On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. --Luke 1:1-16 (NRSV)
I deeply empathize with the Pharisees in our text today. Perhaps it's our human nature to want to find someone to blame in a conflict. As though the lines are clearly drawn. That everything is either black or
white. That there’s no gray area whatsoever.
The Pharisees have been misunderstood and misaligned for centuries. While they are often described as rule-keepers or as those who maintain the regulations of religious observance in scripture, they are anything but. In fact, one of the primary gifts of the Pharisees to the Jewish religious observance in Jesus’ time is a democratization of it. That devotional practice could be followed anywhere or by anyone without direct oversight by religious leaders. In fact, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day could be categorized today as mainline Protestants. Like us.
So, then, you might ask, what’s the point of these three little vignettes that make up our reading today? The first two that are connected to healing and a controversy around the Sabbath. And, then, the third that is the story of Jesus choosing the twelve.
Let me begin at the ending. Because the story of Jesus calling the twelve apostles connects to our story from last week, where Jesus called Peter. In the time between last week’s story and today’s, it is apparent that Jesus’ power and authority is growing. Through his acts of healing and his speaking and teaching, his influence is expanding. The religious leaders are beginning to take note. And to push back, challenging who this Jesus is and under whose authority he is operating.
As this buzz and murmuring is growing, we come to the beginning of our story today. Two examples of “breaking” the sabbath that involve Jesus and his, not-yet-formally-called, disciples. Notice that in his comments, Jesus never dismisses or devalues the Sabbath. He does not claim that the Sabbath is unimportant. Instead, Jesus makes two important claims about it.
The first. That he is Lord of the Sabbath, and not the other way around. The Sabbath does not dictate Jesus’s actions. His statement justifies Sabbath observance, but perhaps with a modification. That modification is the second claim that Jesus makes - that doing good on the Sabbath is lawful.
Now, maybe for us today, it’s hard relate. After all, It has been centuries since the Christian church has kept the “true” Sabbath, from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday. And, in these last many decades, it’s questionable whether even the “Lord’s Day” or Sunday is still observed as a Sabbath in our culture. I wonder how many of us, pre-pandemic, would not hesitate to meet friends for brunch after worship, or to stop by the grocery store, or to mow the lawn, or to attend a soccer match. All of which could be, technically, violations of God’s Sabbath command.
Perhaps, for us in our time, it’s not so much the question of the Sabbath that really matters here, but that what is more at stake are the underlying issues in this conflict. The question that lies under the challenge of the Pharisees to Jesus and under Jesus’ response to them, and, also, underneath Luke’s decision to include these stories in his story, is about how we, as people of God, hold onto our traditions in light of a world and in the midst of circumstances in our world that are ever-changing.
By claiming authority over the Sabbath, Jesus is reminding us that God is the one who has authority over, not only the Sabbath, but over the people who steward the practices and institutions given by God. Reminding us that institutions that resist the ministry of Jesus are acting contrary to God’s purpose in the world.
What is this ministry of Jesus? He sets it out to the Pharisees, and to us, in the question he asks in verse 9. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” That’s the test for us. It is to ask ourselves whether or not we should hold onto traditions that destroy life and do harm. Or whether we should modify our practices in ways that are life giving and good.
Both of our congregations have long traditions as Reconciling in Christ communities. Claiming this identity publicly means that we are communities that are committed to welcome, to inclusion, to the celebration and advocacy for all people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions; with a commitment to anti-racism and to working for racial equity. We do this because this is consistent with God’s purpose in the world. Which is never about death or doing harm to others, but always about life and wholeness, abundance and goodness for everyone.
May we celebrate this today about our communities of faith. But, mostly, may we celebrate this about our God. Amen.