One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them.But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. (NRSV)
At the end of this text, the Pharisees don’t know what to do about Jesus. As blasphemous as it may sound, I confess this morning that I kinda know how they feel. In these two stories, I wasn’t sure what to make of the way Jesus is behaving. I mean, at first glance, this is a classic healing story, with a little controversy sprinkled in. setting up the conflict that will lead to Jesus crucifixion. But when we take a closer look, some of this just seems so… unnecessary. In the first story, why couldn’t Jesus have stored up a little food to prepare like everyone else did? Not to mention, Jesus might be trying to justify his actions by some good old-fashioned proof-texting. And in the second story, this man with the withered hand seems less like a desperate, pleading figure who we have compassion on and more like a pawn in a political chess match between Jesus and the Pharisees. When you read the story, the man never actually asks to be healed. And the Pharisees might have a point: can’t this healing wait until tomorrow? Why does Jesus choose to make this a battleground – where there could have been compromise? As I prepared for this sermon, I found myself a bit frustrated with Jesus. Ultimately, in light of all of these issues in the story, I had to be convinced that Sabbath was worth all of the trouble. I’m happy to report that I was convinced, and for me it all hangs on this one: The Sabbath is for freedom. I’ll unpack that as we go along.
The first lesson I had to be reminded of concerning this particular text is that it comes to us from the Gospel of Luke. Luke’s gospel is incredibly political! In Luke, Jesus constantly confronts the political and religious and social structures of oppression in the world. Many scholars have noticed that the Gospel is built around Jesus’ self proclaimed mission statement early in the work: Jeus says, quoting Isaiah, “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the story of Jesus in Luke, overthrowing and renegotiating power structures in favor of the oppressed. It’s likely that none of us have made it this far in seminary without reading or at least being familiar with John Howard Yoder and his most famous work The Politics of Jesus. I was reminded that this foundational work on Christian ethics is actually something of theological commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Yoder points out that this proclamation of Jesus is really about the year of Jubilee, the time designated in Leviticus when slaves would go free, debts would be forgiven, and God’s people would truly rest and celebrate. This is what Luke is about, and so our passage today must be read through this lens: Jesus has come to proclaim freedom.
Our passage contains two stories about Jesus breaking the Sabbath – but what I hope we see is that the stories are not about who gets to break Sabbath… or even when – but rather, who gets to interpret Sabbath. The first story finds Jesus and his disciples on the Sabbath taking grain to eat from a neighboring field. The Pharisees accuse them of doing what is unlawful to do on the Sabbath, under their interpretation. The Mosaic law is rather unclear whether plucking grain and threshing it in their hands counts as work, but over time, the Pharisees had come to believe and enforce that it was unlawful to do that on the Sabbath.
And Jesus responds by telling them an Old Testament story– one that has nothing to do with Sabbath, but is actually just an instance where someone was hungry and a rule was broken. On the surface it sorta seems like Jesus is saying, “David did it! Look at the Bible!” If this were true, Jesus would be guilty of the cardinal seminary-sin known as proof-texting, whereby someone uses a Bible verse or story out of context to defend themselves or their own argument. Sadly, the Bible can and has been used to justify just about everything, from infanticide, to homicide, genocide… pretty much all of the –cides.
But when we read Jesus’ next statement, “The son of man is Lord of the Sabbath”, the message becomes clearer. He’s not saying, “David did it, why can’t I?” Jesus is claiming authority, as a descendent of David, to be the proper interpreter of religious law. The Pharisees were enacting penalty and shame based on their interpretation of Sabbath law, but Jesus is the son of man, and has come to interpret the law correctly, Sabbath included. The David story is an appeal to authority, Jesus flipping the script on the Pharisees, asking: “Who has the authority to interpret scripture?” or “Who properly represents God’s will?” Jesus claims that he does. And he has already been doing it: back in chapter 4, on the Sabbath, Jesus casts out a demon and heals Simon’s mother-in-law – which causes the entire town of Capernaum to bring their sick to him for healing, all before the day is through. Jesus has authority to interpret what the Sabbath means, and to Jesus, Sabbath is a day to carry out his mission of freedom.
And so the stage becomes set for the second half our story, where once again the Pharisees try to control their interpretation of Sabbath. The Pharisees have heard about Capernaum. They were taken aback at his claims in the grain fields. Here Jesus is in the synagogue to teach, and the Pharisees are there to trap him. The bait? A man with a withered right-hand. What will Jesus do? Jesus also knows what they’re up to: so if Jesus does fall into the trap, it will be on his own terms. But this is an odd healing story, because the man with the withered right hand is not a main character. He does not ask to be healed. He seems like a prop to be used by both the Pharisees and Jesus. Jesus even tells him to stand in the middle, as if to make a show of him.
Now, a withered hand is nothing to scoff at. By a show of non-withered hands, who here has had their arm in a cast or sling before? …. I’m sure that during that time you realized how many mundane activities that you take for granted require the use of both hands. How much more in an agrarian society 2,000 years ago? Even within today’s text, we remember the disciples, who rolled the grain in their hands to get the edible parts out of it. This man could not even do that. Moreover, we are told it is his right hand, which served a social function too: you would offer your right hand in greeting, and not show your left hand, as that was the hand you would use for, let’s say, “personal hygiene”. So in addition to the frustration of not being able to provide for yourself and do basic tasks in that society, you would also experience shame in every public setting as you had to greet everyone with either an unclean hand or a withered one.
That all being said, a withered hand is not life threatening. I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Pharisees in my early readings: can’t this wait until tomorrow? Jesus has the option of compromise. He can heal the man the next day, and also maintain the dignity of Sabbath. The Pharisees, by most accounts, are not being unreasonable. In their eyes, this is not a good enough reason to break the Sabbath, and by their definition, they’re right. “When is it okay to break the Sabbath?” This is their ultimate question. But the question itself is built on a lie that the Pharisees and people have all accepted: that the Sabbath is this big test to prove whether or not you are faithful and obedient to God. “When is it okay to break the Sabbath?” This is the question that the Pharisees believe they are masters of, because they control the answer. What they don’t realize, though, is that the very question itself has enslaved them. Like an alcoholic who clutches a bottle, not knowing that, actually, it’s the bottle that clutches him.
So Jesus, instead of playing into the false question, destroys its power by asking his own: “I ask of you… if it is lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?” Jesus refuses to answer their question. Instead, Jesus is asking, “What is Sabbath for?” After all, this is the year of the Lord’s favor! Jesus has come for freedom, release, forgiveness and restoration!
Jesus’ response is not that, “It’s okay to break the Sabbath if what you’re doing is good.” The Sabbath was made for doing good! The very idea of Sabbath, a rest on every seventh day, is inextricably linked with Jubliee! The seventh day of rest for God’s people becomes a seventh year of rest for the land in Leviticus. Then, out of that, after the 49th year, 7 times 7, comes the year of Jubilee, in which all debts are released, slaves go free, and land returns to its original owner; a year of complete rest. Since Jesus has come to proclaim Jubilee, of course Jesus must heal on the Sabbath! This cannot wait another day, because the Sabbath was made for things like this! The man’s hand was a barrier from full participation in life, in society, and in God’s blessing. What better day to be released from such bondage?
And though they did not mean to, these Pharisees were acting as barrier themselves to the healing of this man… all in the name of God. Again, I think we all need a heavy dose of sympathy towards these Pharisees, who were trying to do what was right, and were trying to honor God. And Jesus’ question is puts it in pretty black-and-white terms: there are two options, to save or to kill, to do good or evil. Ultimately, there are two options: are we aligning ourselves with God’s salvation purpose for the world, or are we acting as barriers to it? While this might not be the only question we ask in any given situation… perhaps it ought to be the first one. And every day in the news we see things that are obviously antithetical to God’s saving purposes. Everyday we have opportunities to love and maybe even to save. And sometimes, in those instances, we do what the Pharisees did and make it about something else. All the while, the real story is staring us in the face: there is God’s saving purpose in the world, and there are those who act against it, even if they don’t realize it. Oh how we still need Jesus to break through the nonsense and help us ask the right kinds of questions.
The Sabbath is for freedom. Jesus has come and inaugurated the year of the Lord’s favor, forever reminding us of the saving love of God and setting us free. Whatever religious rights or traditions or beliefs that we hold dear, if they do not contribute to the good work of God in the world, then we are doing them wrong. There is no discrepancy between the mission of God and the practices of God’s people. May we be in accordance with God’s saving purpose in the world… not barriers to it. And may we always find our mission in the mission of Jesus: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Amen.