Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
September 18, 2016
What would be worse, to be a slave or to be a prisoner? People normally don’t choose these stations in life. Who wishes to be a slave when one can be master of their own destiny? Who would willingly be bound in a cell when one could be free to live as one pleases?
The apostle Paul could speak to each, both being a slave and a prisoner. You may wonder when Paul had ever been a slave. He had been a Pharisee, and he was like the Pharisees in the Gospel reading. He knew his position and it was a pretty high one in the eyes of his Jewish compatriots. He knew he was blessed by God because his life was devoted to his God.
But then that same God turned his sight into darkness. He now had Paul’s attention. The very Lord Paul had been trying to stamp out was now calling him to be His apostle. And so, when writing the inspired words of Scripture, Paul would often refer to himself as an apostle. And yet, because he now understood that his life as a Pharisee had centered on himself, he was now just as at home calling himself a slave. He, an apostle of Christ, was by virtue of that calling, now a slave of Christ.
When writing to the Ephesians, though, he doesn’t refer to himself as a slave of Christ. As we see in the Epistle reading, he writes to them as a prisoner of the Lord. As he wrote to the Ephesians, he did so from a cell. But far from seeing this as a punishment of God, Paul saw it as a blessing. He was still able to make known the Gospel.
Having been rescued by Christ and called to serve Him as a Christian he now saw that he was truly free, whether he was journeying to countries to spread the Gospel or whether he was locked up in a cell. He had been set free by Christ. Being a slave of Christ was being truly free, whether or not he was a prisoner.
Paul had a stellar resume as a Pharisee. Had he been present at the gathering in the Gospel reading the host would have escorted him right to the front for the best seat. But Paul now saw himself for what he truly was. He was bound. He was wrapped up in his own sinful flesh, bound by the chains of his sinful desires. If all of his righteousness and unwavering dedication to God’s law couldn’t save him, he was happy to be humbled and now see himself, as he says in chapter 3 of Ephesians, “I am the very least of all the saints.” Paul had been one of those Pharisees Jesus was addressing. He now saw that humility is the order of the day when it comes to Christ.
We see in the Epistle reading his urging to the Ephesian Christians “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [they had] been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
What the apostle Paul, the slave of Christ and prisoner for the Lord, was exhorting those Christians, was what Jesus was showing the Pharisees in the Gospel reading. One of them was one of the higher-ups and invited Jesus to his home for a meal. But this was a set-up. They were bringing Him into that setting so that they could scrutinize Him. They disdained His teaching and His ministry. Perhaps if they overwhelmed Him with their religious superiority they could get Him to cave, or at least diminish His reputation in the eyes of the common people.
They of course did not believe Jesus was Lord. Even though He was, when He was invited to a meal He did the opposite of the Pharisees. Instead of expecting to be waited on He takes on the role of servant and giver.
In contrast to all the Pharisees and religious teachers present, who basked in the light of their own self-importance, there was a man who came up to Jesus who had dropsy, a condition of swelling due to abnormal accumulation of water. It was the sabbath, the day of rest. Jesus wanted to know: Would it be right to help this man? Would it align with the sabbath laws to deliver him from his condition? Or would it rather be God-pleasing to observe the law of the sabbath rest and leave him in his plight? They couldn’t respond. What were they going to say? Don’t you dare heal him, that would not be pleasing to God? Even so, the very acknowledgement that Jesus could in fact heal the man put them in a position where they seemed foolish to continue to deny Jesus.
Jesus gave to the man what he needed. Jesus was showing what God had intended the sabbath to be for. It was a day of rest and renewal. It was a day in which God gives to you what you most need, restoration. Jesus healing the man shows what Jesus came to do, to restore people to God.
These Pharisees were so swollen with pride that when it was time for the meal they jockeyed for position. Their sense of themselves exceeded their awareness of their need for what Jesus had come to give them. Jesus pointed out to them the obvious, but it’s what they already new. We heard it in the Old Testament reading. Jesus is pretty much quoting that. But they are blinded by their own self-centeredness. They think so much of themselves that they don’t even see that if they seek to attain the highest place they will lose it and be relegated to the lowest place.
Rather, Jesus says, seek the lowest and you will be moved up higher and be honored in the sight of everyone. They would never lower themselves to take the lowest place, though. All they saw in Jesus was someone who was disputing their self-made righteousness. They needed to see themselves as approved by God because of how holy they viewed themselves. They didn’t see that they were bound by their sinful flesh. They were prisoners of the devil’s schemes.
You are not see free from your lowly status by attempting to achieve a higher one. You are exalted when you humble yourself. You and I ought to take note. You and I may not be in high positions such as those Pharisees were, but do we miss what Jesus is showing us? It would be one thing if He were simply telling them and us to be humble. But we’re prisoners, remember? We are often swollen with pride ourselves.
Here’s what Jesus has done. Far from simply speaking from heaven the definitive word, “Humble yourselves and you will be exalted,” He has come down Himself! He did the very thing He was impressing upon us. Jesus is the Lord, and yet He exhibits the very thing He was urging upon the Pharisees and us. He is God and yet bound Himself in a human body. Even more, He submitted Himself to suffer and die on the cross for the sin of the world. For all of those sinners, even, who think of themselves more highly than they ought.
In the Gospel reading we saw how Jesus when invited to a meal became the servant. Giving to a man who had been humbled by a debilitating illness reprieve. Restoring him to wholeness. Jesus is God and Lord, how do you see yourself before Him? Listen to His words and go to the back. Humble yourself before Him. Confess your sin.
And then see what He has done and know that He does so for you still. He humbled Himself to become man and to die on the cross. He now tells you to come forward, all the way to the front. He doesn’t simply invite you to a meal, He gives you a feast to celebrate with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. He doesn’t preside over His feast as the glorious Lord but rather as the humble servant, giving you His body and blood for you to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins.
He sets you free by forgiving you. You no longer are bound by your stifling thoughts of righteousness. You are, rather, free to dine with the Lord of all creation and all who have gone before you and who even now feast in glory. You are free because you know that your Lord, though He is Lord of all creation, never sees Himself as so far above you that He won’t help you but rather freely gives of Himself to you and restores you. Amen.