LOVE AND THE LAW
And He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath." Again He entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they [the Pharisees] watched Him, to see whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come here." 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. The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against Him, how to destroy Him."
- Mark 2:27-3:6
Conforming to the letter of the law while blatantly violating the spirit of the law is a time-honored tradition among people trying to get away with something - which means all of us at least once in a while. Some people do seem to have a greater affinity for these kind of semantic and moral gymnastics, however. Bill Clinton is definitely a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in this regard. For example, he was able to assert that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman" and believe it to be the truth, because in his mind he had twisted and warped the definition of 'sexual relations' into something Webster would never recognize. And who can forget his memorable attempt to avoid being caught in a blatant lie by appealing to multiple meanings of that highly complex and difficult to understand word, 'is.' The fact is, though, that virtually everyone, including me, has tried to avoid trouble (or to extricate ourselves from it) from time to time by claiming that our words or actions were technically within the rules. When we do this, however, we invariably do violence to the spirit of the particular law or rule involved. Focusing completely on the letter of a law and ignoring its purpose usually results in the defeating of that purpose.
The Pharisees, who were the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus' ministry, were concerned with the letter of the law to the point of obsession. Their predecessors had, for several hundred years, accumulated detailed laws for acceptable conduct according to their interpretation of the Old Testament. The Sabbath laws were the greatest example of this. They had taken one of the basic principles of the Sabbath observation - that no work should be done - and mutated it into a monstrosity. The Sabbath laws divided 'work' into 39 specific categories, and each category had hundreds of minutely defined regulations. For example, there were rules for exactly how much of every conceivable object could be carried, and exactly how far, before doing so crossed the line and officially became 'work'.
The problem with all this was that the Sabbath was given as a day of rest from work so that the people could concentrate their attention on God, and thus recharge both their physical AND spiritual batteries. The Pharisaic Sabbath laws, in contrast, forced people to devote a great deal of their attention to keeping the laws, which distracted them from concentrating on God. Thus, the Pharisees had the people (and themselves) so focused on the letter of the law that they virtually ignored, and largely defeated, the spirit of the law. The Pharisees failed to understand that the command not to work on the Sabbath was a means to an end, NOT an end in itself.
The underlying foundation of both Christianity and Old Testament Judaism is not rules, but LOVE - God's love for us, and our love for Him and for each other. The Commandments and laws of the Old Testament are simply guidelines for living out this love. So, it was absurd that the Pharisees saw something abominable in Jesus' act of love toward the man with the withered hand. Far from being a violation of the Sabbath, it was an illustration of what the Sabbath is really all about. For believers today, there is no greater Sabbath observance possible than to feel God's love flowing through us as we help someone in need.
Speaking of love, Jesus' love for the Pharisees is also indicated in this text, although it's not staring us directly in the face. When you examine the tenses of the original Greek verbs in verse 5, it can be seen that the anger Jesus felt is indicated to be momentary, whereas his 'grieving' is described as continuous, lasting action. In other words, He was angry the way a parent would be with a child who has done something to harm himself. Such a parent would have an immediate reaction of anger over what the child had done, but would continue to feel hurt over the child's pain long after the anger had faded. Jesus expressed anger numerous times during His ministry over the attitude of the Pharisees, and over how they were misleading the people about what the Old Testament is really all about; but He always loved them too, and eventually even prayed for their forgiveness for His crucifixion.
Instead of seeing God's presence in the miracle Jesus performed, the Pharisees only saw a technical violation of one of their rules. So they turned away completely from love, and thus from God, and began plotting to destroy the Author of Life. Their approach to religion was much like that of today's Islamic fundamentalists, who believe their 'god' wants them to destroy all those who refuse to conform themselves to the letter of their religion - in contrast to the true God of the Bible, who commands us to reach out to all other people in love, and to do good to and pray for those who hate us and persecute us. Why anyone would reject the God of love and forgiveness, and instead choose to devote themselves to a 'god' that commands hate and murder, is frankly beyond me.
The principle behind this passage is that love is always to be the driving force in our relationship with God and with others. All the Commandments and laws in the Bible are worthless unless they are done from the heart as expressions of love. Getting bogged down in technicalities and minutiae only distracts us from what we should be concentrating on. It's important to realize that nine of the Ten Commandments are restated in some form in the New Testament. The one exception is the Sabbath Commandment. The reason for this is that since Pentecost, all believers have the 24/7 presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This reduces the need for a special day each week to concentrate exclusively on God. It's still a very good idea, of course, but no longer so important as to merit a fixed Commandment. This is the best possible illustration of the principle that the Biblical laws were made for us, not us for them. Love is what's it's always about.
May God grant us to act in accordance with His Word as much as we are able, not out of a sense of legal obligation, but out of genuine desire, because His love is flowing through our hearts.
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