What Rules Do You Play By?

Text: Luke 14:1-11

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In the reading from the Gospel of Luke, the Pharisees were having a party one afternoon.  After the synagogue services, they all gathered together at a house to eat, and they invited Jesus to attend with them. 

Now, keep in mind that this invitation was a devious plot.  Sure the Pharisees were acting friendly to Jesus on the surface, but underneath this kind invitation was a trap for Jesus. 

So, what was their trap? 

Simply stated, there was a sick man before Jesus that Sabbath Day at the dinner party.  The trap was this: would Jesus heal this man?  If He did, the Pharisees would have Jesus right where they wanted Him. In other words, if Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, He would be guilty of ‘working’ on the Sabbath.  And if He worked on the Sabbath, He would be guilty of breaking the Third Commandment and be trapped as a sinner.  Checkmate! 

But before we get too far, if Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath, would He really be guilty of breaking the Third Commandment?  Well, yes and no.  He would be guilty of breaking the Third Commandment according to the Pharisees’ understanding of the Third Commandment.   But, according to God’s Word?  Jesus would not be breaking the Third Commandment. 

So, what is going on here? 

Well, the Pharisees were using their own rules – not God’s Word - to try and trap Jesus.  Somewhere along the way, the Pharisees departed from what God said about the Sabbath Day in the Third Commandment and then developed their own rules on the Third Commandment.  They twisted and bent the Third Commandment to conform to their ideas.   

But why did the Pharisees do this? 

Dear friends, we must keep in mind that as human beings we have this strange characteristic of building our own religions.  In other words, we use our traditions and our ideas to make up our own rules.  And once we have the rules made up, well… we then congratulate ourselves for keeping our rules, and then we condemn everyone else who does not measure up to our religion. 

But there is a problem.  We are using our rules – our traditions and ideas – and not God’s Word.  But that does not stop us.  It is so very easy for us to believe that our rules are actually the same as God’s Word when, in reality, they are not. 

We must keep in mind that making up our rules and passing them off as God’s Word is not just something restricted to the first-century Pharisees.  We all do this because it is so convenient to twist and bend God’s Word to our ideas, to make things easier for us and harder for everyone else.    

I remember when I was a child playing chess with my Grandmother.  It was wonderful.  I would win every game.  The reason why the rules of the game of chess were always changing with me.  My grandmother would say,

“I thought the pawn could only move one spot.” 

And I would say,

“No, Grandma, it can move three spots.” 

And then I would proceed to move the pawn three spots to take her rook.  And then later on in the game?  Well, the rules would change again so that I could move the pawn four spots.  You see, the rules to the game of chess were always evolving to suite me.  The rules were always changing to make sure that I would do better than my Grandmother.  And the same thing happens with the faith. 

Dear friends, the rules that we use to replace or twist God’s Word are rules that we are really good at following.  We make up the rules to make sure that we are justified – so that we can be right.  And so, every generation and every Christian to a certain degree ends up having their own variation of religious rules.  Rules that they are really good at following.  Rules that are not from God’s Word but certainly come across as if they are God’s Word. 

But how do you and I know if we have made up our own religious rules regarding the Christian faith and have forsaken God’s Word?  How do you and I know if we are upholding the traditions of man and not the Word of God?    

Well, there are two very simple questions that you and I can ask ourselves.  The first is:

Do I see myself as doing better in the Christian faith than everyone else around me? 

Let me state that one more time:  

Do I see myself as doing better in the Christian faith than everyone else around me? 

The second question is this: 

What do I spend more time on: considering my sins or being a watchdog – trying to spot the sins of everyone else around me? 

Now, if you see yourself better than everyone else around you and point your finger more at others than yourself, the blunt news is that you are just like those Pharisees from our Gospel reading living by your own religious traditions, ideas, and rules – and not the Word of God. 

Permit me an opportunity to explain to you how this works.  When we live this Christian faith by our religious rules, we typically do better than those who do not know the ins and outs of our rules. Simply stated, the person that makes the religious rules is good at playing by the rules that they have created.  Remember the chess example with my Grandma?  So, since we are doing great at our religious rules, we have time to examine everyone else around us, which results in us spending more and more time being a watchdog of other people – how they break our rules.  And that is why we are the same as those Pharisees who were trying to trap Jesus. 

You, who have ears, hear!  Unlike the traditions, ideas, and religious rules of mankind, God’s Law – as expressed in the 10 Commandments – leaves no one standing.  The Law of God levels every one to the status of sinner.  God’s Word of Law shuts everyone’s mouths because no one can meet its perfect, holy standard.  And so, there is no such thing as being a better Christian than other Christians.  There is no such thing as rankings of greatness among Christians.  There is no such thing as righteous hierarchies before God’s Word of Law. 

And so, if you are puffed up sitting at a high seat of honor with your traditions, ideas, and religious rules, shaking a prideful finger at everyone else beneath you– repent!  Yes, repent of your imagined greatness with me.  You and I are not that special.  We need to repent of our manmade rules, our pride, our manipulation of God’s Word, and our Pharisaical hearts. 

Dear friends, please hear this clearly.  At the heart of the Old Testament reading and our Gospel reading is the fact that the Lord God opposes the proud.  “The person who boasts before God [with their manmade rules and finger pointing] will be humbled in judgment, while the one who humbly [beats their chest] confessing sin may trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and so be raised up at the Last Day.”[1] 

Lord have mercy on you and me, as proud sinners. 

. . .

As proud sinners, though, we must hear right now that the Lord God hears our cries for mercy.  He shows mercy to you and me with our confession of prideful rulemaking.  And there is more!   The Lord forgives you and me – He forgives you of your pride, manmade rules, and finger-pointing.  For Christ’s sake, you are forgiven.  For Christ’s sake, I am forgiven.      

And as the forgiven, not only are we given this profound status of Baptized Saints in Christ, there is something very profound that is continually given to you.  You are given God’s Word again and again and again – to hear, read, and inwardly digest.  You are given God’s Word so that you might not give an inch to the traditions, ideas, and rules of mankind.  For in these religious rules of mankind is not life but death. 

Regarding this topic, Martin Luther once said,

“In bold and shocking ways, so that [Pharisaical hearts] do not lead more people into error . . .  [one] should feel free to eat meat, break fasts, and in the spirit of liberty given by faith, do things they consider [by their own religious made-up rules] to be the greatest of sins.” 

What Luther is saying is that we should disobey the manmade traditions, ideas, and rules because they are not God’s Word.  That is right; you and I are to resist manmade rules because you are not enslaved to the empty doctrine and the trickery of mankind but captive to God’s Word and His Word alone.   

Baptized Saints, you are a Christian.  You are held captive to the Word of God, not the religious rules of mankind.  You are not bouncing to and fro from the winds of mankind’s doctrine.  You belong to Christ.  You have ears to hear His Word. 

In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

[1] Lutheran Study Bible (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009), 1745. 

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