As we continue our sermon series on “Questions and Answers with Jesus,” we notice again – as we did last week – that Jesus is fond of answering questions with questions. In fact, in the brief 11 verses we read this morning, we find a few different questions back and forth between Jesus and his conversation partners.
First, some of the Pharisees take issue with Jesus’ disciples plucking handfuls of grain as they walked through the grain fields. “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” they ask. Jesus answers them with a question: “Have you not heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” He went into the tabernacle and ate the special bread that is set apart there for the priests. As if to say - desperate times call for desperate measures. My guys were really hungry; God’s laws weren’t designed to prevent them from getting something to eat.
The story continues when Jesus enters the synagogue to teach, on another Sabbath, and sees a man with a withered right hand. Knowing he was being watched closely, knowing full well that some scribes and Pharisees were trying to find a way to trap him, Jesus calls the man to him and poses a question to his audience: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it?
Now as we consider a passage like this, we’ll want to remember at the outset that we live at a far remove from 1st century Judaism, in a culture in which we too often disregard the Sabbath commandment entirely. It seems anything and everything can take precedence over the Lord’s Day, Sunday, which for Christians is essentially our equivalent of Sabbath. So we’ll want to be careful not to disparage those who take the Sabbath commandment seriously. Frankly, we have a lot to learn from our Jewish neighbors about what it means, really, to set apart a full day for rest and worship. What it means, really, not to allow any other priorities to take precedence over obedience to God’s command to set apart the Sabbath day and keep it holy. We’d do well, as Christians, to adopt a posture of humility and a willingness to learn from those who faithfully keep biblical commandments like the Sabbath laws.
In our rush to excuse ourselves from things like the fourth of the Ten Commandments, Christians also sometimes argue that Jesus completely overturns Jewish laws, or makes them obsolete. So let’s be clear here about what Jesus was actually doing, when he healed people on the Sabbath. While in general Sabbath rules do prohibit any kind of work, the Sabbath commandment was given by God as an act of compassion, not judgment. In Deuteronomy, the commandment comes with a reminder that everyone in the household, including slaves, must be given a day of rest, “for you were once slaves in Egypt.” And acts of mercy are certainly not prohibited on the Sabbath, in Jewish law. In fact, if a human life is in danger, a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Sabbath law that stands in the way of saving that person. So let’s not fall into the trap of thinking Jesus was the first or only rabbi to perform acts of mercy on the Sabbath. Granted, Jesus extends the principle of lifesaving to non-life-threatening situations too, in some of his healing miracles. Healing this man’s withered hand in Luke 6 – while surely enhancing his life – did not actually rescue him from immanent death. That’s where the debate centers, on the question of urgency, not on whether or not it was allowable to ever show compassion on the Sabbath.
Admittedly, though, quite apart from the question of just how much merciful work is allowed on the Sabbath, is the far larger question of who gave the Sabbath commandment in the first place. We skipped over it in my retelling a moment ago, but if you look back at Luke 6 verse 5, Jesus said “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Aye, there’s the rub. For if anyone had the right to re-interpret the precise implementation of Sabbath law, it would be the one who issued the commandment in the first place. And it should come as no surprise that Jesus would upset his devout Jewish audience by identifying himself with the commandment-giving God.
All that said, I think there are also lessons to be learned in stories like those we’ve read today, about Jesus’ general approach to the law. While taking seriously the importance of obedience to the commandments, he seemed also to apply another filter. Drawing his inspiration as much from the compassionate origin and intent of the commandments as from the letter of the law. Surely Sabbath laws were not designed to prevent hungry people from eating, for instance, or to prevent hurt people from becoming well.
So the question Jesus asks aloud here in Luke 6 is “Is it lawful?” And his listeners would have known there were certain exceptions to the Sabbath law, and they could have debated with Jesus at length about whether this man’s situation did or didn’t fall into the correct category for those exceptions.
But the question I hear behind Jesus’ question “Is it lawful” is “Is it merciful?” or “Is it kind?” Some of you may have heard the old proverb about asking ourselves a few questions each time we open our mouths to speak: “Is what I am about to say true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind?” I picture Jesus having a similar filter system for his actions. One in which “Is it lawful?” isn’t a bad start, but questions like “Is it compassionate? Is it merciful? Is it kind?” are even better.
I wonder if another dynamic at play here, too, is a sense of urgency on Jesus’ part. Last week we heard him remind people that, with his arrival on the scene, the Messiah himself had arrived! The time had come! The celebration must begin! I wonder if an awareness of how little time he had for his ministry comes into play in some of these healing miracles? As if to say, certainly under normal circumstances I could wait another day to heal this man’s hand. But we are not living in normal circumstances. This is about as far from ordinary time as you can get, folks. Remember - the bridegroom is here; the wedding feast is on. And unusual times call for unusual measures.
At any rate, there are a number of lessons we could take away from this morning’s text. For instance, we could hear in this earnest debate over Sabbath laws a simple reminder to consider our own Sabbath practice. Do we have one at all? Might our observance of the fourth commandment need a little work? Or we might choose to ponder the significance of Jesus’ self-identification as Lord of the Sabbath. His dual identity as God and man has already come up a few times in these question and answer sessions we’ve encountered in the gospel of Luke. It’s not a small deal, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
No matter what else we take away, though, I imagine we would do well to hear in and under Jesus’ questions today an invitation to err on the side of grace. To err on the side of kindness and mercy. To err on the side of helping where we can.
In fact, it has struck me more than once this week that it’s interesting to be asking the question “Is it lawful?” at a time when our laws as a nation seem to be shifting wildly. So perhaps it’s just as important to hear the questions behind Jesus’ questions today. “Is it lawful” is a good start. “Is it just?” is another terribly important question to ask ourselves, and biblical teaching certainly has a great deal to say about the importance of justice. And finally, we should ask ourselves “Is it compassionate?” “Is it merciful?” “Is it kind?” The Lord of the Sabbath, feeder of hungry disciples on the Sabbath, healer of withered hands on the Sabbath, would want us to do no less. Amen.
Our hymn of response is a children’s hymn that seemed especially fitting today. Let’s stand and sing together.
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all,
Healing pain and sickness, blessing children small,
Washing tired feet and saving those who fall;
Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all.
Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you;
Make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do;
Let me watch you, Jesus, till I’m gentle too,
Till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you