What if one of you has a sheep and it falls into a deep hole on the Sabbath? Will he not take hold of it and lift it out? And a man is worth much more than a sheep! So then, our Law does allow us to help someone on the Sabbath. …..Stretch out your hand.
Immediately after the wheat-plucking incident (Day 113-115) Jesus goes into a synagogue where he meets a man with a paralyzed hand. It says that “some people wanted to accuse him of doing wrong,” so they asked him if it’s against the Law of Moses to heal people on the Sabbath.
The first thing that I notice here is that it isn’t religious leaders who are picking on Jesus here. It’s “some people.” I always envisioned Jesus as being this loveable guy who was persecuted by the authorities, but that’s not necessarily true. He was probably very intense. Jesus was scary and commanding and he probably made a lot of ordinary people uncomfortable. I know that when I get too intense people get uncomfortable and put me down (usually for good reason).
Second, the scripture doesn’t indicate that he was intending to do anything disruptive. The people challenged him and he rose to the occasion. He didn’t ignore them, he engaged them – but he didn’t start it.
Third, he uses the example of rescuing a sheep. It’s idle curiosity, but I wonder if animals were as important back then as they are now? I think a lot of people today like animals more than people. I notice it because I have dogs. Usually when I am walking the dogs and I run into someone they will greet the dogs before they greet me. It was the same in Chicago when I was crossing the street. Cars wouldn’t even slow down when I was alone, but they were very courteous when I had a dog. Everyone is respectful when there’s a dog involved. Maybe they didn’t care about sheep in an emotional way. Maybe Jesus uses a sheep in this example because they were valuable and he figured most people would risk incurring the wrath of God to rescue one. Well I’m just drifting all over the place here, so I need to get back to the substance of the scripture.
Why would healing be objectionable on the Sabbath? That makes no sense at all. Why shouldn’t people be healed on a holy day? Why wouldn’t healing be appropriate in a place where you go to meet with God? It absolutely makes no sense!! These people are absolutely unreasonable, right?
Once again, culture gap gets in the way of this scripture. The Jews have always had a very different idea about what “work” is when it comes to the Sabbath. Here’s a definition from that great website www.jewfaq.org:
Most Americans see the word “work” and think of it in the English sense of the word: physical labor and effort, or employment. Under this definition, turning on a light would be permitted, because it does not require effort, but a rabbi would not be permitted to lead Shabbat services, because leading services is his employment. Jewish law prohibits the former and permits the latter. Many Americans therefore conclude that Jewish law doesn’t make any sense.
The problem lies not in Jewish law, but in the definition that Americans are using. The Torah does not prohibit “work” in the 20th century English sense of the word. The Torah prohibits “melachah” (Mem-Lamed-Alef-Kaf-Hei), which is usually translated as “work,” but does not mean precisely the same thing as the English word. Before you can begin to understand the Shabbat restrictions, you must understand the word “melachah.”
Melachah generally refers to the kind of work that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment. The word may be related to “melekh” (king; Mem-Lamed-Kaf). The quintessential example of melachah is the work of creating the universe, which G-d ceased from on the seventh day. Note that G-d’s work did not require a great physical effort: he spoke, and it was done.
Under this definition, initiating healing by a spoken word or laying on of hands is definitely melachah, or work. It is a creative miracle when someone is healed. It is definitely an effort to control the environment and make a change in someone’s physical body. There would be nothing wrong with a spontaneous miracle but one that is initiated by human effort would be melachah.
Jesus believes that people have to use common sense on the Sabbath. They can’t always rely on the letter of the Law (See Day 22). They need to use their judgment, especially when someone is suffering. They need to learn to rely on the Holy Spirit to let them know what Father God would want them to do.
While Americans place great value on the individual, the Jews placed much greater value on the community. In Jewish society the individual life had little importance. Jesus always tried to elevate the importance of the individual because the Jewish perspective was out of balance. Today it seems like the community has no importance and it’s all about the individual or the family. It seems like we’ve gotten out of balance in the other direction.
So what happens in this scripture? Jesus speaks a word of healing to the man. He says, “Stretch out your hand” in violation of Sabbath Law by initiating a creative event. Then it says, “He stretched it out, and it became well again, just like the other one. Then the Pharisees left and made plans to kill Jesus.”
We can still debate about his actions today. I can understand why the Pharisees wanted to kill him. The penalty for violation of Sabbath Law was death. They thought it was their responsibility to obey the Law. What Jesus just did had serious consequences, and he knew it. But the Pharisees had a valid concern. They would point to some of the violations of the Law in the Old Testament that incurred the wrath of God, something that everyone wanted to avoid. For example:
Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, put live coals in it, added incense, and presented it to the Lord. But this fire was not holy, because the Lord had not commanded them to present it. Suddenly the Lord sent fire, and it burned them to death there in the presence of the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord was speaking about when he said, ‘All who serve me must respect my holiness; I will reveal my glory to my people.’ But Aaron remained silent (Leviticus 10:1-3).
There is also the story of King Saul, who failed to follow God’s instructions in the war with the Amalekites. As a result of his disobedience he loses his authority over the Kingdom of Israel:
Samuel said, “Which does the Lord prefer: obedience or offerings and sacrifices? It is better to obey him than to sacrifice the best sheep to him. Rebellion against him is as bad as witchcraft, and arrogance is as sinful as idolatry. Because you rejected the Lord’s command, he has rejected you as king.” (1 Samuel 15:22-23).
There are many stories about God punishing people for disobedience. Of course there are stories of entire cities being destroyed because of their disobedience. Jerusalem itself was destroyed for its disobedience (but it was rebuilt before the birth of Jesus). Disobedience and violation of the Law were serious matters indeed. That’s why the Pharisees and religious leaders felt it was imperative to obey the letter of the Law and punish offenders in the manner prescribed.
Jesus didn’t look at what he did as a violation of the Law. He saw it as a teachable moment. He wanted to teach these people to know that God created the Sabbath for the benefit of man. He wanted people to know that God wanted the man to be healed, that the man was important. He wanted the people to stop treating the Law like witchcraft or something and start using their common sense. After all, healing is a good thing and should always be welcomed.
The debate about obedience to the Law isn’t just a Jewish thing. Religious “liberals” and “conservatives” – both Jews and Christians – continue to debate about the role of the laws of God and the prophetic word of God that is continually streaming down as we struggle to figure out how to live our lives. But each of us has to figure out for ourselves what “Sabbath” and “rest” look like, and how these things should be “observed” and “remembered”.
For example, Jesus indicates in this scripture that healing isn’t “work.” Yet I have known many pastors who have worked themselves to death trying to heal the world. They are so self sacrificing that they never stop. Their marriages are destroyed and they never connect with their children. In their efforts to single-handedly save the world they eventually crash and burn. They suffer nervous breakdown, moral failure, physical collapse. They lose their faith. And congregations don’t mind using pastors up because they can always get a new one. Pastors need to protect themselves by creating their own Sabbath ritual that allows them to rest, reflect, and connect with God. A day off from healing. It’s important for everyone.
Balance. It’s always a balancing act. I guess balance is one of the things Jesus wanted to teach us. Balance, reason, common sense, individual differences, social milieu and a better understanding of the heart of God.
What does this scripture say to you?