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Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?
The notion of ‘Sabbath’ and how we engage with that divine gift and blessing is very important to Jesus. This is why we move from yesterday’s reading with Jesus’ disciples picking and eating ears of corn, into Jesus himself performing a work of healing on the Sabbath, and in the synagogue. Yesterday we paused to reflect upon God’s fourth commandment to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20.8), and today we find Jesus himself being accused of ignoring that very commandment.
As I began preparing this reflection I came across a reference to a newspaper cartoon of about fifty years ago. In that cartoon and anxious father is telling his daughter that she must not play in the street on a Sunday. Instead, he tells her to play in the back garden. In response to this ‘odd’ instruction, the girl asks: ‘Why? Isn’t it Sunday in the back garden?’ This humorous comment on rigidly blind observance of the Sabbath get to the very heart of today’s reading.
Today we come across one of those rare moments in the gospel narrative when we are told of Jesus’ very human emotional response to the self-made ‘rules’ of the religious leaders. Jesus was angry, and it is not difficult to see why he was angry. As he entered the synagogue he saw a disabled man. We may not see the disability of a withered hand as being life threatening but, in those times, it could have had a serious impact on that man’s ability to live a ‘normal’ life. Jesus had pity for the man, and he recognized the desire of the religious leaders to find an excuse for discrediting him. Jesus knew that he was being judged for showing compassion rather than following a pitiless perversion of God’s commandment.
God commands that we remember the sabbath day. God does not command us, at any time, to ignore the needs of our neighbours. On the contrary, Jesus says: You shall love you neighbour as yourself (Mark 12.31). Furthermore, this commandment is placed alongside loving God as one of the two greatest commandments.
The message, and the challenge, for us is clear. We need to take care that we accept and observe God’s gift of the Sabbath, but we should never allow that time of rest to stand in the way of our truly loving both God and neighbour. The Sabbath is not an excuse, it is a time for gathering strength in order that we might be true and faithful disciples.