There are two main points in the Holy Gospel. The first point is the Sabbath controversy about healing the man with dropsy, and the second is about humility.
So what is dropsy? It is retention of too much fluid in the body. Dropsy is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of other illnesses. Some heart or kidney diseases result in retaining fluid. Dropsy can be disfiguring when it becomes severe, but also is a signal that something is very wrong, potentially deadly.
How could Christ our Lord not have compassion on this man? He would surely not fail to heal him.
The Pharisees were watching closely to see if Christ would heal the man. Perhaps the man was brought there by the Pharisees to test Christ. Perhaps he simply happened to be there, or innocently came to Christ because he wanted healing. The text does not say. Regardless, the presence of the man with dropsy presented a test to Christ. The Pharisees surely thought that it was an insurmountable test. Would Christ heal the man and by so doing break the Sabbath law? Or would He keep the Sabbath, and thereby fail to help a man in need? The Pharisees must have thought that they really had Christ trapped now.
The problem is that the Pharisees did not understand the Sabbath Law. The Lord God never intended the Sabbath to get in the way of helping people. Love is the purpose of the Commandments. When obeying them gets in the way of showing love, then you’re doing it wrong.
The Pharisees understood this, deep down. They knew that if one of their animals fell into a hole on the Sabbath, you would not leave it there just because you wanted to keep the Law of God. If that is true of an animal, then it is surely true of helping a human being, who is worth far more in God’s eyes.
But the Pharisees were not really interested in what the Law says or in how to help their neighbor. They were too busy hyperanalyzing Christ. The words “watching Him” in the Gospel text mean that they were examining Him extremely closely. They were sifting through every look and gesture and word that came from Him. They were on a fault-finding mission.
If someone does that with an ordinary person, they will find something worthy of criticism. If you
look hard enough for something wrong in anyone, you will find what you are looking for. We humans are full of quirks and shortcomings and outright sins. There is much to criticize in us.
But the Pharisees chose the wrong guy in whom to look for faults. Christ has no shortcomings. He has no sins. Never had them, never will.
These Pharisees who thought that they could test and trap our Lord instead showed how foolish they were. They showed how cold and unloving they really were, for all that they pretended to be shining examples.
How does this apply to us? We do not tend to make mistakes in this direction. We tend to go the other way, to find any excuse to break the Sabbath by failing to hear God’s Word and hold it sacred. But I have spoken enough of that at other times. Besides, I am not speaking to those who are avoiding the Word, but those who are here in God’s house right now.
So we should review for ourselves the true meaning of the Sabbath. It is not enough to plop our bodies in the pew. We need to really listen and pay attention to the Word. The Pharisees failed to do this. If we carefully take to heart the Word, then how could we fail to desire to help our neighbor? The Pharisees’ problem was that they were not actually listening to the Word that says, “Love thy neighbor.”
A related situation in our culture is that we sometimes want to leave people in a pit, because we think that it is loving to do so. What I mean is that we are tempted to leave a person in sin and false belief because we do not want to be unloving. This is not exactly what the Pharisees did. They at least knew that you pull an animal or person out of a hole on the Sabbath. But we may sometimes leave people in a hole of false teaching.
For example, one temptation for the Missouri Synod is to practice open Communion. The idea is that holding back the blessing of the Sacrament would be unloving. But closed Communion is loving because a person who believes unScriptural teachings has fallen into a pit. They need us to say that they are in error. They need us to show love by upholding the seriousness of Biblical doctrine. If we pretend that false belief is not dangerous, then we are not showing love. Since they have fallen into a pit, we should try to pull them out. If they are unwilling to be pulled out, then that is not our fault.
This is actually more similar to the Pharises than at first appears. Both situations call for obeying man-made laws that go against God’s Commandments of love.
There are other examples, but let that be enough for now.
May the Spirit give us discernment and boldness to show true love, in spite of the offense to the Pharisees of this age.
The second part of our text deals with humility. Christ says, “Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” Christ is not saying something new. Psalm 113 says, “The Lord our God raises up the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the trash heap, that He may set him with princes, even with the princes of His people.”
This is God’s attitude: He delights in the humble, but He resists the proud, who continually exalt themselves and willfully refuse to obey Him. Disobedience and pride always go hand in hand. We can see this in the kind of young person who knows everything better than everyone else. Why should they listen to any person in authority? Even the Scriptures are not enough of an authority when they think that they know everything.
We can see a prime example in the first two kings of Israel. Saul, before he was king, was obedient to his father. He was a lowly donkey-herder. He did not stand up to be king, but instead hid himself in the baggage, as we see in First Samuel. God saw Saul’s humble heart, and He exalted him to be king. But soon enough, when Saul realized that he was king, his ego became so inflated that he began to care less and less for God and His Word. So God cast Saul down because of his pride.
David also began as a humble young man who tended his father’s sheep obediently. If he had been proud, he would have said, “Why am I tending sheep? I am better than this.” But David did not say this. Even after Samuel anointed David to be king of Israel, David kept on tending the sheep until his time came to be lifted up to the throne. David did not say, “I will be king soon! Good-bye, sheep!” No, David remained humble.
He did not always remain humble. He eventually became proud as well, and began to think that he could do anything he wanted. When pride crept in, David sinned with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah.
But when God sent the prophet Nathan to David to show him his sin, David repented again. He humbled himself before God.
We will not always remain as humble as we should be. But the truest humility is to see when we have been prideful and to cast ourselves into the dust of repentance. That is the most difficult thing, which can only be done by the Holy Spirit’s grace.
God grant us this humility always, and cause us to beware of arrogance which works to destroy repentance.
For Christ today is preaching to us. He is not preaching to those proud people out there. He is preaching to each of us who have a Pharisee’s heart. That is all of us. If you think otherwise, then you just confirmed it.
How do we see this in our daily lives? In many ways, but I will speak only of a few. When you are given tasks in life that seem too lowly for you, do not complain. Do not say, “Why should I change these diapers? Why should I take out this trash? Why should I clean dishes or sweep?” Instead, rejoice that God has set your hands to humble tasks. This was how Christ lived, who chose the form of a servant.
If someone in authority tells you that you should do something, do not say, “What do they know? I am much smarter. I am not a slave to obey someone else.” Instead, humble yourself under the authorities God has set in place. In the same way, Christ humbled Himself under authorities who were far less righteous and wise than He.
We see humility most in God’s Son. Christ became a lowly Man. He desired no glory for Himself. He did not set Himself up over others. He became the ultimate Servant, who put Himself in such a low place that He regarded no one as higher than He was.
Of course, Christ is the Son of the Most High God, full of the glory of the exact image of the Father’s majesty. But He did not act as if He was the glorious Son. He acted as if He existed only to serve all others. That is exactly why He came, to make Himself nothing for us.
Do you think that you are something important? Learn to act as if you are nothing at all. That is the way of Christ.
In the end, Christ accepted the worst of all work, more awful than all trash heaps and dunghills and cess-pools. Christ accepted the Cross. He was nailed to the Cross with our iniquities hanging upon His shoulders. He should have said, “Not Me! This is a job for the lowest of the low. Only the most pathetic slave would be treated this way, not the Son of the Highest God. No thank you.”
But He did not say that. He took the lowest place. When He completed His work as a slave, then His Father lifted Him up to the highest place at the right hand of glory.
And the result? We, who should have justly been treated as the lowest of the low, do not have to be. The shame and disgrace of Calvary are not for us. We bear a cross, but it is a different kind. We bear a cross of humility. We carry on as servants, bearing the insults and criticism of a sinful world, and whatever pains fall on us as obedient servants of God.
If we are not humble enough to bear this cross, then our pride will betray us. In the words of our text, if we choose a higher place, then we will be sent down to a lower place. If we will not humble ourselves, then He will humble us.
But if we humble ourselves under the lowliness of our Christian walk, then God will raise us up in time. He will say to us, “Come up here, friend.” In that day we will know the incredible joy of God calling us His friends, and the amazing wonder of being lifted up to the very highest place.
In His Name, who exalts lowly sinners. Amen.
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