To understand what the Pharisees are so upset about in our lesson today, we have to talk about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a day when people are supposed to rest, but it was more than just a strong encouragement. The Jews were forbidden to do any work on the Sabbath. All of the food had to be prepared ahead of time. You could only pick up very light things. You had to count your steps and stay under a certain number in order to meet the requirements of the law.
So what concerns the Pharisees in the first part of this passage is the fact that Jesus and the disciples are traveling and gleaning on the sabbath. They should have stayed put and prepared their snacks on the previous day. To the Pharisees, this behavior appears to deliberately neglect the mandate to observe the sabbath and keep it holy.
There is some sense that they were following Jesus and the disciples, just waiting to catch them doing wrong. Indeed, the the second part of the passage, when the Pharisees "watched"Jesus, the word literally translates to "lie in wait for."
In their practice here and elsewhere in the Gospels, we see the Pharisees using Scripture like a whip – a weapon which maintains their own power and coerces the obedience of all who cannot wield it. They know the letter of the law far better than most people and they use it to catch people out and get them in trouble.
So Jesus therefore offers a legal opinion, one he derives from scripture itself. He contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate the arrival of divine blessings.
In fact, when he notes that the purpose of the sabbath has always been to serve people, he is essentially restating Deuteronomy 5, in which God institutes the sabbath so a people who once toiled in slavery can forever enjoy at least a modicum of rest. Rabbinic traditions before and after Jesus’ time expressed opinions similar to his words here, including: "The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it"and "Profane one Sabbath for a person’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths."The proper function of the sabbath is to promote life, allow for rest and to extol God as a liberator. This is not a new concept for the people listening to Jesus.
Richard Hays writes, "This implies that the law’s fundamental aim of promoting human wholeness and flourishing can in some instances override its ritual prohibitions. This is certainly not a negation of the law; rather, it is an argument profoundly respectful of the law’s own inner logic, an argument that operates within well-established Jewish hermeneutical precedent”
There are times when the Bible contradicts itself, and rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries are left having to choose what is most important, which law to follow in essence. What Jesus does here is another choosing what mattered more: the law of the Sabbath, or the healing of the suffering. Throughout his ministry, over and over again Jesus chooses the path that is closest to the law he calls the greatest. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. If another law prevents that from happening, it is the other law that should give way.
The Sabbath is at the heart of the Jewish tradition, it is ordained by God and so very important. But, even as we honor the day of rest, we need to be flexible. Human need supersedes religious prescription.
Perhaps, in the timing of life, this is the only moment the man with a withered arm can be restored to wholeness. Jesus and the man may never meet again, and now is the moment of healing. Jesus challenges the hardness of heart of those who want Jesus to put religious ritual over the well-being of another person. Our rules and practices, even those emerging from scripture, are treasures but in earthen vessels and subject to modification and transformation when new possibilities emerge. Jesus the healer places his calling ahead of human religious rituals. God’s healing vision must come first, the wholeness of people and communities must come first, ahead of religious doctrine and practice.
Even as this passage emphasizes a commitment to life and vitality abiding at the heart of God’s reign, it also illustrates how religious commitments and values, any religious commitments and values, can turn oppressive in the hands of careless stewards. A bad religious leader can turn the law of scripture against the law of God. An oppressive interpretation can actually drive people away from the Kingdom of God rather than bringing people closer.
For the Pharisees, the tragedy of using Scripture like a whip goes two-ways, a whip enslaves the one who whips as well as the one who is whipped. An old adage comes to mind: to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When Scripture is a whip, everyone else is subject to a whipping. When we view Scripture as a whip, it literally changes how we see the world. When we see behavior that goes against the law of Scripture, we lash out. When we see people who don’t look holy, we lash out. The Pharisees lashed out at Jesus and missed the point of the Sabbath.
Because the Sabbath is meant to be a good thing! Refreshment of both body and soul was so important to God that he called it Sabbath, and blessed such time by stamping it "holy." Rest is holy. Renewal is essential and sacred for continued alertness and good attitude. In a culture that prides itself on doing more and always being busy, the Sabbath is desperately needed.
We break God's law when we deprive ourselves of such opportunities for renewal and the healing power of time off. In no way is Jesus trying to undo the Sabbath, and in fact, scripture is full of instances of him taking his own Sabbath time, withdrawing from the crowds and the disciples to be alone.
What Jesus demonstrates here is that honoring the Sabbath is not simply about religious observance. Instead, it is about living in a way that participates with our Creator in promoting and preserving life. Doing good. Saving life. Restoring wellness. These are the actions and activities of a faithful believer. And these are actions and activities appropriate for a day set aside to honor the God who created us, and who works through us to nurture this created world.
So the real question is, what do you do for the Sabbath? Do you always take your day of rest without fail and let nothing come in the way? Maybe it’s time to keep your mind open and listen for needs of others that might come up on that day. Or are you like most of the world and an entire day of rest sounds like a luxury? Maybe it’s time to carve out some time for rest and renewal in your life so that you can live into your best self.
Jesus tells us that the Sabbath is created for us, so let us accept and enjoy this good gift that God has given us, without losing the meaning behind it. Rest, and live as God calls us to. Amen.