in attendance? But it’s not just money. How many people succeed in their academic fields—both churchly and secular— not to advance the field or to benefit people, but to get fame for themselves? Social media and the world of blogs is often nothing more than people bragging about their meals, their vacations, their latest project, their intelligence, all to build themselves up while singing to themselves, “Anything you can do I can do better...” Pride lurks in everything we do, and when left unchecked fills us and drowns us like fluids fill the lungs of someone with congestive heart failure. Repent. The only way to save yourself from the suffocating forces of pride is to humble yourself, to admit that you aren’t the best, that you have not loved your neighbor as yourself, and that your only source of help is God.
That is precisely why Jesus told the Parable, why He healed the man with dropsy, why He told you to invite to your banquets those who cannot repay. He did all of this then as a reminder that that is precisely what He has done. Today’s Gospel is not Jesus giving you an example to follow to attempt to save yourself, but a demonstration of all that He has done to save you. He did not exalt Himself, but humbled Himself. And He didn’t just take the lowest spot at the table! He took on the form of a servant, He made Himself of no reputation. He did all of this to save you.
This is what Luther called the “Happy Exchange,” or, the worst deal the world has ever known. Jesus takes on all your sin, and in its place gives you His righteousness. As Luther described this exchange in his “Freedom of a Christian,” he put it in terms of a marriage. He said, “What Christ possesses belongs to the believing soul; and what the soul possesses belongs to Christ. Thus Christ possesses all good things and holiness; these now belong to the soul. The soul possesses lots of vice and sin; these now belong to Christ. Here we have a sweet exchange. … He makes the sin of the living soul His own through its wedding ring, which is faith, and acts as if He had done it Himself, so that sin could be swallowed up in Him. … Who can comprehend the riches of the glory of this grace? Christ, that rich and pious husband, takes as a wife a needy and impious prostitute, redeeming her from all her evils, and supplying her with all His good things. It is impossible now that her sins should destroy her, since they have been laid upon Christ and swallowed up in Him, and since she has in her Husband Christ a righteousness which she may claim as her own, and which she can set up with confidence against all her sins, against death and hell, saying: ‘If I have sinned, by Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned; all mine I His, and all His is mine,’ as it is written, ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am His’ (Song of Songs 2:16).” (AE 31:351-353)
It is impossible that your sins should destroy you. They were laid on Christ and He has drowned them in the flood of His own Blood. His righteousness was poured over you at the Font in your Baptism. And because His grace is so lavish, so abundant, and given in measures which can never be repaid, He forgives you again and again in His word of Absolution and as He comes to you with His very Body and Blood to eat and to drink. When you sin, know that your sin is destroyed, forgiven, removed from you as far as the east is from the west. You are given Christ’s righteousness, a gift you could never earn or deserve.
So in this Gospel, Jesus is not telling you “Be better,” but “There is One better than you, who has healed your diseases, forgiven your sin, and calls to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’” Because you are loved by God and forgiven in Christ you now possess a seat at the table at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom which has no end.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).