He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
It’s the same story, with just one line added. Did you notice? After Jesus healed a man whose hand was withered, the Pharisees went out to plot against him in the hope of destroying him.
Of course it’s not that simple. The story actually begins not simply with Jesus healing a man, but rather with the Pharisees asking him whether it is lawful to cure on the Sabbath in order that they might accuse him. Which tells us two things. First, the Pharisees definitely did not think it was lawful to cure on the Sabbath, as curing someone was classified as work, work that was prohibited on the Sabbath. Second, it tells us that the Pharisee already knew Jesus. Knew his character and compassion, that is. For they expected him to heal and thereby fall into their trap.
But Jesus takes their trap and turns it around, comparing the act of mercy and healing he intends to perform to known and accepted exceptions to Sabbath law. If you can help an animal, Jesus seems to ask, can you not therefore help out another person who is in need. And then comes the punch line – of course it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Because that’s what the law is all about – a gift from God by which to promote the good and guard against evil.
But not to all. Some use the law to justify themselves and accuse others. And Jesus’ intent to restore the law to its original purpose disrupts not only their self-justification but really their whole ordering of the world, and that sets them off. And so they begin to scheme to get rid of him. You can’t, after all, fight city hall.
Or can you?
Prayer: Dear God, you have given us the law to take care of each other, yet we so often use it to look after only ourselves. Forgive us when we use your gift to justify ourselves and empower us to love each other. In Jesus’ name, Amen.