Keeping the Sabbath holy is at the heart of Jewish orthodoxy. The laws that developed regarding how the term “work” was defined, and in order to make sure that there was universal communal observance of the principle “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” are part of an intricate, systematic religious practice. Though these laws have been written down in the Talmud, in Jesus’ day, it was part of a complicated, complex oral tradition. The issues related to determining what constituted “work” and how much of that could be done on the Sabbath were complicated, and not much of anything was left open to interpretation.
There is not another single action of Jesus which brought him into more conflict with the Pharisees than incidents in which he performed healing on the Sabbath. They complained about it, criticized him for it, tried to put their own spin on it by accusing him of using the power of Beelzebub to cast out demons, chastized those who came to him for healing on the Sabbath, and even put one of those healed out of the synagogue for being a bit to enthusiastic about it afterward. It was one specific instance of healing on the Sabbath, recorded in Matthew 12, which put the Pharisees on the road to plotting Jesus death.
It seems that Jesus did indeed exhibit an attitude of defiance when he healed people on the Sabbath, but this was not an act of rebellion. Keeping the law was the heart of Jewish religious belief, a clear sign that a person feared and worshipped a Holy God. It was salvation. But during their long and stormy history, the system eroded as the result of their own disobedience. The reasons behind their fall would be the subject of several books. There is a long record in the Old Testament of it, going all the way back to Moses and the Exodus, through which God provided a whole series of prophets to try to correct errors when the religious and political leaders made them. Ultimately, the Assyrians swept down and ended the history of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom, but even the threat of the same happening to Judah and the Temple itself did not prevent their captivity in Babylon. The “orthodoxy” that developed in the oral tradition of the law following that was designed as a preventative measure against something like that ever happening again. Obedience and adherence to the law was codified, so that there was very little room for anyone, even the religious leaders, to interpret it any other way.
What they did not take into consideration, as this system developed, was grace. Every possible violation of the law that could be thought of was included, every possible “out” that people might use to escape judgement was covered. Exceptions were allowed, but only those things which were deemed absolutely necessary for sustaining physical life. So the Sabbath law contained provisions for dealing with emergencies, such as the potential loss of a farm animal on which a family’s livelihood might have depended, but even in those cases, only the minimum amount of action to resolve the situation was allowed. It was a stifling and oppressive interpretation of the law, impossible for people to keep. As a result, a system developed by which religious leaders, who had to manufacture an aura of perfection themselves in order to be in authority over the people who were under them, could be bribed or influenced into letting people get around the cumbersome rituals by which “restoration” could be had. This was the religious atmosphere into which Jesus entered.
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6.
These words, from one of the prophets God sent to straighten things out before the captivity, were used by Jesus in one specific encounter with the Pharisees over a Sabbath violation, an incident in which his disciples had been called out because they had taken some heads of grain and eaten them on the Sabbath. In so doing, Jesus is telling the Pharisees who he really is, and his reasoning assails their misinterpretation of the law. That angered them. Later on, he performs what I call an “in your face” healing, which puts them on the path of planning his death. These two things were both acts which benefitted the people who received them, and could not be interpreted in any way as acts of defiance against God, as Jesus clearly pointed out. So why did it make the Pharisees so angry?
Their interpretation of the law was their means of control, and it was very likely the means of their own personal prosperity as well. It’s not that they couldn’t see the benefits of what had happened, especially in the healing. They could. Jesus was the real thing, and they knew it. They couldn’t perform healings, but here was Jesus, doing it on the Sabbath, and sending a message about his own authority. It was something that was impossible to argue with, the people, as Luke describes following one Sabbath healing, “were delighted with him.” It was clearly a sign from God. And it was a major threat to their power and their personal prosperity. Jesus wasn’t challenging orthodoxy, he was simply bringing grace into a situation that lacked it, and correcting what had long been accepted as orthodox.
It is certainly something to think about in these days when many church leaders search through the scriptures and develop a system of obedience out of the words that are found there in order to measure the strength and veracity of the Christian faith. It takes what God intended to be mercy, and turns it into sacrifice. Without the presence of the Holy Spirit, or any acknowledgement of grace, it becomes as legalistic as the Pharisees, and those who claim that doctrinal orthodoxy is the path to the authentic practice of the Christian faith find themselves defending the Pharisees and Phariseeism as being “not really so bad.” That’s because there is no grace or spiritual power in their religion.