The Secular Jesus. (A sermon on Luke 14:1-6)

One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” But they remained silent. Then he took him and healed him and sent him away. And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” And they could not reply to these things.

(Luke 14: 1-6)
It’s the Sabbath again and Jesus is doing what he does best – teaching, healing, and getting Himself into trouble!

It’s a marvelous story that contains all the elements that we love in the Gospel stories. Jesus is spreading joy and causing controversy while the fumbling Pharisees scurry about in the background, dumbfounded and exasperated. And yet I hear you say, “didn’t we cover all this last week?”

Of course I don’t hear all of you say that, as some of you weren’t here last week, and some of you who were here last week aren’t here this week, so you’ll be forgiven for wondering what I’m talking about, and yet the point is well made, for the Gospel story from Luke chapter 13, that we dealt with last week, has some very obvious points of similarity with this week’s story from Luke chapter 14 (the next chapter).

Both are stories of Jesus healing people and both healings took place on the Sabbath. In both cases the healings led to a confrontation with the religious authorities over whether it was legitimate to heal people on the Sabbath, and in both cases the religious folk ended up with egg on their faces (so to speak).

Of course the stories are not identical. Last week’s story took place in a synagogue, and the confrontation was with the ruler of the synagogue, who I assumed to be a Pharisee. This week’s story takes place in the house of a Pharisee, who may or may not have been the ruler of a synagogue.

In the chapter 13 story, it was a crippled woman that Jesus healed – a woman who couldn’t straighten up. In the chapter 14 story it is a man with ‘dropsy’, which means that his limbs were swollen up. He may have looked something like the elephant man, in which case his problem may have been, in one sense, the opposite of the woman. She couldn’t straighten up. The elephant man, if you remember, couldn’t lie down.

Either way, Jesus heals them both. The woman is straightened, the man’s swollen limbs are somehow mysteriously deflated, and there is much rejoicing on the part of everybody, except these religious persons who just can’t come to terms with the way Jesus – a supposedly righteous Rabbi and a popular teacher of religion amongst the people – could so radically flout the law of God by disobeying on the fundamental divine commandments as given to Moses on the stone tablets – ie. remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.

As I say, there are some differences between the two stories, in chapters 13 and 14 respectively, but the basic point of issue between Jesus and his antagonists is identical in both cases. It’s an issue of law.

Jesus is disobeying the law of God. That’s the charge, and it’s a serious charge, and it’s the sort of thing Jesus was charged with all the time, which is extraordinary when you stand back and think about it for a moment!

Whatever people think of Jesus, they generally acknowledge him to be (at least one of) the greatest religious figures of all time. Yet the charge laid against him throughout his earthly life was that He was consistently irreligious! He was labeled as a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of society’s low-life – exactly the sort of characteristics we associate with irreligious persons. And He was seen as having scant concern for the law of God!

Of course Jesus would say that He came “not to abolish God’s law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17) and yet that very statement is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that Jesus did not deal with the divine law in the way in which religious folk normally did.

There was a divine law regarding what you could and could not do on a Sabbath and Jesus seemed to have very little regard for it. He seemed to be happy to re-interpret the law to suit Himself, and, significantly, He seemed to show little interest in giving any theological argument in support of His re-interpretation!

Indeed, as I compare the two stories that lie (more or less) side-by-side in Luke’s Gospel narrative, the thing that strikes me most in both instances is the complete lack of serious theological argument taking place between Jesus and the religious professionals!

This is what we religious people do: we argue theologically. And when a religious person re-interprets a divine law in some way such that they seem to be disregarding one of the ten commandments, the pattern we would expect is that they give some sort of theological justification for what they are doing.

I want to focus on this today as I think it is really important, as I think it illustrates that Jesus not only had a different ideas about God from His religious contemporaries. He evidently thought about God in an entirely different way. It wasn’t just Jesus’ conclusions that differentiated him from his religious contemporaries. It was the way He reached those conclusions. He not only spoke differently about God. He spoke an entirely different language!

I was reading a report recently on a fascinating conference that took place in Melbourne recently – a theological conference on the subject of “Trinity with tiers” (that indeed I think some of our community may have attended).

The main subject under discussion was obviously the doctrine of the Trinity, but behind the discussion about the nature of God and the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit was a more clearly tangible debate about the nature and the role of women in the church!

Those in the church who argue that women should always be placed in positions of subordination to men have been known to do so by appealing the way in which the pattern of eternal subordination is reflected in the nature of God, who is Father, Son and Spirit, where the three persons of God are equal and yet the Son is always subordinate to the Father. This then gives us a model (so the argument goes) that maintains both a nominal equality between persons while justifying a system that always gives the Son (or the woman) the lower place.

The key address in the Melbourne conference, I read, challenged this concept of eternal subordination which, it said was inconsistent with the Athanasian Creed, and suggested rather a concept of ‘economic subordination’, wherein the subservience of the Son to the Father is seen as taking place only for a limited time and in a particular context.

Now, if you don’t understand a word of what I’ve just said it really doesn’t matter, for my whole point is that this type of esoteric theological debate is entirely absent from the Gospel narratives.

We take this for granted but we should not. If it had been any other Rabbi or religious teacher and not Jesus who went around doing what He did on the Sabbath this would surely have been exactly what we would have expected. We would have expected some sort of lengthy theological defense of his actions, such that He could show how healing people on the Sabbath was in fact consistent with the Sabbath law as written, or why the law as written needed to be re-interpreted or discarded.

I’m not saying that we should have expected dialogues about the eternally subordinate nature of any of the members of the Trinity, but we would have expected the citing of other pieces of Scripture, illustrations of the way in which Biblical authorities themselves had, at certain times, re-interpreted the Divine Law in ways that were consistent with Jesus’ actions. We would have expected some dialogue, perhaps, that took us back to the creation stories in Genesis and showed us how the basic concept of rest, as exhibited by God on the seventh day, was not inconsistent with creative acts of healing.

We might have expected some argument about the nature of God or the nature of rest or the nature of the commandments, showing that obedience to them should at certain points be made secondary to the immediate obligation placed on us by the needs of our neighbours. We might have expected something clever and complex and worthy of a Rabbi of Jesus’ standing. Instead, all we get from Jesus is what seems more like an off-handed comment than any serious argument. “If your ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, you pull it out, don’t you?” (14:5)

This was basically identical to the equally off-handed question He asked in the previous story, “you give your donkey a drink on the Sabbath, don’t you” (13:15). In neither of these cases is Jesus making any clever appeal to ways in which the Sabbath law can be extended to injured or thirsty animals under special circumstances. Rather, He is simply appealing to His hearers’ compassion. His attitude to their law is, in a word, dismissive!

I remember we had a visitor to our worship service here once from a certain area of the United States, and he asked me how I justified allowing woman to speak during the service. I responded by pointing out that there were churches in the area where he was from where snake-handling was a key component of their worship life. It wasn’t a particularly gracious response but I think it was consistent with the sort of response Jesus gave to so many of those who questioned Him. He just didn’t get into a debate with them!

Indeed, it is remarkable when you think about it, how rarely we see Jesus enter into any serious theological discussion with anyone in the New Testament. And when we do see this happen (such as in His dialogues with Nicodemus [John 3] or the woman at the well [John 4]) we very quickly see enormous misunderstandings occurring, as Jesus and his partners in dialogue seem to speak on entirely different levels!

It’s as if Jesus just didn’t speak the same language as His religious contemporaries. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Jesus didn’t seem to speak a religious language at all, for certainly His dialogues in these two stories in Luke seem to be at an entirely secular level. Jesus’ opponents are talking about the law of God and their religious obligations. Jesus is focused on the women and men around him, and His dialogue is not about things mysterious and overtly religious but about helping needy oxen and donkeys!

Indeed there is something secular and irreligious about Jesus, just as there is something awfully secular and irreligious about the whole idea that God should choose to give Himself to us in the flesh and blood of this single human being! Jesus is irreligious. The whole concept of the incarnation is entirely irreligious! No wonder Judaism and Islam can’t accept it!

There remains one question from today’s Gospel that still concerns me, and it is this. Even if Jesus did two consecutive healings on two consecutive Sabbaths where he received exactly the same response from his religious contemporaries and then made an almost identical response to each of them, why did the Gospel writer, Luke, bother to record both incidents? Would not one have been enough? I’m sure there were plenty of other stories about Jesus that he could have included that he chose to leave out. Why include both of these when the two stories are, for all intents and purposes, identical?

The only answer I can come up with to this question is that Luke must have figured that we needed to hear all this twice (and maybe a few more times, as there are other stories of an entirely similar nature again in Luke and throughout the Gospels). Why do we need to keep hearing about this? I think it’s because we just don’t get it. We keep looking for something more spectacular, more obviously transcendent, more overtly religious. What Luke seems to be trying to get through our heads is the fact that living the life of Jesus is not about being religious. It’s about compassion.

For it’s not obedience to the law that brings us to God. It is Christ. And Christ’s work in us is not to bind us to any code, but to live His life through us and show his compassion through us, and so bring healing and wholeness to our sick and broken world. Amen.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2010.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

www.FatherDave.org

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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