The question of how to keep the Sabbath Day holy is always a point of contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. These Pharisees had been watching Jesus like a hawk waiting for an opportunity to catch Him transgressing the Sabbath law. They did not have to wait for long. On a certain Sabbath day, they were presented with a perfect opportunity. A few of these Pharisees and Jesus were in a synagogue together with a man who had a withered hand.
Knowing that Jesus would take pity on the man and heal him, they asked Jesus if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. As the verse makes it clear to us, their purpose is to accuse Jesus. Jesus answered affirmatively and gave them a common-sense rationale why it was lawful. It was to help the man who had a desperate need.
Jesus knew that they would not accept His explanation. He knew that the question was a trap. Yet, He went ahead to heal the man. As expected, instead of applauding the miracle and rejoicing with the man, we are told that “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Matthew 12:14).
Here is a bit of background about the importance of the Sabbath. It is a hallowed day for the Jews. They took it very seriously. Nobody was supposed to do any work on that sacred day of the week. On top of the Sabbath law prescribed in the Scripture, the scribes and Pharisees added many other man-made rules to it. Some of these rules are bizarre. For example, healing was strangely considered as work and therefore it was not permitted on the Sabbath. This was the social mores and accepted way of life during Jesus’ time.
By healing the man, Jesus was taking a gamble. He risked antagonising the religious establishment. He also risked being misunderstood by the people and stumbling them.
In view of this, why did Jesus insist on healing the man? Is Jesus right in upsetting the religious and cultural applecart? Is Jesus deliberately picking a fight with the religious leaders? Is Jesus’ action necessary since it might stumble the ordinary people?
This is not an isolated incident. It seems to be Jesus’ pattern of life and ministry. Instead of rubbing shoulders with the religious and respectable people, He spent the bulk of His time mixing with the wrong company – the “sinners,” tax-collectors, prostitutes and lepers. “Sinners” were despised because of the kinds of sin they committed like adultery. These sins were socially unacceptable and frowned upon. Tax-collectors were traitors, prostitutes immoral and lepers ceremonially unclean,
To the Pharisees, these people were morally corrupt and spiritually unclean. Therefore, they should be avoided like a plague. Jesus should know better than to compromise Himself both morally and spiritually. He was condoning their sins and endorsing their ways of life. In fact, Jesus had become like one of them. That is the reason they called him a glutton and drunkard (Matthew 11:19).
Jesus knew that by associating closely with these people, He stood to be misunderstood. Nevertheless, He took the risk. After all, His mission was to reach out to sinners. In His own words, He had come “not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13).
This is also the posture of the Heavenly Father. He hates sin. However, instead of distancing Himself from the sinful and corrupt world, He sent His Son into the world. To rescue humanity, God must take this risk. Jesus who was holy would walk among the unholy. Jesus, who knew no sin, would ultimately carry the sins of the whole world in His body. Jesus, who was just, would die for the unjust.
On the other hand, the scribes and Pharisees avoided the morally and spiritually unclean people and retreated into the safe spaces of perceived righteousness. However, they were sadly mistaken. In the eyes of God, they were self-righteous, proud and legalistic.
Jesus stood firm against the Pharisees’ opposition without giving in an inch. Neither did He capitulate under societal pressure. He continued His interaction with the “sinners,” tax-collectors, prostitutes and lepers.
Back to the questions that I raised earlier.
Jesus insisted on healing the man because it was the right thing to do. The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The scribes and Pharisees had a flawed understanding of the Law. They were not following the Law, but man-made traditions.
Jesus was right in upsetting the religious and cultural applecart because misconceptions must always be corrected. They must not be allowed to persist. Wrong teachings must be put right.
Truth must not be withheld for fear of stumbling people. It must be taught and upheld. God’s ways must not be compromised to appease those who are ignorant of the truth.
What Jesus did was certainly necessary even if He risked being misunderstood. God’s will must not be compromised and impeded. We must learn to fear God and not man.
Concerning Jesus’ close interaction with the morally questionable people, there is no problem because Jesus did not compromise in any way or follow their sinful ways. On the contrary, He was the light shining in the midst of darkness.
Here is one final point to take note. The bases of our theological convictions must be rooted in the Word of God and not in man-made rules, legalism and self-serving logic.
Pastors Leslie & Adeline Chua