Although there is considerable debate within the Jewish community about what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath, these categories are used by many Jews today and are an attempt to define how the fourth commandment in the Ten Commandments can be met.
In the view of the synagogue official, Jesus has clearly broken the Sabbath requirements and presents a dangerous precedent to the people. So we could say that what Jesus does here shows that the Jewish law is wrong or obsolete and that, as Christians, we don’t need to pay attention to it. But that would be to misunderstand some of the Jewish background to this story as well as some of the Gospel background.
If we start with the Gospel background, it is helpful to remember that Jesus said, as we can read in Matthew 5. 17 – 18: “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true. Remember that as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with – not until the end of all things.”
Now if Jesus is not doing away with the Law of Moses by healing on the Sabbath, then what he would seem to be doing is challenging the way in which this part of the Law is understood. That brings us on to another aspect of the Jewish background to this story, which is that, in the event that human life is in danger, any Shabbat law can be disregarded if it stands in the way of saving that person.
So, what Jesus and the synagogue official are actually doing is debating whether the life of this woman was in danger or not. Both want to practice the requirements of the Law but, as continues to be the case within the Jewish community, they have differing or opposed views on how to do that. The synagogue official is saying that healing is a form of work and that, although she is unwell, the woman is not about to die, therefore she can and should be healed on a day other than the Sabbath. Jesus is saying her illness is something which endangers her life and therefore he is justified in healing on the Sabbath.
These kinds of debates between rabbis have been recorded and collected in Judaism and form part of the Oral Law which is interpretation of the Written Law. Judaism is therefore clear that interpretation and debate are part of the way in which we understand God’s words and Jesus too took part in just this kind of debate and interpretation.
However, what Jesus has to say regarding the Law goes further and deeper than just this alone. By healing on the Sabbath even when there is no immediate threat to life, Jesus is highlighting the compassion which is at the heart the Law and which is the spirit of the Law.
Love, he is saying, is what the Law ultimately aims at. Firstly, because it seeks to limit the harm we are able to do towards others. So, in the Ten Commandments, we are told not to murder, not to commit adultery, not to covet because all these things cause harm to others. Secondly, because the opposite of a negative is a positive; so, the opposite of wanting to murder others is to offer help; the opposite of committing adultery is to be faithful and the opposite of coveting is to give.
So what the Law seeks to do is to constrain the harm we do in order to create space in which we can learn to act lovingly toward others. The 39 categories of work constrain what is done on the Sabbath but simply to abide by these constraints is not actually what the Law is about. The Sabbath is not primarily about the things that aren’t done on it. Instead, those things are done in order to create space to focus on God and love him more deeply.
Jesus commended the teacher of the Law who knew that love is the heart, the soul and spirit of the Law: “‘Love the Lord your God will all your heart, will all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’” (Luke 10. 27). That is the summary of the Law. It is what the Law is all about and, if some of the detail of the Law is preventing people from practising the purpose of the Law then, Jesus says, our interpretation of the Law has gone wrong.
And that is what is at the very heart of his debate with the synagogue official. For the synagogue official keeping the Sabbath constraints overrides compassion for the woman who is unwell. Jesus is saying that the spirit of the Law means that we have to put things the other way and override the constraints in order to show compassion. This is not because we are anarchists opposed to all Law or because the constraints are wrong. Instead, it is about fulfilling the purpose of the constraints. They are there in order that we have space in which to learn to love. So, when we do act out of love then we are fulfilling their purpose even though we might override them.
A final illustration of this might help as we close. When we are young children, our parents place severe constraints on us when we are crossing a road. We are told we must stay with our parents at all times, hold their hands and only cross at the designated crossing places. Our parents do this firstly to keep us safe when we are too young to make appropriate decisions ourselves and secondly to help learn how to cross the road safely. We learn when and where we can cross the road safely, so that in future we can do it for ourselves without our parents there and can do it wherever it is safe to do so and not just at the designated crossing places.
The purpose of the constraints is that we cross the road safely and when we know how to do that we don’t need to abide by all the constraints we once did. In a similar way, Jesus is saying here that the Sabbath constraints are about learning to love God and others and that, if those constraints need to be overridden in order to show compassion to others, then that is actually to fulfil their purpose.
After being commended by Jesus for giving the summary of the Law, the teacher of the Law asks Jesus who is my neighbour. Jesus answers by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. He then asks which man acted like a neighbour towards the man attacked by robbers? The one who was kind to him, the teacher of the Law replied. “You go, then,” says Jesus, “and do likewise.”
U2 - Angels Too Tied To The Ground.