This post vanished into the ether when I first (thought I’d) published it a few days ago. This is an attempt to remember what I wrote!
Jesus in these chapters runs head-on into opposition from the Pharisees and their allies. In chapter 12, the argument focuses on what is right and wrong on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, if questioned in the abstract, wouldn’t have said that the keeping of the sabbath was one of the most important bits of faith. But in reality, it was a law which attracted more attention in Jesus’ day than most of the others (except laws about diet, for similar reasons). I think it was probably because the Sabbath was a visible and clear distinctive aspect of Jewish faith – and it had become one of the ‘boundary markers’ for who was – and more importantly for who was not – a true Jew.
So when Jesus allowed his hungry disciples to pluck grain on the sabbath, or deliberately and flagrantly healed a disabled man in a synagogue on the sabbath, they were furious. This, they believed, was to break God’s law. After all, the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments.
Now I do know that when I became a Christian, the sabbath was one of the great things I discovered. I found out that I wasn’t meant to work constantly, seven days a week. I suspect that this discovery saved my sanity at university, when I realised that God had included taking time off in the same list of laws as the commands not to murder and not to worship idols. The sabbath is God’s gift to us, and not just in the literal sense of one day in seven. It’s also about reminding us that we shouldn’t feel guilty about making proper time for rest and renewal, however much we have to do and however much is still undone.
Elsewhere Jesus will spell out that the sabbath is meant to be a gift, not a burden. Here his focus is a little different. Religious laws which get in the way of life and above all of compassionate action are dangerous, and all too easily take on a life and importance all their own. The Pharisees had a point, on their own terms. Their criticism of the disciples was unsurprising, but they didn’t seem to take it as Jesus making a point, rather as an example of his lax discipline on his followers. His answer was deliberately provocative. He could have healed the man’s withered hand after the service when no-one was watching. Given that the man had presumably suffered for years, if not all his life, the Pharisees could within their own logic have said that one more day would not have been too much for him to bear. Jesus was making a point. Love outweighs law. People override regulations.
This isn’t to say that laws don’t matter. They do. But they must always be interpreted with love, compassion and humanity if they are to serve their purpose – to give us boundaries within which we may be free to live fully.
Perhaps all this, and the nationalistic side of how the Pharisees were using sabbath enforcement, explains Jesus’ choice of Jonah as his example. Jonah, as I not long ago, was the reluctant prophet of God’s mercy to wicked Gentiles. His book is the only one in the Bible to end with a question, as God asks whether it is not right that he has mercy on the city, with its thousands of people and many animals. Jonah’s answer isn’t recorded – doubtless deliberately. Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the same question throughout his ministry. It’s a question which still faces all of us. How far will God’s mercy extend?
We may not have sabbath laws as the Jews of Jesus’ day did. We no longer have the same laws about Sunday that we once had, for good and for ill. But we need to keep watch over ourselves, to be sure that we don’t develop our own legalism about things that become important not for themselves so much as because they help us to label people as ‘us’ or ‘them’, ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the church.
Love and people trump laws. A clear vision of God and an invitation to join the journey towards him serve God and the world better than fences and border posts around the gospel.