According to 1 Macabees 1-2, Antiochus Epiphanes decided that everyone in his kingdom should have the same religion. That included the Jews. So, he marched into Jerusalem and set up idols in the temple. He also commanded that everyone worship the idols that he had set up all over Israel. Mattathias and his sons refused and ended up killing the kings emissary. And thus began the Macabean revolt. Those who refused to be defiled by idolatry went out into the wilderness and hid out in caves. Some of them were found by the enemy on a Sabbath. They bravely said, “We would rather die as righteous people than defile the Sabbath.” And they refused to fight and the enemy slaughtered a thousand people. When word reached Mattathias and his followers, they made a rule: if we are attacked on the Sabbath we will fight. They reasoned that God surely did not intend them to be slaughtered as they observed the strictures of the Sabbath. So, they decided that they could kill on the Sabbath so that they could live.
In Luke 6:6-11 the theme of Jesus’ new approach to the law continues. It happened on a different Sabbath – different than the Sabbath with the eating grain incident. Jesus entered into a synagogue and was teaching. In the synagogue was a man with a withered right hand. Luke is the only evangelist who mentions that it was his right hand. Many will point out that Luke, as a physician, was more likely to notice. Physicians were in the habit of documenting which side of the patient they worked on. But the reason this is important is that it is likely that it is his dominant hand that is withered. Is he able to work?
The Pharisees and scribes watched Jesus because they were wanted to find to accuse. It is an awkward statement. Luke most likely wants us to think of them hunting for an excuse to accuse him. It is likely that the man with the withered hand often came to this synagogue and they knew this. Jesus heals people and he doesn’t seem to honor the Sabbath like they do. The rabbis taught that you could help someone on the Sabbath but it basically had to be a matter of life and death. This man is not going to die from a paralyzed hand.
As is often the case Jesus knew what they were reasoning. He tells the man with the withered hand to come into the midst of the crowd. He is forcing a confrontation. The Pharisees and scribes were experts in the law. But did they see the man? Jesus had him stand where they were forced to notice him. This is about a person; a soul. Jesus then said, “I ask you,” and this may be responding to them in the manner in which they saw themselves. They acted as lords of the Sabbath. They enforced the rules. They accused and condemned Sabbath breakers. Jesus may be saying with a hint of irony, “So, lords of the Sabbath what do you think? What is right to do on the Sabbath, to do good or to do bad? Save a life (soul) or destroy it?” Well, when you put in those terms Jesus. If it is a question between doing good or doing evil . . . What are they going to say? To do evil? And then there is that matter of making a rule about war and killing on the Sabbath that is a part of their history. With this question, he trapped them.
But there is more here. Jesus is pointing out that devotion to God means devotion to people. If observing the Sabbath means ignoring the plight of a person; a person who they refused to see until Jesus told him to stand in the middle of the crowd, then that is evil. They only saw the man as a means to accuse. They didn’t see him; his struggle; his life. They acted as lords of the Sabbath and instead of helping people, they bound them up in rules and fear. So, Jesus looks around at them and since Mark tells us he was angry I’m guessing that look was significant. He heals the man. There is nothing they can do. The healing is the exclamation point to Jesus’ question. It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath; to save a life. And how do the religious elite respond to being put in their place. They are crazy with rage and they begin to discuss – literally speak through – together about what they could do to Jesus.
It’s not that the Pharisees hated the man with the withered hand. They just didn’t see him through their approach to the law. And what difference does a day make in this man’s life? Why couldn’t Jesus heal him on Sunday? There was a lesson they needed to see here. You simply cannot love God to exclusion of loving people. God did not give the Sabbath to create walls of rules that rob the people of compassion. The Sabbath was and is important (we all need to etch out moments of rest and devotion to God), but it should never supersede loving people. Do good in worship, not evil. Do good in obedience to God, not evil. Grace.