Sabbath Healing and Christian Morality

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“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This is one of the most radical statements that Jesus ever made. Within it is the revelation of not only Christian but also Jewish morality. I read something similar from Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who said Torah was always meant to be a gift for the sake of humanity’s flourishing rather than a burden for the sake of entertaining God’s capricious fancy.

But in evangelical Christian culture today, it’s as if Jesus never said these words. Because we measure our spiritual credibility according to how toughly we talk about sin, we are invested in making morality burdensome. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the same way in their zeal for the self-justification they gained through the burden of the homage they paid God. What made Jesus’ Sabbath healing so offensive to the Pharisees was not merely His violation of Jewish law but the way that He called out their morality based on conspicuous gestures of “honoring” God by exuding a morality that really did honor God through its compassion for human need.

Today we don’t give a whole lot of thought to Jesus’ Sabbath healing, probably because the idea of not healing on the Sabbath seems quaint and ludicrous to us. But many American evangelicals today share the same basic theology of worship that caused Pharisees to be so zealous about enforcing the Sabbath. Worship is not supposed to be about our comfort or healing; it’s supposed to be about honoring God. Six days exist for us to take care of our practical needs; the seventh day is holy and devoted to God alone.

It’s one thing to do work on the Sabbath in the case of an emergency, like if your ox falls in a ditch, to use the example Jesus cited, but that wasn’t really a valid analogy for Jesus to make considering the fact that none of the people Jesus healed on the Sabbath had emergency, life-threatening illnesses. Every single one of them had a lifelong, chronic health condition that could have waited till the next day. How can Jesus talk about it as a choice to either “save life or to destroy it” (Luke 6:9) when a man with a shriveled hand can have it unshriveled just as easily on the six days when work is allowed?

Other than the fact that He’s Jesus and He can do whatever He wants to, why in the world would Jesus choose to violate this particular law of Torah? It would have been completely reasonable for him to make arrangements to heal the person on a different day. By acting as He did, Jesus was not simply stepping on the Pharisees’ toes; He was detracting from the honor that the Sabbath restrictions showed to God. Jesus gave a variety of justifications for His actions, sometimes common sense, sometimes making prophetic pronouncements like declaring himself “the Lord of the Sabbath.” Only once did He actually cite scripture as justification. When the Pharisees scolded Jesus for letting His disciples break off kernels of wheat and eat them on the Sabbath, Jesus references the story of David eating the consecrated priestly bread when Saul was chasing him (Luke 6:3-4). Let’s think about that for a minute. David was in a life or death situation; Jesus’ disciples were sauntering casually through a field. There is no way that Jesus’ scriptural precedent would pass muster among a crowd of today’s fundamentalists.

In perusing all the different healing stories, what I see Jesus doing in each and every one of them is showing solidarity to people whom society viewed as less than human because of something they were born with. Jesus had to restore their dignity because He could not continue worshiping God in the presence of their suffering and shame. The reason they had to be healed on the Sabbath and not the next day is because it dishonors God to honor Him by dishonoring one of His children. Just as the ancient Israelite prophets did before Him, Jesus repudiates the ubiquitous tendency of religious authorities to pit love of God against love of neighbor (which is just as common today among Christians as it was among first century Jews). Most importantly, I see Jesus replacing rules with relationship as the foundation for His ethics. Just as He proclaims Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is the Lord of all Torah. He tells the Pharisees in John 5:39-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Think about what He’s saying here and its implications for how we should use scripture. The Pharisees saw the Bible as an “owner’s manual” for life. Following its prescriptions to the letter was the means of gaining eternal life (which shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean “afterlife” so much as a full, richly meaningful experience of life here on Earth). But Jesus says that the point of the scriptures is to testify about Him. In other words, it’s a biography, not a rule book! Just as Jesus said to the Pharisees, we cannot gain eternal life as long as our worship of the Bible gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus.

Now the million dollar question is whether we are allowed to emulate Jesus in violating Biblical rules like the Sabbath prohibitions on healing insofar as they interfere with our love for our neighbor. Obviously Jesus can do certain things that we can’t do because He’s God and our discernment is inferior to His. But I don’t think that Jesus has any basis for saying what He says in John 5:39-40 unless “coming to Jesus” can sometimes lead us to do things that “studying the scriptures diligently” couldn’t do by itself. Otherwise Jesus would have nothing to criticize about what the Pharisees were doing. The degree to which you’re scandalized by the possibility that Jesus might tell you to do something contrary to the Bible is the degree to which you worship the Bible instead of Jesus.

I also think that Jesus’ statement that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” signifies that Christian morality is ultimately pragmatic and not arbitrary. To some degree, what Jesus says is the opposite of the underlying premise Rick Warren stakes out in the opening line of his Purpose-Driven Life: “It’s not about you.” When people argue that God wants us to do certain things in order to conform to His design for the universe and not because there is any benefit to us, what they are arguing is that “man was made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for man.” The good news that Jesus shares in His radical statement of Mark 2:27 is that God is not an arbitrary tyrant; His law really is motivated by a desire for us to experience the fullness of shalom. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, God breaks His own rules so that they will not stand in the way of His children being made fully whole.

So are there people in our world today who are dishonored in the same way that lepers and paralytics were in the synagogues where Jesus worshiped because of Biblical commands whose letter kills the Spirit for which they were written (2 Cor 3:6)? If so, then who will have the courage to receive the “competence from God” that makes us ministers of a covenant that is “not of the letter but of the Spirit”? Jesus did not interpret Torah objectively and dispassionately. He was willing to slant it and twist it in all sorts of ways in order to serve His nakedly biased agenda of affirming the dignity of the lepers and paralytics of His day. Should we not do the same?

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