Throughout the gospels, we’re treated to one testy conflict after another between Jesus and his opponents. People accuse Jesus of being a law-breaker, especially for violating the Sabbath, and want to kill him (and yes, violation of the Sabbath is a capital offense — see Exod 31:14). Truth be told, they want to kill him for other reasons, like jealousy or fear. Sabbath-breaking, however, seems like a much better rationalization for killing your enemy. Hey, God commanded it, not me.
Then Jesus makes them even madder by exposing their hypocrisy. Why is it, he wants to know, that they obey some parts of the Law, but ignore others as convenient? Such is the argument in John 7:
“Did not Moses give you the law? Yet none of you keeps the law. Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus answered them, “I performed one work, and all of you are astonished. Moses gave you circumcision (it is, of course, not from Moses, but from the patriarchs), and you circumcise a man on the sabbath. If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” (John 7:19-24, NRSV)
Here, Jesus seems to be speaking to the pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for the Festival, and have no knowledge of the lethal designs of the Jewish leaders. But his point is that he stands accused of being a law-breaker because he dared to heal a lame man on the Sabbath (John 5:1-18) — accused by the same people who are plotting to commit murder. They insist on observing the fourth commandment by violating the sixth.
But I want to emphasize something different, so as not to miss the note of grace in what Jesus says. Jesus’ opponents want his hide for healing on the Sabbath, but what we shouldn’t miss in Jesus’ response is that the Sabbath is a day of healing.
Sure, Jesus seems to say, the Law insists that you circumcise your baby boys on the eighth day. That law you obey, even if it falls on the Sabbath. But if it’s okay to perform that minor surgery on the Sabbath, why is it not okay to do a greater act of healing, to heal a whole man, to restore his life?
One can imagine, of course, a god who is a stickler in just that way. I made a rule, and by golly, you’d better obey it. If you don’t, there will be hell to pay. Literally.
But Jesus insists that God is not like that. The Sabbath is a gift, the commandment is for our good, and healing is entirely appropriate on that day.
I don’t know if you grew up in a tradition that had restrictive rules about the Sabbath day — you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t have fun. You were taught that that’s what it means to obey God and his commandments.
Would it make a difference to you to think of Sabbath as a day of healing instead?