On one occasion when Jesus* was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ 4But they were silent. So Jesus* took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child* or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ 6And they could not reply to this.
Luke introduces a group of stories and parables that related to the sharing of meals, in the setting of a Sabbath dinner in the home of a Pharisee. The timing is not particular, but it still builds the conflict with the Pharisees. Notice, however, that Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee, to share a meal. Although the conflict is building, there is not a complete separation from them – Jesus still seeks to teach the Pharisees.
At this dinner, they were watching Jesus closely – what would he do? Perhaps, they are still looking for a way to trap him. And, of course, a situation arises in which Jesus’ interpretation of the law and the scriptures differs from theirs. Jesus interprets the Sabbath laws in a way that cares for the hurting and needy, for God’s people. A man comes in who suffers from dropsy, an old-fashioned term for what we today would more likely call congestive heart failure. There would have been swelling in the man’s feet and legs and hands, and he might even have been having difficulty breathing. So, this was not a man with some condition that could wait for healing, but a man in obvious distress, suffering. Jesus looks at the man, and has compassion, but he knows what the Pharisees are thinking, and so he asks them, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath, or not?” They do not respond.
And so, Jesus takes the man and heals him and sends him on his way – Luke does not tell us about the man’s reaction, but I would suspect that he went away rejoicing and praising God. But then, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and lawyers and asks, if your son (or child) or ox, or some manuscripts say donkey, falls into a well on the Sabbath, will you not immediately pull him out? According to their Sabbath law, as these Pharisees interpreted it, caring for the sick or injured on the Sabbath was allowed only if it was a matter of life and death. This is true today for some ultra-orthodox Jewish congregations, though certainly not for the majority of Jews, who do much good work with the sick, in all sorts of medical roles. But for those at dinner with Jesus, a child in a well was life and death, while they did not know the man with dropsy, and so felt his condition not warranting of emergency intervention. In their interpretation of the law, they were judge over who might live and die on the Sabbath.
And so, which attitude brings glory and honor to God? The attitude of the Pharisees is judgmental and heartless, adhering to the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. Jesus’ attitude is that it is the person in front of him, the man who is a child of God, who is suffering, who is most important. Being judgmental turned people away from God, and still does. Loving the people God puts in front of us, caring for them, leads to the glory of God, brings people to God, then and now.