On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And 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 were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. (Luke 6:8-11)
Every time I read the second line of this account (And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.”) there is a part of me that feels compelled to ask, “Really guys? Is that what you are going with? Accusing him for healing on the Sabbath? Is that really all you have?
Of course the real issue is not the healing itself, but the breaking of the laws that regulated what activities (and how much of them) were permissible on the Sabbath, but that just makes the question all the more salient—because what is the point of the Law if it is not ultimately to provide for and protect man’s wellbeing? What kind of law regulates against an act of mercy towards someone who has long suffered simply because it is a specific day of the week? The answer is one that is, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, cruel.
This, unfortunately, is the impression that most people have of the God’s Law, particularly as it is articulated in the Old Testament—that it was/is based on rules and conventions that are, at best, arbitrary and insensitive to the needs and experiences of people and, in some cases, are even cruel. Are not the Pharisees, then, simply the logical outworking of the God we see in the Old Testament and the rules he had established for his people? And did Jesus not come to do away with this type of hyper-focus on and obedience to the law?
The short answer to both of these questions is actually no, which may surprise many. We often take for granted the idea that the God of the Old Testament is the angry God of law and commandments and that Jesus came bring grace, but in fact this is false dichotomy based on a misunderstanding (and unfamiliarity) with the law as it is presented in the Old Testament. Far from than being a source of oppression and repression, the Law was actually a source of dignity, protection and provision for the most vulnerable in society, many of whom would have been forgotten, oppressed, likely persecuted in other cultures at the time. The Law was not the outworking of an angry or arbitrary God who wished to impose regulations on his people simply for the sake of controlling them; it was the outpouring of a loving and merciful God who cares for the dignity and wellbeing of all persons, in order that they might know his heart and reflect that heart to one another and the world around them.
This is what is at the heart of today’s story and, indeed, this whole section of Luke leading up to and including the Beatitudes: a revelation of the heart of God that has always been present in the Law, but that is now preeminently manifested in the person of Christ and in his teachings. Jesus is not to be pitted against the God of the Old Testament for he is incarnation of that same God. In his own words, those who have seen him and know him, have seen and know the father.
This is why his challenge to the Pharisees and Scribes does not tell them that the Law is obsolete or has now been abrogated by the one who just declared himself to be “Lord of the Sabbath”. Rather he challenges them on their interpretation of it: is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or destroy it?” One gets the sense that the answer to his question was self-evident to all those around him—obviously it was lawful to do good and to save a life on the Sabbath, or any day for that matter—which is why there is no recorded answer other than fury on the part of those whom he challenged.
However Jesus’ question to the Pharisees and Scribes serves not only as a challenge to those present, but also to us who, likewise, are called to know and reflect the heart of God to one another and in the world around us. Notice that he leaves no room for a middle ground: one either does good or does harm; one either saves a life or destroys it—and this in reference to a man whose condition was not life-threatening or even necessarily urgent. The uncomfortable truth with which we are confronted in this is that, in the face of suffering and human need, there is no neutral position. We either do good or we do harm; we either save a life or we destroy it—and the decision we make in this matter is the ultimate reflection of whether or not we have understood the heart of God’s law and are obedient to it.
Jesus himself said that he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it, which he did not only in his observation of its specific regulations, but also (and supremely) in the life he lived and the death he died. It was a life entirely oriented toward healing, love, and mercy. And we who are his disciples are, likewise, called to reflect that same heart—through our obedience in holiness, but also through our acts of love and mercy to the world around us.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.