I can still remember it very clearly from when I was a child. It was a Sunday afternoon and someone in my family was sick. My parents had somehow contacted a doctor and the doctor had prescribed a medicine. Now today that may not seem like that big of a deal but then it was an adventure! Today if someone was sick on a Sunday, we could take them to a clinic, get a prescription, go down to your local pharmacy, have it filled and you’d be on your way to hopefully feeling better. But in the 1960's in western Michigan, it was not that simple. We had to drive all the way downtown Grand Rapids to find this one drug store that was open for 4 hours on a Sunday afternoon. I can still remember making the trip and the feeling that we were doing something wrong! It was exciting! Going to a store to buy something was not something that was done on Sunday! But it was OK because someone was sick and that made it legitimate. If it had been for a gallon of milk, we would have had to wait. That’s just how the rules were in those days.
What we can do on Sunday is still something we struggle with in our culture today. Many have no problems doing their shopping on Sunday while others try as much as possible anyway to avoid it unless it’s absolutely necessary. What do we do with the command to keep the Sabbath day? We learn some additional insights from Jesus on this as well as a lesson in priorities in this ongoing debate he has with the Jewish leaders. Let’s read Mark 3:1-6.
The healing of the man with a shriveled hand forms the last in this series of stories where there is conflict between the Jewish leaders and Jesus in this region of Galilee. Mark simply relates that Jesus was again in the synagogue on a Sabbath. By this time, Jesus’ enemies were convinced that he was a Sabbath-breaker. Their attitude was that there are 6 days for work to be done and so people should come on those days to be healed and not on the Sabbath day.
Like every other aspect of Jewish life, the practice of medicine and healing on the Sabbath was strictly regulated by legal tradition. It was an accepted principle that if a life was in danger on the Sabbath you could take action to save that life. The scribes, however, had determined precisely what constituted a danger to life and to what extent aid could be granted. By this time, there were 1,521 things a person could not do on the Sabbath. For instance, a person with a toothache couldn’t gargle with vinegar but could use a toothbrush dipped in vinegar. No wonder Joy Davidman, author and the wife of C.S. Lewis, said, “The leaders recast the fourth commandment to read, ‘Thou shalt not enjoy life on Sunday.’” Now in fact, the scribes most likely agreed that none of the people that Jesus had healed were in any immediate danger or that their life was threatened. The fact that Jesus’ enemies were present in the synagogue watching Jesus’ activity so carefully indicates that they were convinced of his ability to heal. Their problem was that he was doing this on the Sabbath! He was going against their rules and their control of how things should be done!
I love how Jesus sets the stage and creates the tension by what he does here. Notice here that Jesus takes the initiative and commands the man with the shriveled hand to stand in the midst of the assembled congregation. I imagine this poor man suddenly being thrust into this setting. He had come to be healed not to become the focal point of a theological dispute. Imagine the anticipation and tension as he wonders what will happen next. Jesus then posed to his adversaries a rhetorical question: “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The way that Jesus asks this question shows that he knows the Law. The Law clearly was not opposed to the saving of life on the Sabbath. The Pharisees refused to enter into this debate with Jesus. They were indignant because the healing of a paralyzed hand could, in their opinion, wait until the next day. They understood that Jesus was not asking a theoretical question for the sake of theological reflection.
Jesus did not mistake the silence of his opponents as agreeing that the man should be healed. In fact, he was angry with them and this is, in fact, the anger of God against them. In their concern for legal detail they had forgotten the mercy and grace shown by God to man when he made provision for the Sabbath. In the name of piety they had become uncaring to the sufferings of people. Jesus simply tells the man to stretch out his hand, again in full view of everyone. Again imagine this man slowly stretching out his hand wondering what will happen with his hand and what will happen with the debate! And without Jesus even touching it, his stretched out hand was healed! When Jesus restored the man’s’ hand, he demonstrated what it means “to do good” and “to preserve life” on the Sabbath. As Lord of the Sabbath Jesus delivers both the Sabbath and man from distress.
Mark then concludes, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Jesus has become a very serious problem for the religious leaders. Ernst Kasemann tells this story from when the severe storms and floods which struck the Netherlands in 1953. The scene was one of those parishes where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore to keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened one Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish that had been entrusted to him, and set them to the necessary work, if it meant profaning the Sabbath? He summoned the Church Council to consult and decide.
The decision to destroy Jesus climaxes the conflicts in Galilee. God’s grace toward Israel, proclaimed and demonstrated through Jesus, will be rejected by the responsible leaders of the people. Their clear intention is an ominous sign, both for Jesus and for Israel. It was ominous for Israel because it reflects the rejection of the true Messiah. Jesus answered the question of what is permitted on the Sabbath by healing the man with the shriveled hand showing the true purpose of the Sabbath. Ironically, the guardians of the Sabbath plan instead to do harm and to kill.
III. So what are the Sabbath lessons for us?
Let’s first hear a word of warning from the two groups determined to kill Jesus. There are times when some Christians spurn what Jesus clearly teaches because it doesn’t fit their agenda. Jesus is fine as long as he does what I want and aligns with my views. I watched a documentary on guns and evangelicals a couple of weeks ago. Now I’m not going to get into the whole guns or no guns debate, but what struck me as I watched this documentary was the debate this pastor had with a church member. At one point, the pastor said, “What is more important? The Ten Commandments or the Second Amendment?” And the evangelical’s answer was, “The Second Amendment.”
Again regarding the Sabbath, remember Jesus’ words that the Sabbath is made for us and not for the rules. It is much easier to live by rules than to live by freedom and grace. There are gray areas in grace and freedom. Things aren’t always crystal clear and that makes life more challenging. But God wants us to live in freedom where we can willingly choose what we want within the constraints of life with our loving God. Think of a home where there are rules upon rules covering everything. There is order and peace but there is also such rigid rules that there is little freedom, creativity and joy. Now think of a home where there are rules but the children have freedom to be themselves within the rules; such a home is a place of joy and wonder. God wants us to live in the joy and freedom that Jesus’ coming brings for us.
But the bigger picture is that Jesus came to bring life and joy and wholeness and that is far greater than any set of rules that anyone comes up with to restrict and govern life. Now to be clear: God gave his law, his rules for our benefit and joy. In sin we rejected those laws, but in Jesus the sin is removed and now we have freedom and joy to live with our God. Belden C. Lane tells of one day when some Jewish seminary students were found by their rabbi in the house of study, playing checkers when they should have been studying Talmud. Embarrassed, they returned immediately to their books. But the rabbi smiled and told them not to be ashamed, since they should always study the law wherever they find it. So he asked if they knew the three rules of the game of checkers. Obviously they assumed they knew what they were playing, but none would be so bold as to appear to teach the rabbi. Therefore, the rabbi reminded them of the rules of the game of checkers. “First,” he said, “one must not make two moves at once. Second, one may move only forward, not backward. And third, when one has reached the last row, then he may move wherever he likes. “Such,” he said, “is what the Torah teaches.” And then he left.