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Restoring the Sabbath Rest - Part 2
Jesus' Compassionate Reply, “Is it not lawful?”
In Luke 6:1 the phrase “On another sabbath” serves as a bookend that holds the previous Sabbath story and the following sabbath story side by side. On the “one sabbath,” the scribes and the Pharisees find Jesus’ disciples guilty of ‘eating grain’ in the grainfields. And on this “other sabbath,” they find Jesus himself guilty of ‘saving life’ in the synagogue. In Luke 6:6-8 we read:
On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.”
The religious leaders may have been watching Jesus closely whether he would cure the man who had a withered hand on the sabbath. They didn’t realize that Jesus was listening to the thoughts and intentions of their hearts. This was the second instance where the text tells us that Jesus knew what they were thinking (cf. Lk 5:22).
The Lord Of The Sabbath
Jesus identified himself as the ‘lord of the sabbath’ in a previous sabbath. In this passage, his behavior is as can be expected in that in Capernaum “he entered the synagogue and taught.” But now there is an element of uncertainty in the sabbath mix. Jesus’ detractors are aware that he has placed himself above the sabbath. They wait in the wings to see how this self-proclaimed ‘lord of the sabbath’ will respond to the needs of a man whose right hand was withered. Now there were two prevailing Jewish schools of thought in regard to the interpretation of the sabbath observance. The school of Shammai, the stricter position was practiced in Jerusalem while the school of Hillel with their more lenient view was the accepted practice in Galilee. This view of Hillel held to the rule that only in such extreme cases in which a man’s life was actually in danger would it be permissible to heal him on the sabbath.[i] Will Jesus dare to oppose this widely endorsed sabbath rule? Didn’t he know that violating this rule would give his critics grounds to bring formal charges against him? Couldn’t he just wait and heal this man on the following day? After all, the man’s life wasn’t in any danger.
Jesus described himself as the ‘lord of the sabbath’ in his last encounter with the scribes and the Pharisees. And on this sabbath day, a demonstration of what that meant was in order. In verse 9 Jesus asks them a question that is has the obvious answer built into it, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”
The Purpose of the Sabbath
In God’s view, a refusal to do good is to do evil—“good omitted is evil committed.”[ii] Let’s say that you’re walking along the road and you happen to bump into a person who is in dire need of your help. Further more, it is in your power to come to this person’s aid. If you ignore this person’s plea you are refusing to do good. Your refusal ‘to do good’ leaves this person in harm’s way. The good that you withhold, is an evil untold. The priest who was going down that road saw a man who was robbed, stripped, beaten and left for dead and passed on the other side of the road. The Levite did likewise (Lk 10:31-32). But on Jesus’ roadmap there is no middle ground. If your neighbor’s needs go unmet, be it on a sabbath day or any given day of the week, you have just stepped into your own doom’s day. A refusal to ‘move with pity’ or show mercy is a declaration of one’s damnation.[iii]
Jesus likewise, returned the look of his critics who watched him with an evil intent. They weren’t going to get off easy. If he was teaching in the synagogue, this was going to be a hard lesson for them to swallow. In fact, he has the man with the withered hand stand before him for all to see. In verse 10 Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored.
Jesus chose to do good and not harm. He chose to save life, to restore the man’s withered hand and not destroy it. If Jesus was filled with compassion, the scribes and the Pharisees in verse 11 were “filled with fury.” If Jesus chose to openly save life, they chose to conspire against him, how they might secretly destroy his life (Mk 3:6). Those were their true thoughts and intentions. These religious leaders harbored murder in their hearts. And they knew that the sixth commandment says, “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). Matthew 5:21, 27-28, cautions us that if we even think of murdering our brother or sister in our hearts we’re just as guilty as having already committed the sin. 1 John 3:15 warns us, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers.” The scribes and the Pharisees may have been trying to find condemning evidence to destroy Jesus but didn’t realize that they were the ones who stood guilty as charged.
There’s the story about a Chinese holy man.[iv] He was very poor and living in a remote part of China. Somehow, he came to love God and made a vow to worship him all the days of his life. As poor as he was, he understood that worship involves some sacrifice on our part. Although he was in short supply of food, he put a bowl of rice and fish up on the windowsill as an offering to God. As he would do this everyday before prayer time, he noticed his cat would come along and eat the steamed rice and fish. To remedy this, he tied the cat to the bedpost each day before prayer time. The problem was solved permanently.
In time this holy man who was held in high honor for his faithfulness gained a following of disciples who worshiped God as he did. Generations later, long after the holy man was dead, his followers would likewise offer up to God a bowl of rice and fish on the windowsill before their prayer time. Furthermore, each disciple bought a cat and tied it to the bedpost. After all, it was part of the honored ritual and it was a practice worth preserving.
In time they would get into endless discussions and debates whether the rice should be steamed or served raw. Were they to use long grain rice, brown rice, or Uncle Ben’s instant rice? Or could you even use ready-made rice cakes instead of going through the tedious process of cooking the rice? What type of fish was proper for this practice? Should it be fried, broiled or baked? Was the cat supposed to be color black, white or possibly a mixture of both? Could a dog be used in place of a cat? And what on earth should we use to tie the animal down? Was a leather leash with a gold-studded chocker acceptable to God or should we use a hand-woven rope of virgin hemp to do the job? That is how tradition is created!
The Gift of the Sabbath
The tragedy was that the true meaning of the sabbath in Jesus’ day was ‘lost in translation.’ In Mark 2:27 Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” It was never meant to be the other way around. Therefore Jesus, the lord of the sabbath, went straight to the heart of the sabbath worship. He set aside their restrictive ways and in an authoritative way restored not only the man’s withered hand from a state of distress but the sabbath’s divine purpose, as God’s intended gift to humankind,[v] from a state of distortion.
God has gifted us with one special day in the week when in faith we come together as a restored family of brothers and sisters. He not only promises to be with us but also empowers us with a dunamis power. It is from the word dunamis that we get the word dynamite. But this is not a power as we know dynamite to be: a power that blows things apart and destroys things completely. Rather dunamis’ true meaning is a power that convicts people of sin, heals all diseases, and changes lives from the inside out. The dunamis power of the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and showers us with God’s blessing. Why it is the very power that raised Jesus, the greater Son of David, the Son of Man, the lord of the sabbath, from the dead. It is on this special day that we can come together as one body to experience this dunamis power, this resurrection power. A power that does not do harm but good. A power that does not destroy life but saves life. A power that recreates, restores and makes all things new. And God makes this resurrection power available to his church on the seventh day that we may find true rest in Him.
[i] William Hendricksen, New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 321.
[ii] Hughes, 202. Hughes quotes Godet’s Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 292.
[iv] Bruce Larson. The Communicator’s Commentary Series: Luke. Vol. 3. (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1983), 117. I adapted the story illustration of the author and took the liberty to add some minor changes in order to give it a more oriental flavor.
[v] John Nolland, Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 9:21-18:34. vol. 35b. (Dallas: Word Books Publisher, 1993), 258.
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
- Restoring the Sabbath Rest - Part 1
One Sunday morning, a mother went in to wake her son and tell him it was time to get ready for church. He replied, “I’m not going.” “Why not?” she asked. “I’ll give you two good reasons,”...
This highly original commentary, part of the New International Commentary, is unique for the way it combines concerns with first-century culture in the Roman world with understanding the text of Luke as a wholistic, historical narrative.
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