The Pharisees think that what you do, or don’t do determines where you stand before God. What makes a good Pharisee? A good Pharisee has a certain view of the Sabbath and the law, just like with fasting, just as they did of sinners. And as they watch Jesus and his followers it is to see if they have that same view. The issue here is that of working on the Sabbath. Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work… For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Israel are to rest on the Sabbath just as God rested. Exodus 31:12-14 provides more instruction for Israel: “Then the LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites, 'You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. " 'Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people…' "
What is the Sabbath a way of remembering? It is a sign that God makes them holy, right before God, and the penalty for breaking it is death. By Jesus’ day layer on layer of tradition had been added to this, in fact there were a list of 39 actions forbidden on the Sabbath, and here in (1) the disciples had broken 4 of them. By picking, rubbing and eating the corn the Pharisees condemned them for reaping, threshing, winnowing and preparing food. Jesus is responsible as their teacher and the question is (2) what is he going to do about it?
How does Jesus answer them? He challenges them about their Bible knowledge. (3-4) Jesus refers to David entering the tabernacle and taking consecrated bread that only the Priests could eat. David breaks the law, and yet the Priest does not condemn him for doing so. David breaks the law because of the need of his men. If the Pharisees don’t condemn David, the anointed king of God in waiting, how can they condemn Jesus and his men? But actually the most astonishing claim is what Jesus says next. (5) “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Just as David as God’s anointed had authority and acted so Jesus has authority over the Sabbath, over God’s law as God’s anointed. He rules and is bringing in his new way (5:36-38) which changes everything.
Jesus reveals God’s way of coming to him and it is not tied up with laws and traditions, it is found in his person and the words he speaks. The issue is not how to relate to the Sabbath but how to relate to Jesus. What are you relying on to save you? Am I a Pharisee? Am I relying on a list of things that I can say to God I have done or not done?
The key issue is and has always been how you relate to Jesus. He comes as God’s anointed one to fulfil everything the Sabbath pointed to – he comes to enable us to enter the rest the Sabbath pictured because he comes to make us holy by keeping the law in our place. He comes to make us right with God because we cannot do it ourselves, so what matters most is who you say Jesus is because he shows us that doing things is never enough! We can never balance the account with God. It’s not like making up with someone by buying them chocolates, or flowers, or taking them out for a treat. God cannot be bought off because he is too holy. That is why Jesus has to come, that is why he fulfils the law for us because we cannot do it. What will you do with Jesus?
The second incident shows that Jesus is who he claims to be, he is Lord of the Sabbath, but he also teaches how the Sabbath should be used, it also highlights that the Pharisees questions about Jesus are now outright hostility to him and his teaching, as (7) they watch him, keeping their eye on him. Jesus authority is shown in a number of ways in the passage; it is in his knowing the unspoken thoughts of the Pharisees (8), in his calling the man into the open (8), and in the healing that occurs with just the words “Stretch out your hand.”(10)
The issue for the Pharisees is the Sabbath, in healing Jesus would be working. You were allowed to save someone if they would die without your action, but this man just has a shrivelled hand, the healing could wait until tomorrow. So why did Jesus heal the man now? Jesus is confronting their wrong way of thinking. (9) “...which is lawful to do on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
Jesus sets up two contrasts, there’s no middle ground, there’s no let it wait until tomorrow option. The obviously right answer is what? It is for doing good, saving life. And that is what Jesus does, Jesus brings restoration, it is a sign that he has the authority he claimed as Lord of the Sabbath, but it is also a sign that he brings God’s kingdom. To do nothing would not be morally neutral, it would be evil, to be able to heal this man on the Sabbath and not do it would be wrong.
Jesus speaks as God’s anointed one with God’s authority, he fulfils and explains God’s law and the new way, of which the old was only a shadow. The question is how will we react to it? (11) Will it be with the fury of the Pharisees who realise how radical this is, that Jesus is saying he is the only way to God? They want to get rid of Jesus because he shows how far from God they are and how futile their religion and efforts to please God, and they want the old way (5:38). Will we react like that? Or will we recognise who Jesus is, listen to what he has to say and live in the light of it?
The passage raises the issue of the Sabbath, and I guess that’s a continuing question – how should we treat Sundays? This isn’t the time for detailed examination but here are some things to think about. We are saved by grace alone not by works. We are not called to keep the Sabbath because we see the New Testament church meet on Sunday and there are no specific laws laid down as regards Sunday.
However, as God’s people we are to mirror the God we serve and model the grace we have experienced. Having a day set aside from work is a sign that we have entered God’s rest; it reminds us that actually our work is not all important; it does not define who we are or give us worth – God does that in Jesus through whom we know righteousness and rest. I think the bigger issue is the one Jesus teaches here, he says it is not about what you do not do on the Sabbath but about what you do. Why not make Sunday a day for doing good, a day of meeting with and encouraging others, a day for hospitality and relationship?
Our temptation is always to slip back into religion into legalism, or to go to the opposite extreme where anything goes. In the car I sometimes have one person calling for me to go faster, whilst another cries out the sign said 30 and you are nearly at the 3 and the 0. The licentious and the legalist that is often the danger we face. Jesus gives an example to follow not of being law bound but neither being lawless. As those saved by grace living by grace in action, doing good, saving life, loving others.