Matthew 12:9-14 (NIV) Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
Another confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees over the rules for the Sabbath.
The original command for the Sabbath is short and simple (Exodus 20:8-11). The rhythm of six days of work followed by one day of rest was embedded into creation when God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.
The focus of the Sabbath was not on rule-keeping; it was on rest and worship, on refocusing one’s life on God and all of the blessings that He has given. But it wasn’t long before people began to ignore God’s call to devote themselves to rest and attention to Him one full day each week; to leave their livelihoods in God’s hands and leave their quest for financial security, focusing instead on their relationship with Him, and the spiritual security that can only come from that relationship. Instead they began to see the Sabbath as a wasted opportunity. So, ignoring the command to rest and refocus, they treated the Sabbath as just another day to do business. Many attended synagogue or went to the temple first, but then they went to work.
In a real sense, the sin of these Sabbath breakers was a form of idolatry – allowing the pursuit of more supplant their devotion to God. And for that idolatry, the people experienced penalties.
In an effort to build strong walls around the fourth commandment, the Pharisees and teachers of the law had compiled volumes detailing exactly what would constitute “work” on the Sabbath, so that people would have clear guidelines. They developed a list of 39 categories of prohibited work activities, each with numerous sub-categories and finely detailed interpretations.
This complex list was developed with good intentions, to keep people from sinning on the Sabbath, but its ultimate effect went far beyond what God intended, and ultimately made the Sabbath a chore and a hardship for the people, rather than a joyful and restful respite from their normal routines.
Jesus confronted the situation head-on. When asked if it was lawful for someone to heal on the Sabbath (the Pharisees’ rules said no, unless it was absolutely life-threatening), and presented with a man with a withered, paralyzed hand (which was not life-threatening), He approached it pragmatically, trying to help them to see the errors of their way of thinking.
No one thought that it was wrong to pull a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath. Sheep were valuable. Jesus made the point that, in God’s sight, people were far more valuable than sheep. If it is okay with God to do good to a sheep on the Sabbath, it is far more okay with Him to do good to a person.
Jesus’ final act completely stymied the Pharisees who were looking for a reason to accuse Him. Instead of touching the man or speaking specific words of healing, He merely told the man to stretch out the hand that was shriveled and lifeless. And when the man did, his hand was miraculously healed. Unfortunately for the Pharisees, Jesus had done nothing that could be considered “healing”. Telling someone to stretch out their hand on the Sabbath wasn’t forbidden, even by them. So they went away frustrated, plotting some other way to trap and kill Him.
Father, left to our own devices we do tend to make things more complicated than they need to be, more effort than they need to be, and so often miss out on the blessings of rest and restoration that You want to give us. Help us, Lord, to be simpler in our obedience, like children, just walking in Your ways, without trying to build so many extra safeguards into our faith. Amen.