SynopsisIn this passage Jesus goes into the Jewish synagogue where there happens to be a man with a “withered hand.” The Pharisees obviously know about this man, as well as knowing Jesus’ reputation, so they watch to see if Jesus will heal the man on the Sabbath. Specifically, they watch him “so that they might accuse him” (verse 2 (ESV)).
Jesus, of course, knows what’s up and decides to use this as a teaching moment. He has the man come to him, and then asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (verse 4 (ESV)). They don’t answer him, however, they just stay silent, which angers him. Without even touching the man (that we are told) he asks him to stretch out his hand, and when the man does the hand is healed.
At this point we are not told of any further interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees; they simply immediately run out to hold counsel with Herod’s people on how they might destroy Jesus.
ThoughtsI’m sure I’ve said this before, but there is a certain point of view from which I sympathize with part of what the Pharisees are trying to do: The Messiah would never sin, so if healing on the Sabbath is a sin then doing so would be an obvious proof that Jesus was not the Messiah. And that last part is true: if healing on the Sabbath had been a sin Jesus never would have done it. If Jesus had ever committed a sin, whether breaking the Sabbath or stealing or something else, it would have proven that He wasn’t the Messiah.
The problem is obviously with the first part of the logical construct: healing on the Sabbath wasn’t a sin. This is a case where the Pharisees have constructed their own rules around God’s Law and taken their rules to be more important than the underlying Law itself; in this case, they care more about strict legalism than they do about a human being. (Their laws are sometimes inconsistent; in other places Jesus points these inconsistencies out to them. For some reason, however, the Pharisees never seem to appreciate his help on the matter…)
I do find it interesting, however, that when Jesus calls them out specifically on this issue that they have no answer for him.
And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (verses 4–5 (ESV))Is this because they have no good answer for him and they know it? Do they know that they’re just dogmatically clinging to this rule of theirs, realizing that they won’t be able to argue the point properly with Jesus—that they don’t have a leg to stand on? For some reason I’m reminded of Jesus’ message to the church of Laodicea, where He rebukes them for being lukewarm—neither hot nor cold (Revelation 3:14–22 (ESV), especially 15–16 (ESV)). It makes me wonder if Jesus would have been less angry if the Pharisees had actually argued with him on the point, even though they were wrong. Perhaps if they’d had the argument with him, though, he could have made his point? No, probably not.
Anyway, as we see from the story they didn’t. They didn’t say anything as far as we’re told; they just ran straight out to Herod’s people to conspire about “destroying” Jesus. Herod, by the way, is the Jewish King who’s been put in place by the Romans; he doesn’t have a lot of real power, but he has some autonomy to rule the Jewish people. In going to him the Pharisees aren’t making a religious move, they’re making a political one: they are hoping to convince Herod that Jesus is going to be a threat to civic order, which will make the Romans get angry and step in to deal with the situation. This is a ploy the Pharisees try on a number of occasions: if they can show that Jesus isn’t loyal to the Romans then the Romans can deal with him; if they can convince Herod that Jesus is a threat to civil order then maybe Herod can deal with him. If they can’t get rid of him one way, they’ll try another.
Finally, we notice from this passage that anger, in and of itself, is not a sin. Jesus gets angry with the Pharisees in this passage, and grieves at their hardness of heart. Why is He angry with them? Is it because they don’t understand? I don’t think so; compare this with his interaction with Nicodemus in John 3:1–21 (ESV); he’s not happy with Nicodemus (“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?”), but neither does he seem to be angry at him. Here, though, he is angry with the Pharisees. The difference is that phrase “hardness of heart” which we see in this passage: “And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, …” Nicodemus didn’t understand, and Jesus found that somewhat bothersome—he should have known better as one of the Jews’ leaders—but in this case the Pharisees are being purposely stubborn. It’s not that they don’t understand, it’s that they won’t understand. These are not stupid men; they could have looked into the Scriptures and seen Jesus’ point, but they had no interest in doing so. They were invested in their own system, and had no interest in looking past that, to consider what God really required of them.
The dangerous question, of course, is whether we do the same thing in modern times. (I mean dangerous only to our own egos; it’s actually a necessary question, even though we’d hope that the answer is no.) Are there any aspects of the Christian “religion” or Christian “culture” that we cling to, regardless of what the Scriptures tell us? Any example I can think of would be contrived; maybe the best I can do is, what if a friend needed help and you told them you couldn’t because you have to go to a church event? (A little too “on the nose,” maybe.) Or maybe a friend needs some extra money, but you can’t give it to them because you want to donate that money for the church potluck instead? Or you want to witness to a Muslim friend but your North American (including Christian) friends don’t want you associating with Muslims in any way shape or form?
I don’t know; the problem is that cultural issues are hard to discern—if there are issues where our culture gets in the way of doing what God wants I might not realize it from being blinded by my own cultural biases. It should be a matter of prayer for us, though, and if there are instances where our church culture diverges from the Word, we need to go against the grain—even within our own Christian sub-culture.