Jesus entered a synagogue
and a man who had a withered hand was there.
Mark says that some of the Pharisees
who had been trailing behind Jesus were there too,
and they watched to see if he would cure the man on the sabbath.
There were differences in the way teachers, and religious sects,
and ordinary Jews interpreted and followed the law—
probably differences even in what they understood the precise words of the law to be.
What you could or couldn’t do on the sabbath
was a very live question in Jesus’ time.
But work was out.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work…
but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;
The voice of God sounded the law
to the people in the desert at Sinai,
saying that the sabbath
is patterned into all life
from its very creation in the beginning:
“in six days the Lord made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day
and consecrated it.”
So the sabbath was given
as a way of living in response to God’s way of creating,
and God’s way of being with creation.
Sabbath is the day of delighting with God
in the goodness of creation’s turning
and growing and flourishing.
And if God could rest, so must God’s laboring creatures—
rest from their busy making and trust the ceaseless work of God
to sustain everything with enough.
When Deuteronomy narrates how Moses
spoke the law on behalf of God,
he commands that “you shall not do any work.
You, or your son or your daughter,
or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey,
or any of your livestock,
or the resident alien in your towns,
so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
So the sabbath was also given as a way of remembering that God is a liberating God, and that the people who were slaves once in Egypt, who now have people in their power cannot forget that God is still and always a liberating God. The sabbath is meant to restore peoples’ vision. Sabbath reveals and reminds of God’s intentions in creation.
The sabbath is near the heart of Israel’s identity as people made and claimed and liberated and accompanied by God. Following the commandment faithfully was what it meant to live as God’s people.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised
that how to behave on the sabbath was a matter of vital importance.
And we shouldn’t be surprised that the sabbath commandment came with teeth; Moses declares that anyone who works on the sabbath is should be put to death (and right down to the time of Jesus, Jewish writings suggest throwing the book at violators of the sabbath).
Here’s the thing: the Torah isn’t explicit about what work is.
That had to be figured out, and you wanted to err on the side of caution.
But when it came to the practices of healing,
there was a big interpretive problem—
The God-given law absolutely forbade work
on the day of sabbath rest for the sake of life.
Life was God-breathed and precious.
It was also precarious; Sheol was near. Sickness—
and who could say with certainty what sickness—threatened it.
So, could a person heal the sick on the sabbath?
Though some teachers held that you could intervene if death threatened, the broad answer was no.
So, here is a man in the synagogue.
He has a hand that doesn’t function.
There have been people crowding to Jesus’ seeking healing;
they cut holes in roofs; they grasp at him,
challenge him—demanding that he act for them.
And maybe the man with the withered hand
also hopes Jesus will heal him too,
but he doesn’t seem to have come to the synagogue to be made well—
he’s just part of the assembly,
in the synagogue because its the sabbath.
But the pharisees notice him.
They wonder if Jesus will notice him too,
both because he’s becoming famous as a healer,
and because they’ve just watched his disciples
picking grain on the sabbath,
which is work by anybody’s definition.
Challenged, Jesus claimed authority over the sabbath
to set aside a sabbath prohibition.
They were not impressed.
So now, the man with the withered hand becomes,
for them, an opportunity to find out just how
liberally Jesus will behave.
They look at him, and they see a useful trap.
Jesus does see him, and sees his hand.
He tells him to stand up in the midst of the crowd.
Jesus knows he’s being watched,
so before he does what he’s going do,
he challenges the watchers:
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath,
to save life or to kill?”
That’s not really a question.
Nobody thinks its lawful to do harm on the sabbath.
Jesus is doing two things at once.
He’s pointing at the pharisees
and saying that they are standing here
in the synagogue on the sabbath
meaning to find a way to harm him.
And Jesus claims that what he is about to do is saving life.
Now most people probably wouldn’t have seen it that way.
The man could have waited until the sabbath was over.
His life isn’t in danger;
his hand has probably been like this for a long time;
maybe it has always been like this.
To heal on the sabbath was work.
But Jesus is revealing what the healing—
what all his healings—are about:
the restoration of people to the fullness of life.
And Jesus is here now,
in whatever synagogue he’s walked into,
and the man is here.
And, yes, its the sabbath.
The men watching him are silent.
And Jesus gets angry.
I don’t think he’s angry
because they interpret the law against work on the sabbath
in a way that he rejects as cruel.
He’s astonished and brokenhearted
that they cannot find it in themselves
to hope that some newness has broken in,
some rupture in the possible.
The someone of remarkable power
is standing in their very midst
and they cannot hope that the one with authority over the sabbath
will make this man fully alive.
To hope, even secretly, that even if the law is the law,
that Jesus will heal him anyway,
for the man’s sake.
They fail to love.
This is a story about the longings of the heart,
and the ones who get lost here, fail because their compassion fails.
They can’t see the man as a man with pain and hopes and dignity and potential,
and desire the good for him.
I’m not at all sure
that what we see here is a conflict between legalism and freedom,
or between conservative and liberal interpretations of the law,
or Jesus radically setting the law aside.
The law is good and a gift.
The law gives moral shape to the world.
And love is the highest commandment.
Jesus is teaching that the law is a grammar for love,
and sometimes love exceeds the capacity
of that grammar’s rules to express it.
And sometimes that is going to lead us into a woods, a wilderness,
where we don’t know how to hold the law and live out love.
But we are called to that sojourn.
And if we can’t keep our hearts awake in those places,
and be confused and disoriented by the conflict,
we’re usually going to solve our crisis by denying
the dignity and full humanity of the people involved.
The Lord we follow shows us to a better, and a harder way of that–a way of compassion that must be our way as we are changed into his likeness.