Human Value, Need, and What Really Offends God: Jesus on Legalism and the Sabbath

Moving on from there, He entered their synagogue. There He saw a man who had a paralyzed hand. And in order to accuse Him they asked Him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

But He said to them, “What man among you, if he had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it out? A man is worth far more than a sheep, so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath.”

Then He told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out, and it was restored, as good as the other.

But the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him. (Matthew 12:9-14)

This passage continues the story that began with Jesus and his disciples walking to synagogue one bright Sabbath morning. When the Pharisees spotted Jesus’s hungry disciples picking and eating grains of wheat as they passed through a wheatfield, they accused them of sabbath-breaking. That, of course, began the altercation that Jesus ended by declaring himself “Lord of the Sabbath.”

It’s clear, though, that the Pharisees weren’t convinced — and if they were convicted, they responded only by digging their heels in even deeper. When they all arrived at the synagogue, they spotted the opportunity for the self-proclaimed “Lord of the Sabbath” to sabbath-break even before he did.

There happened to be a man present whose hand was paralyzed. And before Jesus had even said a word, “in order to accuse him” the Pharisees asked whether it was legal, in God’s eyes, to heal on the sabbath.

Although the New Testament doesn’t give us all the background, this wasn’t an isolated question. It was a matter of ongoing debate among Jewish teachers, one they had been discussing for over a hundred years.

Because any act of “healing” involved many tasks, including traveling to the patient, grinding and mixing herbs for medicine, binding up wounds, etc., many teachers saw it as a violation of the sabbath law against work. Others argued that in God’s eyes, the preservation of human life clearly took precedence.

In any case, the particular Pharisees confronting Jesus on this particular sabbath appear to have been in the “healing is illegal on the sabbath” camp, especially given that a paralyzed hand — while it may have tremendous impact on one’s health and livelihood in the long run — clearly isn’t an urgent matter of life and death. Healing could have waited until the next day.

But Jesus had little patience for this debate or the attitudes underlying it. His answer was simple and direct:

“What man among you, if he had a sheep that fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it out? A man is worth far more than a sheep, so it is lawful to do what is good on the Sabbath.”

And then he healed the man.

Human Value and Human Need

Jesus’s summary statement, so blunt and well, obvious, hits closely at our hardheartedness and a strange tendency in our approach to religion: where God responds to human need with compassion and practical help, we commonly respond to it defensively, taking offense at it and even condemning it.

I’ll make this very personal: Jesus’s answer here hits at my own tendencies toward legalism and my own attitudes about my fellow human beings.

In all honesty, had someone presented me with the question of whether you should pull a donkey out of a hole on the sabbath, I probably would have said those people were playing fast and loose with the commands of God and were walking dangerously close to compromise.

The Word of God matters more than circumstance. You obey God, period. If you do what is right, you can trust Him to pull the donkey out.

You get the gist. But for Jesus it’s so simple: “Human beings are immensely valuable; therefore it is lawful to do what is good on the sabbath.”

My heart is often hard and my value system misguided. Jesus’s value system was exceptionally clear: A man is worth more than a donkey. Why isn’t that as obvious to me as it is to Jesus?

Jesus’s use of a donkey as an example really underscores this issue. Most of us are naturally compassionate toward animals — yet we tend to be hardhearted toward human need. We’ll respond compassionately to children, sure, but our automatic responses toward the poor, the infirm, the elderly, the addicted, the abandoned, the homeless, the sick, the broke, the cranky, and the hopeless — often our attitudes border more on disgust than compassion.

And that, maybe more than anything, highlights the difference between us and God.

Need, Compassion, and Getting Real About Ourselves

So what’s up with us? Why are we (why am I) so hard-hearted? Why is “is it lawful to heal on the sabbath” even a question?

Maybe it’s because the sight of need reminds us that we aren’t in control. Legalism allows us to feel like we’re in charge.

Or maybe because hardening ourselves against human need means we don’t need to feel the weight of suffering in the world which, after all, is far more than anyone of us can carry. Maybe we’re just being self-protective.

Or maybe it’s because the need of others reminds us of our own needs. We don’t want to confront how weak, fragile, needy, and broken we are. If we can ignore our brothers’ need and justify ourselves in doing so, then we don’t need to face our own either.

Maybe it’s because we tend to oppose love for God and love for our fellow human beings in our minds. We see it as one or the other. And there are times when loving God well means doing things that other people may perceive as unloving.

(“True religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this,” says James: “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27, KJV). On occasion “keeping oneself unspotted” comes off as unloving, but the counterbalance is entering into the affliction of widows and orphans.)

For God, the first and second commandments always go together. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength — yes and amen; but the second is like it, that you love your neighbor as yourself.

And for that matter, the sabbath rest of God always goes hand-in-hand with liberation and renewal … and we can have neither without love for our brothers and sisters, especially those in need.

Will the fast I choose be like this:
A day for a person to deny himself,
to bow his head like a reed,
and to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the LORD?

Isn’t the fast I choose:
To break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the ropes of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free,
and to tear off every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the poor and homeless into your house,
to clothe the naked when you see him,
and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?

Then your light will appear like the dawn,
and your recovery will come quickly.
Your righteousness will go before you,
and the LORD’s glory will be your rear guard.
At that time, when you call, the LORD will answer;
when you cry out, He will say, “Here I am.”
(Isaiah 58:5-9)

Ultimately, the Pharisees’ response to Jesus in this circumstance should frighten us: “But the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.”

It should frighten us because, if we tend to respond to human need with accusation, suspicion, or indifference; or to use the law of God as a weapon or a wall, or as a way to excuse ourselves from our duty to love; then we have no guarantee that we wouldn’t have sided with the Pharisees in this situation.

If our understanding of God’s law causes us to call what is good “evil,” and to call what is evil “good,” then our discernment is broken, and we do not know the God we claim to serve.

Even if we find ourselves there, though, there is hope in the very presence of Jesus in our midst. We have called, and the Lord has answered “Here I am.” All we need to do to heal our discernment, reorient our spirits, and learn the ways of “pure religion and undefiled” is this: to recognize who Jesus is, humble ourselves before him, and begin to learn what he is offering to teach us.


This is Part 208 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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