“The people were observing him carefully” (Luke 14:1).
The confrontation in today’s Gospel passage between Jesus and the scholars of the Law over what was allowable activity on the Sabbath is a familiar “fulfillment” theme in the Christian scriptures.
Jesus was a Jew among his brother Jews, and we should assume that everyone present at the dinner in the home of one of the leading Pharisees knew the nuances of the law. So we should also suspect that there is some deliberate theater injected into Luke’s account, probably written in the 80s, when accusations that Jesus was a lawbreaker were being thrown at the still mostly Jewish converts to Christianity.
Jewish law restricts 39 types of activity on the Sabbath, the day of rest to honor the Creator, who rested on the seventh day. Most of these activities relate to farm work, food, fabric and animal production. The Sabbath was a boon to workers, restricted from labor and free to perform spiritual duties one day a week.
In Luke, a man suffering from dropsy—the swelling of the body from fluid accumulation—is oddly present at the dinner party, positioned right in front of Jesus. It is a test. Will Jesus cure the man on the Sabbath? He does heal the man, and justifies it based on the exception to Sabbath law that permitted a farmer to rescue an animal or child from a cistern.
It is a common-sense action and, in fact, the Sabbath law says: “In the event that a human life is in danger, a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Shabbat law that stands in the way of saving that person. The concept of life being in danger is interpreted broadly: for example, it is mandated that one violate Shabbat to take a woman in active labor to a hospital” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activities_prohibited_on_Shabbat#Saving_of_...).
So what is going on here? The scribes and Pharisees are being depicted by the evangelists as ignorant of the law and malicious in their intent to trap Jesus, who, in contrast to their narrow literalism, actually fulfills the spirit of the law, which is to always show compassion.
The Gospels were written for Christians, and how thrilled we are to see Jesus triumph over his enemies. Yet, a discerning reader of even our own New Testament must be wary of the often less than subtle biases against Judaism that have fueled such a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism. Jesus was a Jew and loved both the law and his brother and sister Jews. The only fulfillment that really matters is the fulfillment of the law of love, then and now.