On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” And he got up and came forward. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” After looking around at them all, He said to him, “Stretch out your hand!” And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:6-11 NASB)
This account closely follows another which takes place in fields where Jesus’ disciples are picking, rubbing and eating heads of the grain as they go. There Jesus says that the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath. It’s a cryptic statement in which Jesus asserts His deity, but does so within the context of the Sabbath. But this account is very different.
Sabbath Keeping in First Century Jewish Culture
In this account Jesus is addressing directly the legal issues which have arisen around the law of the Sabbath. This is a huge cultural issue for the Jewish people, particularly in light of their history with the Maccabean Revolt. In that revolt, a conscious decision was made to defend themselves on the Sabbath. They had been slaughtered on the Sabbath, and their enemies were using their faithful adherence to the practice against them. It was one of the most public and obvious practices that distinguished a Jew from their Gentile community in that Roman period.
Sabbath Keeping to Jesus
Sabbath keeping had completely captivated the discussions among the religious leaders, and there was hot debate over the tiniest details in interpretation. But Jesus had already demonstrated a very public and noted disregard for the importance placed on this issue by the religious leaders. He had, previously in Chapter 4, healed and cast out demons on the Sabbath, right in the Synagogue. Teachers began to take note of this young upstart, and found that He was nonconformist, but radically nonconformist.
Sabbath Keeping to Pharisees
This, in and of itself, wasn’t what bothered the Pharisees. They were considered fairly radical in their day with their belief in the existence of angels, demons, heaven, and hell, and so on. They pushed the boundaries of religious thought and belief as well. But on this particular point they were not only dogmatic, but Sabbath keeping was personal issue with them. Honestly, I’m not sure why. I suspect it had to do with a perception of holiness, and what delineated Jew from Gentile, but I haven’t looked into it deeply enough to know more.
But what is clear is that the Pharisees were so annoyed with Jesus they were ready to work with their political adversaries to bring Him down (see the account in Mark 2). They knew that people were more important than things. They knew that the life of a person was valuable to God. It wasn’t as if Jesus was pointing out something they didn’t know. It was that He was refusing to enter into the debate with them on one of their sides or the other. He chose a side no one was on. They knew He would too. They setup the scene to trap Him. They probably even knew it was a poor trap. But what could they do?
Violating the Sabbath and Getting Away With It
In another account, Jesus heals and the Synagogue leader puts the issue off on the people to come and be healed on other days besides the Sabbath. Jesus sees no problem in doing good for others on a day set aside for rest. But what I also see is that He does not dispute their understanding of law itself, just their application of it. Jesus seems to agree that He violates the Sabbath, but what He is saying is that His violation shouldn’t be a problem.
In Mark’s version of the account just prior to this Jesus brings up how the priests on duty in the temple violate the Sabbath and yet are innocent. Jesus’ point is that the Pharisees already know that there are problems with their application of the Sabbath laws. He points out that they are focused on the wrong thing, but they cannot let go of their favorite bone of contention.
What Is Sabbath Keeping Today?
Focusing on the wrong thing is one of my special talents. I do it in arguments with my daughter. I practice it at church, at work, with believers and nonbelievers. I seem to really enjoy divergent points of view, but I also seem to really enjoy getting worked up over some of these points of view. I think that one very obvious point Jesus is making with the Pharisees here is how wrong this is, and how damaging it is to our usefulness in God’s Kingdom.
Why get so focused on something that has little to do with our acceptance before God? When God instituted the Sabbath in Genesis, He did so as a blessing to His human creation. What it became was a huge issue that marked those within the community and excluded those outside. It was as if Sabbath keeping became the single most important practice among the Jewish community. If they were asked point-blank whether it was or not, most would have answered, no. But they couldn’t let it go.
Practicing Jesus’ Approach In Our Churches
We do that in our churches and among groups of believers. We focus on looks, speech, practices, and so on. For instance, if we focus on tithing we seem to ignore that problems with tithing stem from neglect of the greatest commandment to love God with all our heart, heart, mind, and strength. If we did love God that way, a tithe would be a nice place to start, not a limit to aspire to.
In a similar way we can point out choice of music in worship rather than the heart of the worshiper. We can focus on terms used for prayer rather than the heart with which we pray. We can deride differences in dress rather than the abandonment to God in worship. When we are distracted by such things as music, terms, dress, and so on, we are distracted from focus on Jesus, His work on the cross, and His Spirit living within us. When we are focused on our finances to the detriment of our giving, we set our money in the place of worship which God deserves and desires.
All these wrong focuses are solved in loving God with all we are. It’s where I struggle. If my Master was as important to me as He should be, my choices in how I address my clients, my daughter, my fellow believers, and my neighbors would probably be different. If my love for my Master was higher, I wouldn’t focus on what people say so much as what they mean. I would probably be better able to hear their heart rather than their mind.
How To Approach Life Differently
But I don’t. I worry about what I sound like to others. I’m concerned that others speak and believe correctly (at least what I think is correct). I fear that others do not view Scripture as high as they should. And in all these fears I take on roles reserved for my Master rather my role as His servant. I don’t advise this as an approach to life. There’s a much better alternative.
Instead of focusing on what others think, I can focus on my Master and what He thinks. Then I can let what I learn about what my Master thinks influence my actions and desires. This radically changes how I interact with people. I would be much more open to the hearts of people and less interested in their specific wording or practice. I would let their wording and practice be the clues to their heart, not the overriding issue.
That’s a great idea. Now, where do I start…
What’s your view through the knothole?