Background Passages: Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-3:6; and Luke 6:1-12
I read another news account this week about the Baptist church in Kansas staging another protest to condemn with unholy words those they deem to be sinners responsible for the ruin of the world. Citing scripture. Calling names. Their views right. All others wrong. Compassion lost to the certainty of their conviction.
I don’t understand it. How can a people claiming to be of God miss so badly the spirit of God? How can they interpret scripture so strictly that they fail to see the hurt they inflict?
Their actions this week reminded me of a story from scripture. Journey with me to Capernaum.
He watched from the shadow of the alley between two homes as Jesus wound his way through the streets of Capernaum, a gathering crowd surrounding the healer and his closest friends. He darted from house to house, staying just ahead of Jesus, always in shadows cast by the rising sun. Unnoticed. That’s the way he liked it. When people noticed, they stared. When people noticed, they judged.
Without warning, someone grabbed his left arm startling the man. Dark brown eyes under bushy eyebrows, stared into his own. The elegant robe told him all he needed to know. A Pharisee. He recognized him as one of the priests from Jerusalem following in the footsteps of the healer for the past three weeks.
“Come with me,” commanded the priest, pulling him down the alley into deeper darkness. When alone, the priest looked at his withered right hand, dangling uselessly at the end of an arm lacking any strength. Nodding at his infirmity, how did that happen?
“I was kicked by a donkey eight years ago. I can no longer use my hand.”
“I have a proposition for you…” started the Pharisee as he explained his plan. Then, with a furtive glance and a smile that lacked sincerity, he slinked away.
Instructed to go to the synagogue where the healer would teach that morning, the man with the shriveled hand stood by the entrance to the white-stoned building near the market, waiting for Jesus. As Jesus approached, the man stepped out to greet him. “Rabbi, I am in need of your healing.” Words the Pharisee told him to speak.
Jesus smiled. Saw his hand. The need obvious, but sensing more to the story. “Why come to me?”
“I’ve seen what you can do,” said the man. Then, with a nervous glance inside at the Pharisees finding a seat in the crowded synagogue, “They told me you could heal me today.”
Jesus looked at the men who questioned his every move for weeks. “Did they now?”
The man, oblivious to the obvious, continued, “I need to provide for my family. I need to work. I want to work. If there is a chance…” His voice trailed off in all too familiar whisper of hopelessness.
Jesus looked into his eyes. Heart full of compassion. He threw his arm around him, glancing once more at the Pharisees. “Come on in. Find a seat. Let’s see what God will do today.”
Jesus walked to the front of the room. Sat down on the stone bench. Surveyed the packed room filled with the contrite, the curious and the condemning. The stage set for another lesson about the priorities of God.
Read the account of the man with the withered hand in three of the four gospels. The confrontation between the religious leaders and Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue started in the fields that morning on the way to worship. In the end, the Savior’s compassion was both rejected and received. It started as an ordinary Sabbath morning.
Jesus and his disciples rose that morning, intent upon going to the synagogue for the Sabbath time of teaching and worship. The local rabbi requested Jesus lead the discussion, a frequent occurrence early in his ministry.
For days, the Pharisees sent from Jerusalem tagged along everywhere Jesus went, hovering always on the edge of the crowd. Dipping in and out of the conversation when it suited them. Questioning his motives. Probing for answers. Checking Jesus’ words against their own rigid interpretation of scripture. Determined to find reasons to discredit his teaching. Hoping to turn the crowds against him.
As the disciples moved along the country path into the village, they walked along the edge of a wheat field. Through stalks of grain ripe for harvest. In the cool of the morning, they absentmindedly plucked heads of grain from the stalks. Rubbed their hands together to remove the husk from the kernels. Blew into their palms to separate the wheat from the chaff. Popped the morsels into their mouths. Hungry men on the way to church.
On any other day the action of the disciples would raise no eyebrow. Eating another man’s grain along the path was a standard of care for the hungry and weary traveler. But, today was the Sabbath. The Pharisees almost giggled in delight. They caught Jesus’ followers violating the strict rules of the Sabbath regarding work…harvesting, winnowing and preparing food.
They practically ran over the disciples in their haste to confront Jesus for this egregious violation. This blatant disregard for Sabbath law.
Jesus took the opportunity to teach, hoping his words would resonate. “Have you not read…” reminding them that David entered the Temple while under duress and took the consecrated bread in order to feed himself and his hungry men.
He quoted Hosea, “If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.”
As the debate ensued, Jesus silenced them. They stood with their mouths opening and closing like a fish out of water. No rebuttal. “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
The day cannot take precedent over human need. The law cannot substitute for mercy. This whole episode troubled Jesus. The conversation lingered in the Savior’s heart as he began to teach the lesson that day. A lesson about the priorities of God.
The same Pharisees who hassled Jesus during their walk into town laid their trap for him, taking advantage of a man’s disability for personal gain. Dangling him in front of Jesus. A worm on a hook. Begging Jesus to bite. To heal the man so they could challenge Jesus in a public setting about his contempt for the Sabbath.
Can’t you see the Pharisees fidgeting in their seats, waiting for Jesus to take their bait? When he didn’t immediately do so, one of them could no longer contain himself. Interrupting Jesus as he taught, he reminded Jesus of the episode in the grain field. He demanded to know. If, as you say, it’s permissible to harvest on the Sabbath… “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
From the moment he met the man with the withered hand outside the synagogue and heard his story, Jesus expected the question. “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!” The implication clear. “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Jesus waited for their response. Jesus expected the question. They didn’t expect that answer. So they sat, tight-lipped and tense.
It’s hard for 100 people to fall silent, but if a pin dropped in the sanctuary at that moment, everyone would hear it. All sat perfectly still. Only their eyes darted back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees, waiting for the next sandal to fall.
Jesus rose to his feet. Walked to the middle of the room. He looked for the man he met earlier by the door. He found him, sitting in the corner. Hiding behind the town’s burly blacksmith. The savior caught his eye. Motioned for him to come forward. A smile, warm with compassion. An invitation. Jesus stood behind him. Rested his hands on the man’s shoulders. “Stand here with me in front of everyone.” In front of these self-righteous men.
With fire in his eyes stoked by their hard hearts, Jesus bore into the soul of the Pharisees. Hear a heavy sigh in Jesus’ voice as he posed one last question, hoping to elicit a glimmer of understanding from their closed and locked hearts.
“Let me ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or destroy it?” To do the good I intend to do or the evil you’re now doing?
Every eye in the room drawn to the obvious. The misshapen and shriveled hand, hung uselessly at the man’s side.
In the silence of the Pharisees, more contempt. More condemnation.
Jesus looked toward heaven. Eyes closed. Let out a slow breath to purge his gut of the bile of disgust rising in his throat. When he spoke softly to the man, little more than a whisper in his ear. “Stretch out your hand.”
In the instant the man followed Jesus’ command, the muscle and tendons regained their strength. The gnarled, misshapen fingers relaxed. As he raised his hand in front of his face, his hand was completely restored. Strong and sound like the other. Healthy again. Productive again. The synagogue erupted in shouts of joy from the people gathered to worship.
In a huff unable to celebrate for a life made whole, the Pharisees stormed out to conspire with bitter enemies to plot the death of Jesus.
When you read these stories, we tend to look at them only as episodes chronicling the growing confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders. If that were all it was, I’m not sure all three gospels would have carried an account of the story. There is a deeper, richer lesson waiting to be learned and it starts with the verse quoted by Jesus from Hosea, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Jesus told the Pharisees, “If you understood what these words mean…” Well, what do they mean? Mercy trumps sacrifice. Compassion trumps dogma. The Pharisees clung so tightly to their “truth” they failed to recognize the need in front of them. Their strict adherence to law served as blinders to the suffering of those around them. We cannot and must not hold our “truth” so tightly that we dismiss how valuable another human being is to God.
Through these two vignettes Jesus suggests that we cannot place every jot and tittle of scripture over our call to serve, care for and forgive. Feed the hungry. Tend to the infirmed.
Think about it. Jesus didn’t dishonor the Sabbath. He was there every Sunday. (If you don’t see the irony of that statement, maybe that’s the problem.) Jesus sat aside the Sabbath as a day of worship to God the Father. As natural to him as breathing, but not if it meant ignoring a need.
We tend to cherry pick our Sabbaths. Taking things out of context without applying the whole of Jesus’ teachings. We cannot condone sin, but, by nature of our own sin, we are also disqualified to judge it in others.
Jesus met the woman caught in the act of adultery by another group of Pharisees. Jesus asked them to reflect upon their own sin. When her accusers faded away in the reality of Jesus’ question, he told her. “Neither do I condemn you…go and sin no more.” Rather than exclude, Jesus chose to love and teach.
Is it possible the social issues of our day have become our Sabbath law? The eating of the grain. The man with the shriveled hand. Depending on your personal beliefs, consider them the ancient equivalent of our attitudes toward whomever we deem undesirable. The Liberal. The Conservative. The Gay. The Transgender. The Straight. The Black. The White. The Brown. The Rich. The Poor. The Gun Owner. The Unarmed. Consider them anyone on whom we pass judgment. Anyone we point to in disdain while channeling our inner Pharisee.
Those in whom we easily see the sawdust in their eye while disregarding the 2 x 4 jutting from our own. Judgment is the easy way. Loving is the hard way. I’m too often guilty of taking the easy way.
If we are to live as the image of God, if we are to be like Christ, we cannot declare our “truth” or value “being right” more than we value lifting our hands to help the broken, the hurting or the drifting. As soon as we do so we lose the heart and spirit of Jesus. For him, it was always truth and right grounded in love. But always love.
In the story, the Pharisees never see themselves as a soiled robe in need of a good scrub. They see themselves as a garment already cleansed by their strict obedience to the law…in need of nothing else…now or ever.
Here’s the really sad thing about these stories. The Pharisees never doubted that Jesus could heal the man. They begged him to do it. Knew he would. They recognized in him God’s sufficient and amazing power and gift of healing. They never questioned his ability to heal, only his timing that broke a rule they created to set them apart from others. Staring them in the face was the chance to join with the Son of God and they could not comprehend it.
Never doubt for a moment that God loves the Liberal and Conservative. The Gay. The Transgender. The Straight. The Black. The White. The Brown. The Rich. The Poor. The Gun Owner. The Unarmed. Let us escape the confinement of our entrenched Pharisaical truths.
Jesus calls us to love. Jesus calls us to serve. This week let’s reach out to the hungry heart and the shriveled soul. It is always lawful to do good.