“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”
It was not lawful for King Herod to have his brother’s wife, as we have heard from St. John the Baptist this past week. Nor is it lawful for you to pursue your own ambitions to the neglect of God and at your neighbor’s expense. But, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
With this question the Lord Jesus aims at something deeper than whether it is against the rules or defensible by way of some loophole or legal technicality. It’s not about what He may excuse or get away with. He is rather concerned with what the Sabbath actually means and signifies.
What is “lawful” is what the Lord intends: His good and acceptable will, which centers in divine grace and His desire to give Life to those whom He has created and calls to Himself. Behind and beyond what He commands and prohibits is the saving work of God Himself, who calls you out of slavery into freedom; who declares that He is your God, and that you are His own dear child.
The fulfillment of the Law — and of the Sabbath Commandment in particular — is realized in the Life that God gives to you through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, which you receive by His grace through faith in His Gospel, and which you then live in love for your neighbors round about. That is the true worship of the Lord, the one true God, as Dr. Luther describes and discusses in one of his sermons on this Holy Gospel: To hear and heed the preaching of God’s Word in faith and with thanksgiving, and to live according to His Word within your own office and station.
So, then, to heal and give life, to rescue from a well, to feed the hungry, or to welcome the stranger and the outcast (as we have been hearing recently in Bible class, concerning Abraham and Lot) — to visit the sick and imprisoned, to clothe the naked, and to forgive sins — that is more than simply “okay” on the Sabbath. It is the Sabbath that remains for the people of God in Christ, our Savior.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Lawful One, who not only keeps the Sabbath Day perfectly but brings it to completion for you and for all people. By His labor of love, He gives you peace and rest. And this He does by faith in His Father. For He receives all things from God, and He gives it all to His neighbor. That is how the Sabbath is rightly kept, and in Him it has been established eternally.
He humbles Himself in the confidence that His Father will exalt Him. For He knows Himself to be the beloved Son, according to the Word and promise of His Baptism; and He knows Himself, also, to be the Ox that pulls the plow, who will become the whole burnt offering for the people. So He trusts that His God and Father will pull Him up out of the well and give Him Sabbath Rest.
It is this righteousness of faith in His Father which He exercises and manifests in love for you and all His neighbors. He takes the last place for Himself, in order to exalt and serve His companions.
Not for His own advantage or benefit does Jesus do any of this, but in order to honor you, to give you life and peace and rest. He needs nothing, anyway, since all that belongs to His Father is His. Nor could anyone give anything to Him. But He gives everything He has to care for everyone else.
He’s not attempting to curry favor from God or man. Rather, it is with faith in His Father that He favors you with loving kindness. His coming in the flesh, His compassion for sinners, His going to the Cross, His suffering, and His sacrificial death — none of these are a pretense or a strategy for Self-advancement. There is no hidden agenda here, no false humility, and no charade. It is no act of passive aggression. It is divine Love and the Self-sacrifice of pure divine mercy for you.
But that is difficult to comprehend, and it is hard for you to understand and take to heart, because it is so very different from the way your sinful heart and mind are wired. Your words and actions are so often a case of promoting and protecting yourself. Much of what you do is not lawful, even when you follow the rules to the letter, and even at your best, because you are driven by pride and a desire for praise, or you are paralyzed by despair and a fear of criticism, instead of being guided and governed by the fear of the Lord, by faith in His Word, and by love for God and your neighbor.
Repent of your sins, and do better. When you are invited to a feast, enter and receive whatever you are given in humility and with gratitude, and leave it to your host to provide for your needs and to honor you according to the charity and generosity of his heart, mind, and will. And when you are the host, invite the poor and needy, the crippled, lame, and blind, who are not able to repay you. Not that you should lord it over your guests or treat them with contempt, as though you were superior, but knowing that whatever you have is from the Lord, and trusting that He will reward you according to His mercy and His grace in the resurrection of the righteous to life everlasting. That is to live in the fear and faith of God, in genuine love for God and man, and not for yourself.
Although you have not lived in such faith and love, and although you have not humbled yourself, trusted the Lord, or cared for your neighbor as you ought, the Lord Jesus Christ has not come to condemn you, but to save you from yourself and all your demons and diseases, from all of your enemies, and from the death and destruction your sins deserve. To that end, He comes and takes hold of you and treats you with tender affection. He heals you and frees you from your infirmities of body and soul. He pulls you out of the hole you’ve fallen into, and He raises you up on high in the presence of His God and Father, in His own righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
Whereas the crippled, the lame, and the blind were not permitted to enter the Temple in the Old Testament, Christ Jesus calls them in mercy and draws them to Himself in love, to live and abide as members of His Body. He welcomes and embraces them to Himself. Not only that, but He also bears all their infirmities and weaknesses, their poverty and sorrows, their sickness, sin, and death, within His own Body of flesh and blood, in order to cleanse them, to heal them, and to release them from those burdens, and to bring them, in and with Himself, to His God and Father in heaven.
In order to rescue the ill-treated, He has suffered Himself to be ill-treated in a Body just like yours. In order to release the prisoners from the bondage of sin, death, and the power of the devil, He has allowed Himself to be arrested, falsely accused, convicted and condemned, punished, and even put to death. So has He empathized with you and with all the children of man, in order to exercise His great compassion for you, to sacrifice Himself and shed His Blood for your salvation. Nor does He neglect to show hospitality to you, although you have been estranged and at enmity with Him.
Behold, this is what He has done for you. He has come to share your place and your predicament, in order to give you His place of honor at the Table. From His Baptism to His Crucifixion, He has humbled Himself unto death, in order to exalt you in His bodily Resurrection and Ascension.
He has become flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood — and He tabernacles with you here in the midst of this mortal coil on earth, under the curse and consequences of sin — in order to establish and obtain for you a permanent place and a home in the City of God, forever and ever.
So it is that your own place in the household and family of God the Father — your place of peace and perfect rest — is nothing else and nothing less than the Body of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, given and poured out for you and for the many here at His Altar. His Feast is freely given to be freely received, with no strings attached, no contingencies, and no expectation of favors to be returned. You have nothing to give but thanks and praise to the glory of His Name. For He is your gracious Host, your Butler, Chef, and Waiter, and your Meat and Drink indeed. He feeds you from His own hand, with His own Body and Blood, all for the sake of His own Love.
You cannot repay Him. You are not able to do so, and He needs nothing from you. But that is to the point. He receives everything from His Father, and He gives it all to you by His grace alone.
Even the reward that He receives in His Resurrection and Ascension is, for Christ Jesus, already and forever His own rightful place at the Right Hand of the Father. But for us it is the exalting of our human nature — flesh and blood — in His risen and glorified Body. And that is your true Sabbath Rest, your rescue from sin, your resurrection from death, and your righteousness forever. Thus do you have peace and rest, even while you are working hard to do your job, to carry out your duties and responsibilities, and to serve your neighbors in the world. More than that, it is because you truly rest and reside in the Body of Christ Jesus that you are able to labor in love for others.
It is the Glory of God to conceal this great Salvation under the Cross of Christ; and it is the Glory of your King, the same Lord Jesus Christ, to reveal this great Mystery by the Word of His Gospel.
He is the beloved Son, to whom the Father has given the place of honor at the Feast; and now He honors you with that very same honor, inviting you to join Him, to take your place beside Him, to recline at His Table, and to be fed by His hand. Here He sanctifies you with His sacrificial Blood and feeds you from His Altar with His own sacrificial Flesh. In the presence of God and all of creation, He says to you: “Dear Friend, come up higher. Here is the place I have prepared for you, the reward of the Righteous, which I give to you. Come, enter into My Rest, and be at Peace.”
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.