Healing the Sabbath

Both Matthew, in 12:9-14 and Mark, in 3:1-6 (and Luke 6:6-11 when we get there) record Jesus entering the synagogue on the Sabbath and noticing a man there with a withered hand. Jesus calls the man to him and then asks the men in the synagogue a question about the Law (see the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:8-11 - “Remember the Sabbath day… the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work…”). Jesus asks, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?”

Jesus is confronting the religious leaders of Israel with an object lesson in how they have distorted and corrupted the Law. What does it mean to do no “work?” Could anyone who knows the loving and merciful nature of God possibly answer anything other than “Of course it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath!” But the religious leaders couldn’t say that. They are sitting there reciting Exodus 20:8-11 in their minds. The answer according to the Law is obvious to them, they can quote it - do no work on the Sabbath! But now they are faced with a choice that exposes how their way of understanding and using the Law is both wrong and destructive. They believe there is a choice between obedience and mercy, a choice between honoring God’s truth and demonstrating God’s love to people - but the Law never requires that choice. So they couldn’t say anything. They were trapped in their convictions about the Law and they weren’t about to be pried out of them - even at the expense of a man’s health, or a person’s life.

Mark says Jesus “looked around at them in anger.” Luke says the Pharisees were furious with Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say the Pharisees went out and started planning to destroy Jesus.

It is obvious that Jesus knows the answer to the question is yes, he heals the man’s arm. But why is everyone angry? Why is this such a huge bone of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees? And why do we need to carefully and honestly reflect on Jesus’ question for ourselves?

Jesus came in grace and truth. Jesus doesn’t set aside the law but he graciously fulfills the law. Jesus reveals to us in flesh and bone what it looks like to live a life where God’s law and God’s love are in perfect harmony.

The minute we break the harmony between law and love we get in trouble. If we choose law over love (like the Pharisees did) we can harden our hearts to the needs and struggles of others. We can quote verses at them like throwing stones of condemnation, without caring about their soul or body. And, we tend to fall to the temptation to leverage God’s law for our benefit: power, prestige, image (like the Pharisees did).

But, if we neglect the law and just choose “love,” perhaps the way our culture currently defines love, we have no basis to act against sin or to encourage obedience to the law. People destroy themselves while we “lovingly” accept their destructive behavior.

The reason Jesus’ question is as good for us as for the Pharisees is we face the same tension between law and love all the time. It is always easier to do one without the other, always. To live out the wisdom and tension of law and love is expensive. Insisting on God’s truth can cost us relationships. Demonstrating God’s love costs us time and money.

Jesus’ crucifixion shows us that the more fully we live into the perfect unity of God’s law and love the more expensive it gets, but that is exactly what we are called to do.

Jesus was so angry because the people who supposedly knew and loved God’s law most had ripped God’s heart out of it. They were callous and uncaring, and in the synagogue that Sabbath day they were convicted but unrepentant.

Jesus is “healing the Sabbath” by healing on the Sabbath.