Luke 14:3

ESV And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?"
NIV Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?"
NASB And Jesus responded and said to the lawyers and Pharisees, 'Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?'
CSB In response, Jesus asked the law experts and the Pharisees, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?"
NLT Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in religious law, 'Is it permitted in the law to heal people on the Sabbath day, or not?'
KJV And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?
NKJV And Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

What does Luke 14:3 mean?

Jesus has dined with Pharisees before (Luke 7:36–50; 11:37–54). Now, however, He's with a ruler of the Pharisees: a man of that sect who holds some kind of synagogue or civil government leadership. It appears other Pharisees are present at the meal. During formal meals (Luke 14:15), the door would be left open and others who were not invited could quietly come in, stand along the walls, and listen to the conversation. That is likely where the man with dropsy is; he wouldn't be invited to dine because his condition makes him and anything he touches ceremonially unclean (Luke 14:1–2; Leviticus 15:4–12). It's also possible the host did invite the man, to tempt Jesus to heal on the Sabbath again.

Fitting the setting, Jesus responds to the on-going conversation by asking a theological question. He has used this tactic before (Luke 6:9). Discussing such questions was common, and rabbis and lawyers would often debate, each using quotes from prior religious leaders to prove their point. The Pharisees know that Jesus' question is not just theoretical, however. He can and has healed on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6–11; 13:10–17).

The Jews of Jesus' time are bound by the law God gave Moses on Mount Sinai and which Moses wrote down. Several hundred years later, the southern kingdom of Judah sinned against God so egregiously that God allowed Babylon to take them into exile. Seventy years after their exile, they were released to return to Jerusalem. The religious lawyers—scribes—were so afraid that God would send them to exile again, they created the "rabbinic law" or Oral Law. These laws created significantly more detail about what—supposedly—the Mosaic laws meant. The scribes hoped that if the people observed their new rules very carefully, they wouldn't come close to breaking the Mosaic law. Jesus interprets these laws to be unreasonable, counter to what God intends for His people, and unfairly enforced (Luke 11:46).

Even the rabbinic laws were up for interpretation, however, and rabbis, scribes, and other religious leaders loved to debate the specifics: especially laws related to the definition of the "work" that the Mosaic law prohibited on the Sabbath. The scope of allowable medical care seems to have been a popular topic. For instance, it is okay to eat any type of food that healthy people eat on the Sabbath, even if it is also used to cure diseases, but not food that is exclusively used as a cure for a disease [Mishnah Shabbat 14.3–4].

After Jesus' time, rabbis eventually agreed that it is okay to treat a person to save a life because a dead person cannot worship God. But it is not okay to deliberately treat a chronic, non-life-threatening condition. Dropsy, although painful and debilitating, is not immediately fatal. Jesus is asking the Pharisees to stop and think. What would YHWH (Exodus 3:15) really say about this situation? Is He a gracious God who wishes to restore and heal His children? Or is He so wrapped up in the letter of the law that they should let the man continue to suffer?

The Pharisees refuse to answer. If they say that God would want them to follow the strict law, they reveal their religious practices are abusive and do not reflect a loving God. If they approve of healing on the Sabbath, they admit that Jesus is not breaking the Mosaic law, which would validate His ministry. Jesus points out that the fact they would rescue an ox or their son from a well proves their blatant hypocrisy (Luke 14:5).
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