Jesus and His disciples were passing through grainfields one Saturday, and as they were making their way along, they picked the heads of grain for a little snack, because they were hungry. The Pharisees, who were traveling along behind Jesus waiting for Him to misstep, rebuked the disciples, because their actions violated the religious law of not performing work on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24).
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees was a story from the Old Testament – how David and his men, hungry while fleeing for their lives, ate consecrated bread from the temple, which under Jewish law only the priests could eat (I Samuel 21:1-6). And Jesus instructed the Pharisees, saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (v. 27-28).
We know that God created and ordained the Sabbath as a day of rest – He blessed it and made it holy. And in the Ten Commandments, God instructed the Hebrews to keep it holy – to set it apart – by abstaining from their labor. And this observance was very beneficial – it gave bodies and minds much needed rest, it limited exploitation of servants, it provided a recovery period to animals, it allowed men opportunity to attend to spiritual needs. But it seems that for the Pharisees, the strict observance of the Sabbath law was more important than the wellbeing of the person, for whom the Sabbath was created to begin with.
Next, Jesus goes into a synagogue – still on the Sabbath – and there’s a man with a withered hand. And the Pharisees are watching Jesus to see if they could catch Him in the act of breaking the Sabbath again (Mark 3:1-2). But Jesus knows what they’re thinking, so He cuts right to the chase: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” (v. 4). They don’t answer. And Jesus’ first response, Mark tells us, is anger. But His second response is grief – He’s grieved at the hardness of their hearts (v.5). So Jesus heals the man, and the Pharisees immediately begin conspiring as to how they can destroy Him.
If you go too quickly past Jesus’ question to the Pharisees here, you might miss an important point. Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” And what is implied here is that not to do good is to do harm. The question that is most important isn’t whether Jesus will work or not work on the Sabbath, but whether He will heal, or (by not healing) harm.
Matthew 25:31-46 spells out Jesus’ philosophy more explicitly. In that well-known account of the Judgement, what is the difference between the sheep and the goats – between eternal life and eternal death? The righteous are the ones who saw need and responded to it. The wicked were the ones who did nothing; and they thought by doing nothing that they were doing nothing wrong. But by doing nothing, they were really doing something – they were neglecting their fellow humans, and were thus neglecting Jesus Himself. “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me” (v.45).
At first the Pharisees’ prioritizing the letter of the law over the spirit of the law makes Jesus angry. But then He is struck with grief, because He sees what is in store for those hardened hearts: “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (v.46). It breaks His heart that the Kingdom is here, and they’re missing it.
~ Matt Kinnell
NHIM Board Chair