Setting the Sabbath free (Luke 6.1-16) [Sermon 1-29-2017]


January 27, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for January 29, 2017. From our ongoing series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA: “Luke and Acts: the Good News of God’s Salvation.”

The text this Sunday is Luke 6.1-16.

Resources I used for this sermon include:

Brendan Byrne. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. rev. ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 71-74.

Justo L. Gonzalez. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 88-90.

Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 250-60.

Beth Kreitzer, ed. New Testament III: Luke. Reformation Commentary on Scripture, ed. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch (Downers Grove: IVP, 2015), 128-33.

Smashing through barriers

When we left off last week, Jesus had just got his first three disciples. The fishermen: Simon Peter, James, and John. After a failed night of fishing, Jesus chased boatloads of fish into their nets. Then he said: From now on, you will be fishing for people. Ps. 10.9 complains about the wicked, who seize the poor … dragging them off in their nets. But Jesus’ disciples will join him in catching the poor, the prisoners, the disabled, and the oppressed in the net of God’s salvation. They will catch them and release them into God’s life-giving love.

We heard a few weeks back, Jesus announced the agenda for his ministry from Isaiah’s Jubilee passage. Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The Jubilee. A year of rest. A year of homecoming. A time when debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and old wounds were healed. Jesus said he’d come to proclaim release to the prisoners and liberate the oppressed (Luke 4.18-20). You know what? You can’t release prisoners or set the oppressed free unless you bust through the prison walls and tear down the bars. You have to break through barriers to let the people go free.

And that’s what Jesus has been doing since we last saw him. He’s entered a new, aggressive phase of his ministry where he’s smashing through barriers. He met a man Luke said was covered in leprosy. Imprisoned in his own rotting flesh. Walled off from his neighbors by the purity code, that said lepers must live alone outside the camp; and wear torn clothes, dishevel their hair, cover their upper lip, and shout out, “Unclean! Unclean!” (Lev. 13.45-46). Jesus set the leper free from his disease. But first he broke through the barrier of the purity code. First, he touched the man. Touching a leper didn’t make Jesus unclean. It made the leper clean. That’s how true holiness works. The touch of the unclean doesn’t defile what is holy; but what is holy makes what it touches clean.

Jesus broke down another barrier, too, when he chose another disciple. This barrier was a social barrier. Luke reports that Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. Everybody hated tax collectors, and for good reason. They sold out their own people by collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers. And they made their profit by collecting more than was actually owed. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Who would have thought that Jesus, who had come to preach good news to the poor, and liberate the oppressed, would call someone who was actively oppressing the poor to be his disciple?

Even more shocking, Luke said: Levi got up, left everything behind, and followed him. Just like the fishermen, Simon, James, and John had left behind their nets and boats to follow him, Levi left his work behind. Who would ever have believed that this man, who’d gotten rich by leeching off the poor, would leave behind his riches to serve the poor with Jesus?

Don’t you see? Levi needed to be set free, too! The one who sins against his neighbors is as oppressed by his sin as they are. And so Jesus tore through the barrier of Levi’s greed. He smashed through the walls of hurt and hatred that divided Levi from his neighbors. Jesus saved Levi from his tax collector’s kiosk.

And that evening, Levi and his tax collector buddies threw a party in Jesus’ honor. Some Pharisees were looking on disapprovingly. They were the gatekeepers of Jewish orthodoxy. Reports of this Galilean gate-crasher named Jesus had already reached them. The Pharisees were grumbling: Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?

The country singer Kris Kristofferson sang a song about people like those Pharisees. Actually, he wanted to warn us that we might all have a little Pharisee in us.

Everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on:

who they can feel better than at any time they please.

Someone doing something dirty decent folks can frown on …

It’s like the Pharisees believed they couldn’t be decent folks unless there was someone else doing something dirty. They wanted to keep that sinful tax collector Levi trapped in his kiosk, defrauding his neighbors, so they could look down on him.

But Jesus had come to set folks like Levi free, too. After all, once Levi is liberated from his tax collector kiosk, he’s not part of the problem anymore. He’s not oppressing anyone. A lot of people needed to be set free from a lot of things.

And still do.

The true meaning of the Sabbath

In our lesson today, the Pharisees are still trying to put up barricades to block the Good News of God’s salvation. To keep Jesus and his ministry contained. And Jesus is still busting through those barriers.

In our readings today, we heard two stories about Jesus and some Pharisees in conflict over the Sabbath. It’s nothing less than a battle over the true meaning of the Sabbath. The Pharisees think they know everything there is to know about the Sabbath. But what we’re going to see is that Jesus points to himself and his ministry as the true fulfillment of the Sabbath.

A little background on the Sabbath. We know the Israelites were instructed to honor the Sabbath—the seventh day—as a day of rest. What is often overlooked is that God gave Israel the Sabbath as a day of rest to a nation of former slaves. And that makes a huge difference in how we understand its meaning. Deut. 5.14-15 says:

the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.

In other words, God told all the Israelites to rest, and he also commanded them to let their servants and animals. Because they had once been slaves, and God was not going to have a people composed of former slaves become a nation of slave-drivers.

This Sabbath theme runs beyond the Sabbath day itself. In Lev. 25.1-7, God also commanded a Sabbath Year. A year where the entire land—even the earth and the animals—got to rest. According to Deut. 15, during the Sabbath Year, the Israelites were also supposed to cancel all debts. So it was not only a year of rest; it was also a year of release.

The rest of Leviticus 25 names provisions for the Jubilee Year. Lev. 25.8 says: Count off seven weeks of years—that is, seven times seven—so that the seven weeks of years totals forty-nine years. After seven cycles of Sabbath Years, a Jubilee Year begins. A year to proclaim freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants (Lev. 25.10). This is the year of the Lord’s favor Jesus proclaimed from Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry. A year when everyone rests, debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, everyone gets to come home, and God will provide enough for everyone to start anew.

So what we see is that the entire Sabbath tradition—the Sabbath Day, the Sabbath Year, and the Jubilee—is the background for Jesus’ ministry. He came to inaugurate a Sabbath and a Jubilee for God’s people, all humanity, and all the earth.

That’s why it’s so ironic that, in our stories today, the Pharisees accused Jesus and his disciples of violating the Sabbath. When Jesus had come to fulfill the Sabbath, to make its promises of rest and release come alive for everyone.

In the first story we heard today, as Jesus and his disciples were traveling through grain fields, the disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some of the Pharisees saw this, and demanded to know why Jesus was letting them break the Sabbath law. Here’s something else you need to know. The Pharisees where accusing them of breaking the Sabbath, not stealing grain that wasn’t theirs. Deut. 23.25 allows: If you go into your neighbor’s grain field, you can pluck ears by hand. The Pharisees were accusing them of was a technical violation of a Sabbath law from Exod. 34.21, which says you can’t harvest or thresh on the Sabbath.

Jesus politely reminded the Bible experts that the letter of the Torah can be superseded by real human need, with God’s blessing:

Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.

The event Jesus was referring to took place in 1 Sam. 21.1-6. The idea that David and his friends were violating the Torah by eating the bread of the presence wasn’t treated as a big deal in that story. But it was technically a violation of a law in Leviticus that specified the bread had to be eaten by priests in the temple. Jesus’ point here isn’t that these Pharisees hadn’t read the story. Surely they had. It’s that they’d read, but failed to understand its implication: when faced with a choice between possibly violating the Law, or somebody going hungry, feeding the hungry wins out. The Torah was meant to serve humans, not the other way round.

That’s part of what Jesus meant when he then explained: The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath. The phrase Human One is usually translated literally as Son of Man. Most of the time in the Old Testament, it was just a way of referring to humanity. That’s what it means in Ps. 8.4, when it says: what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? There, the psalmist is celebrating the loving care God takes of humans. But Daniel 7.13ff brought a new meaning to the phrase. Daniel saw a vision of a messianic figure:

one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days—that’s God—

… And to him was given dominion

    and glory and kingdom.

Jesus probably meant what he said both ways. First, he wanted to remind these Pharisees of the Sabbath’s rightful place—serving humans, not humans serving it. In Mark’s version of this story, this is made plain, because Jesus adds: The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath (Mark 2.27). But Jesus probably also had Daniel 7 in mind. It was his subtle way of telling those Pharisees, I’m the Son of Man Daniel foretold; and God has authorized me to say what’s allowed on the Sabbath. Not you!

No doubt those Pharisees were annoyed with Jesus; because they couldn’t find a way to prove him wrong. He had book, chapter, and verse on his side.

The next time those Pharisees had a showdown with Jesus over the Sabbath, they brought backup. Luke says that this time, the scribes, or legal experts, were with them. It’s another Sabbath, and Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Luke tells us a man was there whose right hand was withered; and that the Pharisees and scribes were watching [Jesus] closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason to bring charges against him. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect they planted that guy with the disabled hand in the synagogue that day. Just to see how Jesus would react.

Luke says that Jesus knew their thoughts. You might recall a few weeks back, when the elderly prophet Simeon met baby Jesus at the temple. He’d told Jesus’ mother Mary Jesus would be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Luke 2.34-35). And that’s just what Jesus was about to do.

He asked the man with the gimp hand to stand up in front of everybody. And then he asked the Pharisees and legal experts: Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it? Luke says Jesus just looked at them. They didn’t have an answer.

John Calvin once wrote: “Whoever does not care about relieving those in distress differs very little from a murderer.” Those Pharisees and their scribes wanted to put Jesus on the spot. But he’s just put them on the spot. They care more about being right than relieving the man’s distress.

And so Jesus told the man: “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and his hand was made healthy. Like we saw earlier, the Sabbath was about setting people free. Jesus set this man free from his disability. So he wasn’t violating the Sabbath. He was honoring its true meaning. We heard earlier how God told Israel to remember each Sabbath how God brought them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. So what better way to celebrate the Sabbath than for this man to leave the synagogue with a strong hand and outstretched arm?

The Pharisee’s legal experts might could have argued with Jesus’ interpretation of the Sabbath laws. But what they couldn’t argue with was this healed man.

And that Sabbath day, Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus came true. He became a sign that generates opposition. Luke says: They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus. This healing, which humiliated the Pharisees and legal scholars, birthed a legacy of hate that would dog Jesus throughout his ministry, and follow him all the way to the cross.

The Sabbath was meant for the release, rest, and healing of those who had been slaves. But what happens when a law that was meant to give comfort to former slaves morphs into another form of bondage? How can it be a day of rest and release if you’re so worried about doing it wrong, you can’t really celebrate it? Those Pharisees would have people become slaves to the Sabbath. Jesus came to set people free.

And he came to set the Sabbath free. So it could serve humanity, the way God meant it to.

Choosing the Twelve

At the end of our lesson today, Luke tells us it wasn’t long after that, Jesus went out to a mountain and prayed all night. When he came down first thing the next morning, Luke says he called together his disciples. He chose twelve of them whom he called apostles. That’s a new development. Up until now, Luke has only told us about four disciples. But now Jesus has gathered enough of a following that he can choose twelve from among them to be apostles. His special messengers he will send out to spread the Good News of God’s salvation to all the scattered sheep of Israel. And later, to every nation under heaven.

Luke doesn’t say when or where all these disciples came from. But if I was a betting man, I’d wager that plenty of them had heard about how he’d challenged the Pharisees and their scribes. I’d bet they were people who were longing for the Sabbath and Jubilee Jesus took with him wherever he went. For release, rest, forgiveness, and healing. People who were watching and waiting for the Good News of God’s salvation.

Jesus doesn’t send his newly minted apostles right out, either. They will follow him for a while longer, learning the true meaning of Sabbath and all the scriptures from his life, his teaching, and his healing. The rest of Luke 6 tells us something about their training. How Jesus taught them:

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you … You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate … Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. (Luke 6.27-38)

And on and on. He’s teaching them—and all of us who hear his words now—what it means to live by the Good News of God’s salvation. And he’s showing them what living that way looks like, from his own life. Jesus knows how children of the Most High act because, as the angel Gabriel told his mother Mary, he is the Son of the Most High (Luke 1.32).

Luke tells us the names of those Twelve Apostles Jesus will send out to spread the Good News.

Simon, whom he named Peter; his brother Andrew; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew—like Simon Peter, Levi got a new name, and that was it; Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus; Simon, who was called a zealot—zealots were anti-Roman revolutionaries; we might call him Simon the terrorist, or Black Bloc Simon; Judas the son of James; and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Did Jesus know Judas Iscariot would betray him when he chose him? Luke doesn’t say. Later passages in Luke’s Gospel, and in the first chapter of the other book he wrote, Acts, suggest he might have. But those were written years later, looking back over events that had already taken place. But here’s the takeaway for the church today. Even the holiest fellowship—Jesus and his apostles—had a person in it who turned out to be quite evil. But we don’t reject all of the apostles and the good they did because one of them, Judas, turned traitor.

It’s the same with the church. Jesus has placed us in the world to proclaim and live out the Good News of God’s salvation. But if even the Twelve had an evil person among them, we should not be surprised that there are hurtful, harmful, and hypocritical people in the church. Yes, they can do great damage to us personally, and to the witness of the church in the world. But the apostles continued their work after Judas, and so we must continue the work Jesus has given us. How will the world see the truth of release, forgiveness, healing and rest Jesus proclaimed and lived, unless they see it in us?

I mentioned at the beginning how we see Jesus tearing down barriers. He did this even among his apostles. Because among them, he chose Levi, or Matthew, who had made his living collecting taxes for the Romans. And he also chose Simon the Zealot—an anti-Roman terrorist. On the street, Simon would have tried to kill Levi. Jesus was intentional about tearing down barriers of hate, hurt, and mistrust that divide people. Even in how he went about choosing his apostles. The church would do well to imitate Jesus’ example here. We need to be the place where barriers between people are torn down, and divisions are healed.

Jesus knows that the world is already full of barriers and divisions. And that people grow weary of them. People need a rest from our striving, fighting, and wars. The world needs us as a witness to the Sabbath peace Jesus taught and lived out and even died for. May we be a people of rest, release, forgiveness, and healing.


One thought on “Setting the Sabbath free (Luke 6.1-16) [Sermon 1-29-2017]

  1. […] we left off last week, Jesus had chosen Twelve Apostles to send out to spread the Good News of God’s salvation. A few […]

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