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On another Shabbat, when Yeshua had gone into the synagogue and was teaching, a man was there who had a shriveled hand. The Torah-teachers and Pharisees watched Yeshua carefully to see if he would heal on Shabbat, so that they could accuse him of something. But he knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Come up and stand where we can see you!” He got up and stood there. Then Yeshua said to them, “I ask you now: what is permitted on Shabbat? Doing good or doing evil? Saving life or destroying it?” 10 Then, after looking around at all of them, he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” As he held it out, his hand was restored. 11 But the others were filled with fury and began discussing with each other what they could do to Yeshua.withered 2

Luke follows his main source Mark in this story, with one important change, as we shall see.

This incident focuses what is really at stake in the issue about Torah observance: in the end of the day it’s a question of life or death. The defenders of the Shabbat are prepared to kill the one they think is a law-breaker – proof that the law for them is no longer God’s wisdom for human benefit, which may be questioned and argued over, but a magical formua which must be obeyed as interpreted by its defenders. Jesus was not acting against the Shabbat Law but implementing its intention with regard to this particular man. Perhpas he exaggerated a little when he talked about saving life – if it had been an obvious emergency, the Pharisees would have acepted his action. Jesus meant that on Shabbat people should be allowed to act for the benefit of others.

We should look sympathetically at the Pharisees’ case here. They believed:

  1. That the Shabbat rest was a command of God (So did Jesus)
  2. That it was a communal command to be oberved by the whole nation. (So did Jesus)
  3. That it prohibited all work, except where life was endangered.(So did Jesus)
  4. That the act of healing was work and could only be permitted when a life was at risk. (Jesus apparently disagreed)
  5. That all commands were equally important and should be equally obeyed in full. (Probably Jesus disagreed on the basis that “in full” often meant “as interpreted by Pharisees” whereby the original commandment was obscured by sub-clauses that were more to do with religious propriety and power, than with God’s desire to “save (i.e. care for) life.”

We can imagine the Pharisees arguing that if every Tom, Dick and Harry was given the licence to interpret the law as he wished, the communal observance of the command would fall gto bits. As it turned out, under Pharisaic guidance, after the destruction of the Temple, the Sabbath along with the synagogue was one of the pillars of Jewish faith for 2000 years.

Jesus’ point of view is more radical than is often  thought. He was teaching that no religious observance should get in the way of doing good. This reflects the attitude of some of the prophets of Israel, who reckoned that God was a bit impatient with religious observances, and wanted more practical goodness and justice from his people. In fact Jesus doesn’t seem to have been much interested in religion. He thought that life was “endangered” every time an opportunity to help someone was refused. In the case of the Pharisees, Jesus also saw hypocrisy in that they were offended at his “saving” of life, while preparing to destroy his.withered

Mark’s account depicts Jesus as angered by the Pharisees’ hard-heartedness. Luke cancels this description, maybe because he didn’t think it respectful to attribute anger to Jesus, and gives the anger to the resentful pharisees. It’s such little details that make us aware of the limitations of one gospel writer’s perspective, amd make us grateful for having four.

There’s another question about the story that I don’t remember being asked by any scholar:

Did the man want to be healed? How did he feel at being made the center of attention?

Jesus’ high-handed treatment of the man is not attractive, as presented. If the Pharisees are ready to use the man to discredit Jesus’ ministry, is Jesus any better if he uses him to validate it?

I raise this, not because I think Jesus would have behaved this way, but because the gospel writers, in their desire to present Jesus as authoritative, sometimes overplay their hand. As I noted in an earlier blog, the stories of Jesus’ healing probably represent a historical fact – that Jesus was a healer – but their detail has been shifted into a supernatural register by the communities who passed on his memory.




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