6 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, ‘Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’
3 Jesus answered them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ 5 Then Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’
6 On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, ‘Get up and stand in front of everyone.’ So he got up and stood there.
9 Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?’
10 He looked round at them all, and then said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was completely restored. 11 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Did you notice that the word ‘law’ or some version of it is mentioned five times in these verses. And the word Sabbath is used six times. It should alert us to the troubling connection between religion and power.
There are those who would seek to control the lives of others through fear, and what greater fear could their be than the fear of exclusion, particularly if they claim a power of exclusion that stretches into the afterlife. If you don’t behave in a certain way, you will be excluded from heaven.
Every religion has those who want to define membership on the basis of adherence to some law. They are the ones who wish to enforce some standard of purity which the rest of us are required to meet, but really those standards are designed to reinforce their own authority.
And so here in these two stories about conflict over law and Sabbath. The gatekeepers of the faith have defined a required standard for behaviour on the Sabbath, parsing the Law down to minutiae in which plucking ears of corn amounts to harvesting. They watch in case Jesus engages in the work of healing. But Jesus cleverly doesn’t touch the man so couldn’t be accused of ‘working’ at the healing, nor could the man be accused of applying something to his body which would make his body ‘work’ at healing.
Their parsing of the Law meant that even simple acts of kindness couldn’t be done for fear of falling foul of the Law. More than that, their application of the Law mean someone could AVOID doing the compassionate thing because to do so would break the Law.
Jesus confronts these purists again and again. For Jesus, any rule which releases me from acts of kindness and generosity, or requires acts of unkindness in the face of obvious need is a rule that must be broken. Even if it attracts the anger of the rule-makers.
Now it should be said that Jesus was not an iconoclast, attacking traditions just for the sake of it. He was utterly committed to the Gospel message that he outlined in Luke 4:18-19; good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. His message was not a message that imposed a new form of law and rule keeping but which declared the year of the Lord’s favour.
Anything that was contrary to this vision was something that needed to be opposed, confronted and provoked. And he did so from within, from a deep knowledge of the history and tradition, so he could quote a contrary story about David (Luke 6:3-4), and also a deep familiarity about the minutiae, hence his instruction to stretch out a hand.
We should always be alert to those experts in religious law who want to impose order through its observation. It is worth thinking about who has a voice in the setting and the application of law, and whose voice is being silenced by the law. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that groups, communities and organisations defined and organised around the principle of purity are destined for conflict, because no-one will ever be pure enough, and destined for decline, as they splinter endlessly over ever-increasingly ridiculous parsing of the Law.
Jesus said it himself, the Law was made for us, to enable us to live free. We were not made to be subjects of the Law (Mark 2:27)
Beware of religious bullies who use Law to enforce their power. If the Law does not support the increase of compassion in the world it is a Law that needs to be broken.
You are the God of the Law
And the Breaker of the Law.
Give us wisdom to know
When Law is being used to oppress and to bully
And then the courage
To break that Law
For the sake of those who lack the power,
Or agency, or courage
To do so themselves