Posted on October 28th, 2014
When a man falls into a pit, you help him. That’s the Law.
When a man falls into a pit, God helps him. That’s the Gospel.
Jesus is at a dinner on the Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited (Gospel for Trinity 17, Luke 14:1-11). The other guests at the Sabbath dinner are watching Jesus closely, to see what He will do when confronted with a sick man. If Jesus heals him, does He break the Sabbath law, by working when He should not?
The charge is really a trumped up one. The Rabbis had dealt with such problems already. For example, the laws seemed to conflict when it came to circumcision. Circumcision had to be done on the eighth day of birth; but what if that day fell on the Sabbath? The circumcision took priority. The same was reasoned for other medical or rescue work. Here is a passage from the Talmud, which contains the central teachings of Jewish law and reasoning:
Whence do we know that the duty of saving life annuls the sabbath? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah answered: If circumcision, which affects only one member of the body annuls the sabbath, how much more so for the rest of the body! Rabbi Simeon ben Menasia says: Behold it is said, “And you shall keep the sabbath for it is holy to you” (Ex 31:14). To you the sabbath is handed over, but you are not handed over to the sabbath. (Mek. Abbeta on Ex 31:13) “Rabbinic Literature: Talmud,” DNTB, 900
So when Jesus says, “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?”, they have no answer, because Jesus is following rabbinic reasoning: this man’s need annuls the Sabbath law.
But there is also a symbolism going on that runs through all of Jesus’ teaching: this sick man is a symbol of the human race. This theme comes up again and again: the Prodigal Son wandered away, squandered his inheritance, became enslaved and starving; the Good Samaritan must rescue the man robbed, beaten, and left to die in a ditch.
That’s who you are. No matter how strong you are now, no matter how wealthy you are now, no matter how happy and successful you are now, you end in a pit, you end in a grave.
But along with that, there is the contagion within you, the sickness that fills you with anxiety and dread, a slave to your lust, a slave to your hunger, the passions that drive you to drink too much, get too close to that woman not your wife, the passions that expel unwholesome words from your mouth, making you impatient with your husband or your child.
When you act selfishly, when you give in to your anger, regard yourself higher than others, that is when you are doing precisely what Jesus identifies in the Pharisees. Even the small thing like their choice of seat at the dinner table reflected the condition of their heart, full of pride, wanting the praise and respect of others.
Every one of us is the creature at the bottom of the pit. Our only hope of rescue is one who will come into our pit, come breath the poisoned air, enter our hell to effect our rescue. That is the work of our Lord Jesus. He humbles Himself to exalt us.
So what was the Sabbath for? The first sabbath, the seventh day of creation, indicated the perfection of creation. Once death was introduced into the creation, and with it sin, the Sabbath was given not as a rule for pleasing God. A day off from work is not a burden, but a blessing. But there was something deeper at work in the blessing of the sabbath: God works where you cannot; God supplies what you lack. Thus we have these events where people are commanded not to gather food on the sabbath day, with the promise that God would feed them. On those days when people gathered food anyway, the sin was not in working, but the sin was in not trusting that God would do what He said. The sin was in not recognizing that God is the worker, God is the creator.
So what’s going on at a baptism? With the baptism of a child, parents like Sam and Kara bring their little Fran and say, our little baby is born into a world that is a pit, a hell of mortality and suffering, sin and sadness. Dear Jesus, help!
And when we hear Jesus say that you must receive the kingdom of God as a little child, it doesn’t mean that if you weren’t baptized as a baby, you missed the boat. It means that the baptism of an adult is the same thing: you make yourself helpless as a baby, who cannot feed or clothe herself. When we all join in the renunciations and affirmations of baptism, we acknowledge that the devil, his works, and his ways hold too much sway on us; and we confess that Father, Son, and Spirit are working together as One God to rescue us from this pit, this grave, this hell.
Coming to Divine Service is us shouting together from the bottom of the pit, Jesus, help! And the mystery of prayer is in shouting those words also for our world, especially for those who don’t want to be rescued or who don’t believe there is a Rescuer.
Our message to the world is not, “Be better!” but, “There is a Better One, the Lord Jesus, who has joined us in this pit, Himself suffered here, was buried here, and invites us to join Him, saying, ‘Friend, go up higher.’”
So definitely help other people and be nice. When a man falls into a pit, you help him. That’s the Law.
But never forget who you are: A fellow prisoner in the pit. When a man falls into a pit, God helps him. That’s the Gospel. +INJ+
Preached at Immanuel, Alexandria, October 12, 2014