Flipping Rest into Work, Grace into Law


Jesus went into the synagogue again and noticed a man with a deformed hand. Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath. – Mark 3:1-2 (New Living Translation)

No story gets me more steamed than this one of the Pharisees salivating because Jesus is  about to heal a man on Sabbath and give them ammunition to finally “nail” Jesus with Sabbath infraction, a serious charge. Jesus knows they are springing a trap for him but steps right on it anyways, jeopardizing his life in hope this public confrontation will expose the hypocrisy of their moral thinking.

Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him.   – Mark 3:3-4

Classic Jesus, cuts through the morass of moral reasoning, like hot  knife through butter. “Is Sabbath a day to save life or to destroy it?” The answer is simple. The Pharisees know it. So they don’t answer. An answer will implicate them or let Jesus off. They want to remain lost in their convoluted morality.

Jesus tells the withered-hand man to stretch out his hand, and the fingers unfurl in the act of stretching them out, supernatural healing that feels most natural. Jesus restores not just the man’s ability to open his fingers, but to hoe dirt, gather sheaves, to feed himself and his family. Jesus saves him from starvation.

At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus. – Mark 3:6

The miracle should stir faith in Jesus, or at least plant a doubt in the Pharisees’ hearts because even if they don’t agree with the “work” Jesus did, it wasn’t a work you see every day: before their eyes, knobbled joints flexed like a bird’s wing. But before the once withered-hand man can clap his dexterous hands in delight, the Pharisees picked up their robe and rushed to meet with Herod’s goons.

They hate Herod! They call him a mutt behind his back because he was only a half-Jew. He has spotty kosher record and killed some of their own for political ascent. Apparently, they are tolerant on murder but intolerant on Sabbath.

How evil!

In my mind, the story is a street theater, and the Pharisees don horns and tails and the audience boos them every time they walk on stage. They deserve the egg-pelting wrath of the audience for their cold evil. Even Jesus gets angry, and Jesus rarely gets angry.

But then Jesus’ anger subsides into deep sadness.

He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. – Mark 3:5

I want to stay angry. Anger is great material for self-justification. True, the material is not durable, but if you are in need of a pop-up self-justification, anger is cheap and quick to come by. Anger immediately separates you from the perpetrator and their sin which automatically put you in the right. So the more stones you hurl at the sinner in anger, the more stones for you wall of righteousness.

So I don’t want to be sad for those whom it’s easy to be angry at. Sadness means you feel for the sinner. And you only feel for a person when you see a little bit of yourself. Sadness is the mist of compassion.

Jesus is sad because Jesus understands why they guard Sabbath so vigilantly, so violently. Human motive is never simple. There is vice in every virtue because there is virtue in every vice. The Pharisees were adamant about Sabbath-keeping because it was essential to their Jewish identity. After all, sabbath was God’s gift that birthed them into a nation in the first place.

The command to “stop working” freed them from their identity as Egyptian “slave” when they could not stop working. God’s command to “Shabat! Stop!” foreshadows William Wallace’s Freedom-cry, William Wilberforce’s abolition-cry, Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration. Sabbath made rest a human right by making it a divine mandate. They did not earn rest. They were given rest. You did not need to have a productive six day work week with enough hours clocked to earn your keep and your rest. Heck, they even had to give their cows a break, even the old, infirm good for nothing cows. Even slaves had right to rest, which was a weekly reminder that no human being could ever claim full ownership of another human being…

(this post was published at Mocking Bird. Please click the link to continue reading)