Sabbath healing as a paradigm for Christian morality

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This is one of the most radical statements that Jesus ever made. Within it is the revelation of not only Christian but also Jewish morality. I read something similar from Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who said Torah was always meant to be a gift for the sake of humanity’s flourishing rather than a burden for the sake of entertaining God’s capricious fancy. But in evangelical Christian culture today, it’s as if Jesus never said these words. Because we measure our spiritual credibility according to how toughly we talk about sin, we are invested in making morality burdensome. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the same way in their zeal for the self-justification they gained through the burden of the homage they paid God. What made Jesus’ Sabbath healing so offensive to the Pharisees was not merely His violation of Jewish law but the way that He called out their morality based on conspicuous gestures of “honoring” God  by exuding a morality that really did honor God through its compassion for human need.

Today we don’t give a whole lot of thought to Jesus’ Sabbath healing, probably because the idea of not healing on the Sabbath seems quaint and ludicrous to us. But many American evangelicals today share the same basic theology of worship that caused Pharisees to be so zealous about enforcing the Sabbath. Worship is not supposed to be about our comfort or healing; it’s supposed to be about honoring God. Six days exist for us to take care of our practical needs; the seventh day is holy and devoted to God alone. It’s one thing to do work on the Sabbath in the case of an emergency, like if your ox falls in a ditch, to use the example Jesus cited, but that wasn’t really a valid analogy for Jesus to make considering the fact that none of the people Jesus healed on the Sabbath had emergency life-threatening illnesses. Every single one of them had a lifelong, chronic health condition that could have waited till the next day. How can Jesus talk about it as a choice to either “save life or to destroy it” (Luke 6:9) when a man with a shriveled hand can have it unshriveled just as easily on the six days when work is allowed?

Other than the fact that He’s Jesus and He can do whatever He wants to, why in the world would Jesus choose to violate this particular law of Torah? It would have been completely reasonable for him to make arrangements to heal the person on a different day. By acting as He did, Jesus was not simply stepping on the Pharisees’ toes; He was detracting from the honor that the Sabbath restrictions showed to God. Jesus gave a variety of justifications for His actions, sometimes common sense, sometimes making prophetic pronouncements like declaring himself “the Lord of the Sabbath.” Only once did He actually cite scripture as justification. When the Pharisees scolded Jesus for letting His disciples break off kernels of wheat and eat them on the Sabbath, Jesus references the story of David eating the consecrated priestly bread when Saul was chasing him (Luke 6:3-4). Let’s think about that for a minute. David was in a life or death situation; Jesus’ disciples were sauntering casually through a field. There is no way that Jesus’ scriptural precedent would pass muster among a crowd of today’s fundamentalists.

In perusing all the different healing stories, what I see Jesus doing in each and every one of them is showing solidarity to people whom society viewed as less than human because of something they were born with. Jesus had to restore their dignity because He could not continue worshiping God in the presence of their suffering and shame. The reason they had to be healed on the Sabbath and not the next day is because it dishonors God to honor Him by dishonoring one of His children. Just as the ancient Israelite prophets did before Him, Jesus repudiates the ubiquitous tendency of religious authorities to pit love of God against love of neighbor (which is just as common today among Christians as it was among first century Jews). Most importantly, I see Jesus replacing rules with relationship as the foundation for His ethics. Just as He proclaims Himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is the Lord of all Torah. He tells the Pharisees in John 5:39-40: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”

Think about what He’s saying here and its implications for how we should use scripture. The Pharisees saw the Bible as an “owner’s manual” for life. Following its prescriptions to the letter was the means of gaining eternal life (which shouldn’t necessarily be taken to mean “afterlife” so much as a full, richly meaningful experience of life here on Earth). But Jesus says that the point of the scriptures is to testify about Him. In other words, it’s a biography, not a rule book! Just as Jesus said to the Pharisees, we cannot gain eternal life as long as our worship of the Bible gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus.

Now the million dollar question is whether we are allowed to emulate Jesus in violating Biblical rules like the Sabbath prohibitions on healing insofar as they interfere with our love for our neighbor. Obviously Jesus can do certain things that we can’t do because He’s God and our discernment is inferior to His. But I don’t think that Jesus has any basis for saying what He says in John 5:39-40 unless “coming to Jesus” can sometimes lead us to do things that “studying the scriptures diligently” couldn’t do by itself. Otherwise Jesus would have nothing to criticize about what the Pharisees were doing. The degree to which you’re scandalized by the possibility that Jesus might tell you to do something contrary to the Bible is the degree to which you worship the Bible instead of Jesus.

I also think that Jesus’ statement that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” signifies that Christian morality is ultimately pragmatic and not arbitrary. To some degree, what Jesus says is the opposite of the underlying premise Rick Warren stakes out in the opening line of his Purpose-Driven Life: “It’s not about you.” When people argue that God wants us to do certain things in order to conform to His design for the universe and not because there is any benefit to us, what they are arguing is that “man was made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for man.” The good news that Jesus shares in His radical statement of Mark 2:27 is that God is not an arbitrary tyrant; His law really is motivated by a desire for us to experience the fullness of shalom. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, God breaks His own rules so that they will not stand in the way of His children being made fully whole.

So are there people in our world today who are dishonored in the same way that lepers and paralytics were in the synagogues where Jesus worshiped because of Biblical commands whose letter kills the Spirit for which they were written (2 Cor 3:6)? If so, then who will have the courage to receive the “competence from God” that makes us ministers of a covenant that is “not of the letter but of the Spirit”? Jesus did not interpret Torah objectively and dispassionately. He was willing to slant it and twist it in all sorts of ways in order to serve His nakedly biased agenda of affirming the dignity of the lepers and paralytics of His day. Should we not do the same?

33 thoughts on “Sabbath healing as a paradigm for Christian morality

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  5. Morgan, I will be re-visiting your blog after reading this particular statement: “In perusing all the different healing stories, what I see Jesus doing in each and every one of them is showing solidarity to people whom society viewed as less than human because of something they were born with. Jesus had to restore their dignity because He could not continue worshiping God in the presence of their suffering and shame.”
    This, this is exactly what I needed to read today, pondering the reasons why I’ve been called back to receive Christ after many years on other paths. This is helping me to heal some old fundamentalist wounds, so thanks for sharing it.

  6. @Morgan
    With regard to the Love God/Love Neighbor duo, I agree that these are non-negotiables. However, I am curious how you view Jesus’ imperatives on marriage in light of these. Again, it seems to me that Jesus makes an appeal to natural law, as does Paul. With regard to sexual boundaries, while i would agree that there are real Love God/Love Neighbor issues here, they don’t seem to be reducible to such a mantra. It would seem that there are additional non-negtotiables.

    Given the culture at the time, I can see Jesus making it a Love God/Love Neighbor issue by telling the men at the time, “Look, you can’t just dump your wife for any ole reason.” This can easily be considered as both a pragmatic protection of fairly powerless women in an uber-patriarchal society and consistent with Jesus’ Love God/Love Neighbor “New Deal”. What doesn’t make nearly as much sense – if any – in this framework, however, is the last bit: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” To me, this only makes sense in the light of Jesus’ appeal to natural law/created order, which is exactly what you were contrasting Love God/Love Neighbor with. If you can make sense of this latter distinctive in light of the Love God/Love Neighbor ethic, then I think you’ll have moved far closer to proving your point, if not cinched it, for I cannot think (at least not off the top of my head) of another (ethical) commandment He gives that seems to appeal to natural law, or some other principle.

    • What I believe is that Torah has always been intended as a gift for the sake of our shalom and communion with God. It is pragmatic in that sense. The Pharisees tried to make it onerous for the sake of their power. The Pharisees are the counter example the New Testament gives us for how to live in the spirit of God’s law. Our exemplar for how to live under God’s mercy is the heretic Samaritan who was able to love his neighbor. It’s a lot easier to be a Pharisee with all the right opinions than to be a Samaritan with the heart of Christ.

      • Fair enough. Not much to disagree with there. I would only add that in saying the Law is pragmatic in the sense that it is/was a “gift for the sake of our shalom and communion with God”, it seems to be a different “pragmatic” than when, in the OP, you contrasted it with conforming to God’s design with “no direct benefit” to us. One is pragmatic in the sense of promoting a relationship with God and the other in the sense of “direct” benefits.

        By acknowledging that the Law is meant to provide a means for right relationship with God, I think that we’re back to the original problem. How much leeway do we have with interpretation? Clearly, we do not want to be like Pharisees; we agree on that much. We don’t want to be so consumed with do’s and don’ts that we build a fence around the Law and start losing sight of the forest because of the trees. On the other hand, however, Jesus seems to affirm that the Law is not so malleable that we can reshape it in any way we wish; there are non-negotiable principles to uphold.

        • There are non-negotiables. And we have a rubric to guide us: love God / love neighbor. Augustine said in De Doctrina Christiana, if you can’t explain any scripture in terms of loving God or loving your neighbor, then you have misinterpreted it. So I think the burden of proof is higher on Christians who want to say you’re sinning, look it says so in this verse. You need to be able to explain why a Biblical precept has to do with loving neighbor or loving God or else you have not done enough interpretation to apply that scripture with any authority. And you’re begging the question if you try to say well if you love God, then do what it says in His book, because everything it says in His book has a context. The entire cleanliness cult of the OT is needed for the sake of a healthy community (love neighbor) and authentic worship (love God) prior to the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, but the love God / love neighbor need disappears with Christ’s blood, which is why those jots and tittles are no longer binding on us though they are still “useful for teaching, exhorting, making disciples, etc.”

          With issues like boundaries on sexuality, there are real love God / love neighbor concerns at play, chiefly idolatry and violence best I can tell. The question is whether the same concerns are at play in the same way for a patriarchal nomadic society of 1200 BC, a pagan society filled with temple prostitution and pedophilia in which God’s people are a small minority in 1st century AD, and then the society that we have today. I don’t think they are. What I would have to do to be a faithful Christian against the backdrop of specific 1st century pagan temple rituals and social customs is not exactly the same thing that I have to do to avoid contributing to a cultural of idolatry and violence today. Though I can find out what I have to do by studying what Jesus and Paul told 1st century people to do, it’s not a perfect, proof-textable one-to-one correspondence.

    • Actually, many early Jewish Christians DID expect Gentile Christians to follow the law. That’s the context of the book of Galatians and of Acts 10, 11, 15 and 21:17-26. We never really get to hear the losing argument, but I have a feeling that it would have sounded all too familiar to us today.

      • Jews didn’t expect Gentiles to follow the Law, unless they were converting to Judaism. That was the issue: when these Gentiles became part of The Way (i.e., “Christian”), what did this mean? Were they still Gentiles, or were they to be recognized as Jews? The Council of Jerusalem ruled they were to be treated as Gentile members of the community, basically affirming that the Noahide Laws were still binding. So, again, it has never been the case (that I know of) that Jews expected Gentiles to follow the Law.

        The other controversial issue was whether the Law was still binding on Jews. It is interesting – to me, anyway – that in stating Mosaic Law wasn’t binding on Gentiles that they were essentially upholding the status quo… which also implies that they (including James, Peter, et al.) felt the Law was still binding for Jews. This much is obvious from other statements, such as when concern is expressed that Paul was teaching forsaking Moses. Which he basically was, in addition to undermining at least one of the resolutions of the Jerusalem Council.

  7. @Morgan

    Gentiles were never expected to eat pork, were they? You’re not answering my question.

    You stated it would be eisegetical (with clear implications of “bad”) to read too much into Jesus using Adam & Eve as a starting point. Yet, you cite an example of Jesus being eisegetical with his reference to David and the consecrated bread. If He can read into texts to get them to say what He wants (and there certainly seems to be other clear examples of eisegesis in the NT), why should we not do the same? Or are there limits to this? And isn’t it eisegetical to declare that Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:27 is applicable to all of the Law, and not just the commandment Jesus is making reference to?

    You’ve already conceded that we cannot be expected to have the same authority that Jesus has in circumventing the Law. So, “ultimately”, the Law is not *completely* pragmatic, yes?

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  9. The idea that Jesus was a pragmatist seems to work only so far. Consider His teaching on divorce: it seems centered on God’s intent. In fact, Jesus’ stance was considered so impractical, that the disciples said that if it were true, then it would be better not to marry. Jesus basically answered “Yep.” Determining which rules are pragmatic and which exist according to intent is something that I think Christians are still struggling with.

    • Actually Jesus reveals God’s pragmatism in Mosaic law by saying yeah, God cut you some slack because your hearts were hard. And furthermore he shows himself to be a pragmatist by saying really you all should be eunuchs anyway but few can accept that teaching, i.e. the fact that God lets you marry at all is already a concession. You’re acting as though there is no polemical context of outwitting the Pharisees’ trap in how Jesus responds to them. He’s not laying down principles in the abstract. If the question had been posed differently, he would have used different exegesis to respond. Matthew 19 only teaches us about Jesus’ view on divorce. It’s tremendously eisegetical to try to use Matthew 19 to establish an argument that God designed the universe with a fundamentally gendered order. Gagnon is wrong!

      • Cut the men some slack, apparently, but not the women. But that’s a different conversation. I do not read Jesus’ statement about eunuchs as stating we should all be eunuchs. He seems to say that if you can accept the permanency of marriage, great, if not – celibacy is an option. Again, that does not seem very pragmatic.

        If the question had been “does God want us to get married?” instead of “does God allow divorce for any reason?”, you don’t think He would have led with “from the very beginning God made them male and female”? The fact that Jesus is so hyperbolic in His speech does make it difficult to interpret, but it’s usually easy enough to identify by actual practice. Does Jesus really want us to hate our families? Obviously not, He clearly didn’t hate His mother. Does He really want us to gouge out our eyes and hack off appendages? Apparently not, as this wasn’t a practice that the disciples passed down. But with marriage, this is different. The permanency of marriage is something that has been upheld in principle (if not in practice).

        I’m not arguing that the universe has a “fundamentally gendered order”. I agree that the context is teaching on divorce and marriage. That doesn’t change the fact that, in this particular case, it would seem that Jesus *reversed* whatever pragmatic law was in place and upheld a more principled stance. It is easy to point out cases, such as the Sabbath, where Jesus made the law more practical. But there are other cases where this is decidedly not the case. Saying that if you hate your brother in your heart you are guilty of murder is not practical, however hyperbolic it may have been.

        Again, I’m not saying that there isn’t some pragmatism that Jesus espouses, but that there seem to be some obvious limits to it. I am curious how you reconcile your statement “The degree to which you’re scandalized by the possibility that Jesus might tell you to do something contrary to the Bible is the degree to which you worship the Bible instead of Jesus.” with Matthew 5:19.

  10. Jesus aggravated the Pharisees beyond all belief, because they’d gotten so bound up in reading the scriptures, particularly the 613 commandments, that they’d slap forgotten that those might NOT have been the ORIGINAL scriptures. Read the first five books of the bible again. Then read the ones right after them. You will find out (or be reminded) that in or about 600b.c. the Babylonians invaded and sacked ‘Jerusalem’. That is correct, but nowhere near complete, as reading the historical records will reveal if you have the patience. What the Babylonians did was to sack all of Israel. The temples of Solomon and David were torn down. The Ark of The Covenent was destroyed, along with ALL KNOWN COPIES OF THE BIBLE AS IT EXISTED AT THAT TIME. Further, all Jewish males down to at least the age of 8, and maybe from birth up were killed, along with all Jewish females above childbearing age. The rest were enslaved, and made to service the male Babylonian population for the next 65 years, while they a) built up a population of male children, and b) rewrote the first five books of the bible – presumably from memory, but who really knows WHAT they stuck in there? These women were, after all, trying to rebuild the Jewish race from scratch.
    And Jesus knew about all this, because Jesus paid attention to what he was being taught. That’s why he felt confident enough, I think, to ‘twist the scripture’ to fit his ‘agenda’.

    • It doesn’t scandalize me for the Torah and the prophets to be largely exilic and post-exilic documents. When you don’t have any land anymore, you need a book to keep your people together. 1 and 2 Kings in particular reflect the sensibilities of the post-exilic era in which the temple was so important and intermarriage with pagans was cultural suicide.

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  13. A few general points inspired by your post:

    1. I think there’s a way of saying that “It’s not about you” while at the same time affirming that it not being about you is good for you. It is good for you if you are not at the center of your own affections and life. When your life is about delighting in God, his glory and beauty, etc. that is what leads to the fullness of life and shalom that He intends for us. You being about you is a recipe for toxicity in all areas of life.

    2. Reading the Scriptures in as pointing to Christ changes the way you read them. He is a new hermeneutical grid, so to speak. The rules are to be set in the context of the biography and only there do they make sense. The Pharisees were reading the rules in light of the wrong story and so were using them at cross-purposes with God’s original intent. In a sense, obedience to the Sabbath in the ways the Pharisees were demanding it was no longer actually obedience consistent with God’s character or the relationship that it was to be a pointer to.

    3. Rules and relationships go together. It is an old liberal Protestant saw to set Law up against Love. That’s what marriage vows are about. That’s exactly what a covenant is and it is how the prophets discussed obedience to the commands. Concerns about God’s honor are, in one sense, entirely appropriate in and of themselves. On one level it is simply a matter of the truth, whether or not God is treated with the proper dignity or not. On another level, we see that God being dishonored is connected with God being rejected. Violating one’s marriage vows is not just breaking some arbitrary rules, but a rejection and dishonoring of the person with whom one has covenanted fidelity.

    4. There are a couple of ways that one can “argue that God wants us to do certain things in order to conform to His design for the universe and not because there is any benefit to us.” One is the sense that you’re speaking of, in which case the laws themselves are simply a somewhat arbitrary test we must pass, in which case, yes, I agree with you. Still, there is a place for saying that obedience is not contingent on whether or not there is a “benefit” to the person obeying. Part of the point is what someone means by “benefit.” For instance, someone like (here it comes) John Piper, argues that ultimately obedience is about seeking joy and that God only commands what is ultimately going to lead to the greatest joy in his people. “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him.” This is why he calls himself a “Christian hedonist”; he obeys out of desire for deep pleasure and shalom. This kind of pleasure and shalom often-times is accompanied by great amounts of pain, no immediate, obvious, “benefit” in a worldly sense. I think that’s where statements about obedience not being contingent on whether or not it is beneficial to us are entirely appropriate. Obedience is not “beneficial” in a great many senses. It might not make you healthier and wealthier or socially popular. It doesn’t immediately translate into “benefit” for you. In the same way that I don’t immediately “benefit” from taking out the trash for my wife, when I do it, I show her honor and love, and in the long run, this leads to joy.

    A little friendly push-back. Keep up the good work. Peace.

    • I think what I’m arguing against is a caricature of the “solo deo gloria” position that basically follows the Kantian logic Piper claims to define himself against. And that is the assumption that my obedience only “counts” as obedience if it goes against my self-interest. Yes, we have to be not about ourselves in order to experience true joy. Being about ourselves (Augustine’s homo curvatus en se) is the most miserable way of life. But God’s law is for the sake of our shalom and not some kind of abstract order that doesn’t have anything to do with our well-being. When certain people want to sound theologically “tough,” they try to pit God’s order radically against our self-interest. I don’t think that we have to always be able to recognize or explain the greater benefit that the law exists for, but when we need for the law to be antithetical to our benefit, then we’re obeying it for the sake of works-righteousness.

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