Saturday, October 15, 2011

Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Eph. 1:1-6 * Luke 14:1-11
The Pharisees in today's Gospel reading were full of malice because of their pride. Here was a man, a carpenter by trade, whose formal education was simply that of any Jewish man; far better on average than that of the Gentiles if only because Jews have always aimed at 100 percent literacy. All of their people (men and women) could read at least their prayers and the Psalms. But, Jesus had not sat at the feet of any of the notable Rabbis of their time, such as Gamaliel, who was in his own day the equivalent of a highly reputable Professor of Theology in our time. Nonetheless, Jesus the carpenter spoke with authority that the Pharisees could not even so much as imitate; and beyond that, his word was with power. His word drove out demons, healed those with diseases and afflictions of all sorts, and on at least three occasions brought dead people back to life. He did not need the Pharisees, and he did not seek either their guidance or their permission to teach and to heal.

On this day, the Pharisees were threatened by a man who wanted to be healed on the Sabbath; for if Jesus were to grant such a request he would openly contradict their teaching just by doing the healing. He would not have to say anything. As if that was not bad enough, Jesus silenced them in front of everybody by uttering a simple "one liner" hypothetical question: "Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?" St Luke goes on to tell us, "And they could not answer him again to these things." Simply by having the power to heal, and by using that power, Jesus won the argument. We know from Mark's Gospel that it was at this point that some of these same Pharisees either joined the effort, or maybe even started the effort, to have Jesus put to death. Matthew tells us that when the time finally came when Jesus was tried by Pilate, that the Roman Governor knew that not only the Pharisees, but also the chief priests and Sadducees, wanted Jesus dead because of their envy (Matt. 27:18).

But on this particular day, by demonstrating his divine power to heal, Jesus won the argument twice over. For, already he had spoken with wisdom beyond the reach of his foes; and then he acted with power they could never match. But, the Lord really had no concern with something as trivial as winning arguments. Possessing all wisdom, a mere show of cleverness would have been quite beneath him. His motivation had no room for anything petty, or self-seeking. First of all, he had compassion on the man who suffered, and on all who needed to see the grace and love of God demonstrated by an act of mercy. For every healing Jesus ever did signified something far more important for all of us than simple physical healing in this transitory life. Every healing proved that God does not deal with us as our sins deserve; every healing pointed to something greater and far more permanent: Every healing pointed to the forgiveness of sin, which is of eternal value.

Jesus was quite willing to trample on the sinful pride of fallen man, sparing no one's delicate ego when people's knowledge of the truth was at stake. But, this not about truth in some academic sense. It was about something infinitely more important than who was correct. It says in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (31,32)." What truth is that? Is it a perfect grasp of History, of Mathematics or of Science? Is it even truth about various peripheral and speculative areas of theology, or of liturgy, or of Biblical Literacy? As important as these academic subjects are, we need to know the truth that is deeper than any of them. Indeed, if someone knows the facts and details of the Bible, and yet cannot know the Word who is present, Himself, throughout all of it, he does not really know the Bible at all. 

Jesus Himself is the Truth, as he said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." As the Truth he is also the only Path to the Father, and the only Life that overcomes death. This knowledge of the Truth, of Jesus Christ the Word who is eternally with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and who has been made flesh and dwelt among us, gives us knowledge of all truth. When we understand the truth as it is revealed fully in Jesus Christ, we know the truth about ourselves, and first of all, that we sinners utterly in need of his salvation from sin and death. We begin by knowing we are lost, and we need him to take us home; that we are blind and need him to open our eyes to see; that we are deaf and need him to open our ears to hear. We need forgiveness of sin, but neither can we buy or earn it; the Healer must give us mercy just as he gave it to the man with the dropsy-the same mercy that does not deal with us as our sins deserve. 

Jesus did not have tolerance or respect for the pride of the Pharisees, and he had no regard for their delicate egos that could not stand to be proved wrong. The only argument he wanted to win was that of light over darkness, of mercy over condemnation, of love over indifference. His argument was for truth on the very practical level of meeting real human need, the need of a man with dropsy and the need of sinners everywhere and always to know the truth and to be made free. So must our concern for truth be; not to be proved right as pride would have it; but to impart the life-giving knowledge of God's truth to a world in need, beginning with the need of your neighbor. To be correct academically, and to be lauded for it, is itself no better than trash. Christ-like desire to clarify the truth is practical; it is pastoral and evangelistic; it is motivated by love, which is of great worth in the eyes of God. 

Every healing Jesus did not only demonstrated mercy, but the price of love that he planned to pay later for each act of compassion. As Isaiah the prophet foretold, "By his stripes we are healed." Matthew records that as Jesus went about doing good and healing, he fulfilled these words by the prophet: "Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows." But, these words are not from a passage that foretells the glory of his miracles; these words are from the famous Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah, the fifty-third chapter; and they are followed immediately by the words, 

"Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:4-6 - See Matthew 8:17, and compare.)

When Jesus healed the man with the dropsy on that Sabbath, to the anger of those Pharisees, he was planning to pay later, on the cross. All of his compassion and all of his mercy moved him to forgive and to heal as he walked the earth among the lost sheep of the House of Israel. When he told those who had marked out for themselves places of honor, that they ought rather to have taken the lowest place, he bade them repent and follow him; for he was going to take up the cross and carry it to his humiliating and tortuous death. There he took away the sins of the world, and on the third day when he rose again, he also conquered death for you and for me. So, we must follow, beginning at the lowest place; and beginning again today at that lowest place, beginning always anew at that lowest place when we confess our sins, before we may be bidden to come up higher, bidden to come to the very rail of the altar to partake of his Body and Blood. 

Know this: Hanging on the cross was no occasion for pride. But, what an argument he won, indeed what a battle.

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