SCRIPTURE – Luke 6:6-11 – 6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 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.8 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. 9 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?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#2 – Lending a Hand
We continue our sermon series this morning look at the miracles of Jesus. We laid some groundwork last week that will be important for us to remember moving forward. First, we learned that in most of these stories, the miracle itself is only of secondary importance to the larger context of what’s going on. And second, we learned that the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was not to entertain or even to provide healing. The primary purpose of the miracles was to give those who witnessed them a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like, where there is no more death, everyone is feed, etc. So hold onto those two thoughts as we move into our miracle today about the healing of a man with a withered hand.
But first, a confession. Not mine, yours! I want you to think about the 10 commandments, or at least the ones you can remember, and then decide which one of them you are most likely to break. Is it “thou shalt not steal?” Then you and I need to talk. Is it “thou shalt not commit murder?” Then you and I need to talk in a very public place. Which commandment are you most likely to violate?
I believe that there is one commandment that 99% of the people in this room will break before the day is even over. That’s the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, to give the whole day to God and to rest from our labors. At some point today, we will do some kind of work – answering an email, cooking a meal, going shopping, pumping gas. Of all the commandments, this is the one that probably gets broken on a regular basis most often, and without even a second thought.
That’s a far cry from how the Pharisees observed this law. They were the Jewish religious leaders, and one of their jobs was to make sure God’s law was followed to the letter. They were fundamentalists when it came to the law, making sure that God’s commands were properly honored and followed, especially the Ten Commandments. So in our passage today, when they see Jesus not honoring the Sabbath, he was committing one of the most serious offenses in their eyes. It’s not like he’s breaking law #312. He’s breaking one of the Top Ten! We read at the end of this passage that this incident was the nudge that pushed the Pharisees over the cliff and made them actively start to plot against Jesus. But were they in the wrong here? If Jesus knew this law was so important, and if Jesus was a Jew himself, why didn’t he observe it?
I don’t believe this was because Jesus didn’t think that idea of Sabbath was important. We have several examples of him pulling off by himself to rest and pray. But in this instance, Jesus saw that the Pharisees were giving more importance to keeping this commandment than to doing God’s work. The Pharisees thought they had an understanding of the right way to do things, and they tried to enforced that, to the extent that the lost sight of the bigger picture.
Earlier I called the Pharisees fundamentalists. That’s a harsh term in today’s world because of the baggage it carries with it. Fundamentalism is defined as “a strict adherence to basic ideas or principles.” In that case, I will admit to being a fundamentalist. I strictly adhere to the idea that you do NOT leave a baseball game before the last pitch is thrown. If you do, you’ve broken one of my commandments.
Fundamentalists are everywhere these days! People are fundamentalists about things like no spaghetti in their chili or not wearing white after Labor Day. Some people are toilet-paper-from under fundamentalists; others are toilet-paper-from-over fundamentalists. Some people are fundamentalists about no nuts in their fudge; others are fundamentalist about opening one present on Christmas Eve. If you look into you heart of hearts, I bet there’s something about which you are a fundamentalist.
So before we dismiss the fundamentalism of the Pharisees, we have to be willing to admit our similarities. The problem Jesus had was not with their fundamentalism; it was the way their fundamentalism blinded them from seeing the situation in front of them. It’s fine to believe you should stay to the end of a baseball game. It’s not fine to strictly adhere to that principle if the stadium catches fire. There has to be a balance between believing our way is the right way, and being open to a better way.
The Pharisees just knew that their way of observing the Sabbath was the right way, so they were determined to catch Jesus breaking the commandment so they could punish him. Jesus was never one to hide from a challenge, so on the Sabbath, while teaching in the synagogue, he gives them their smoking gun. It’s interesting to note that Luke says the Pharisees were “watching him closely,” which can also be translated as “spying.” On the day they were supposed to be observing the Sabbath by not working, instead they were working by observing Jesus!
Jesus sees a man with a withered hand and calls him forward so everyone could see him. Now, this man’s condition, while unfortunate, was not life-threatening. Sabbath law actually allows for doing work if it involves a life-threatening situation. But this man wasn’t about to die. Jesus could have waited a day and performed the same healing action with no consequence. But to do so would have been saying that the Pharisees’ law of strict adherence to the Sabbath trumped God’s law of doing the right thing.
Now notice that Jesus didn’t actually do anything in this story. All he did was say something, which hardly counts as work, unless you’re a preacher! But the Pharisees didn’t care; they knew the right way to observe the Sabbath, and whatever Jesus was doing, that wasn’t it. Luke, who was a doctor by trade, gives us the details. He tells us it was the man’s right hand. The right hand was the one used for work, for gesturing, even for greeting someone. To be without the use of the right hand was not only physically debilitating, but would have hurt this man’s ability to make a living and a life. Without his right hand, he was cut off from society.
Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” something that, with a shriveled hand, would have been impossible. At the call of Jesus this man does what he otherwise couldn’t do, and Luke tells us that his hand is completely healed, restored to his former good health. But that physical healing that the Pharisees witnessed, the healing that made them so mad, was only a small part of the real healing in this story. The spiritual healing of this man has longer lasting effects. This man had once had a full life. Then, because of his hand, he lost it: his self-esteem, his sense of worth, his livelihood, his ability to provide for his family. All gone. Now, thanks to Christ, he found it again. His sense of dignity restored. His ability to work restored. His life restored.
And it never would have happened had the Pharisees had their way. Their understanding of God was cemented in the law of the Old Testament. They weren’t open to this new way God’s kingdom was present among them. They were open to the idea that God was still working. You see what Jesus did, right? He took a scripture passage about the Sabbath and reinterpreted it for his current context. You mean it’s OK to interpret the Bible, not to be restricted to reading it literally? That’s a miracle right there! The Bible, which looks like a static book, is actually a living document if we let it speak to us. But we have to be willing to interpret it for our current context.
Jesus does that here, and in doing so he displays his own form of fundamentalism. His strict adherence is to the principle that God is love, and that showing God’s love should trump anything else. In fact, Jesus goes further. He says that inactivity before human need is not an option. He says that if you have a chance to show God’s love and you don’t do it, you’re not just abstaining from giving a glimpse of God’s kingdom. You’re doing evil.
Ouch. That one stings. There have been plenty of times in my life when I could have shown God’s love but didn’t for selfish reasons. Not stopping to help a car on the side of the road because I was in a hurry. Not sharing my money with someone because I’d have to go to the ATM to get more. Not helping to serve at church because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it the right way. What keeps us from being love fundamentalists, from giving a glimpse of the kingdom by showing God’s love?
This is no law greater than the law of Christ. There is no purpose that trumps our call to love one another. There is never a wrong day or wrong time to help someone in need. We have a role to play in restoring this world, in making people whole. We can speak a kind word of encouragement to a disheartened coworker. We can offer a smile to a weary store clerk. We can give someone else our time and attention to let them know that they matter to God and to us. We have the power to restore life, to offer spiritual healing, to participate in making a miracle happen.
Jesus is not devaluing the role of taking a Sabbath. It’s still important for all of us to find time to rest. What Jesus is saying is that doing God’s will – whether that means resting, worshipping, or helping – shouldn’t be confined to a certain day or time. Every day is holy. Every day has the potential for being a time of Sabbath or a time of serving. Every day holds the potential for a miracle, the potential for being restored, the potential to provide a glimpse of God’s kingdom. If we are open to a better way. If we are fundamentalists about sharing God’s love.
We’ll never be perfect at this; we still suffer from Pharisee syndrome of thinking our way is the right way. We will still think we know what is best. There’s our way, and then there’s God’s way, and our goal each and every day should be to make our way look more like God’s way, because that’s when we become miracle-workers in Christ’s name. What do we say in that prayer? My will be done? No, we say, thy will be done, Lord. Thy will be done.