Pastor Drew Williams
I don’t know how many of you have had the new Disney movie, Encanto, on repeat at your house. It has become a fast favorite in our house, and so I think I may have seen the movie at least four or five times a week for the past few months.
Besides the incredible songs, there is this one scene that I really like where Mirabel is chasing after her uncle, Bruno, in the secret passages of their house, and they come upon this big gaping hole in the ground where the floor has rotten out, revealing a deep, dark chasm, too full of dust to see how far down the bottom is.
Bruno leaps over the chasm with ease, but when Mirabel tries to follow him, the ledge where she lands on the other side suddenly gives way beneath her, sending her tumbling down. She manages to grab a support beam, clutching tightly to save herself from the fall.
Things look bleak, though, because she is starting to lose her grip. There is no one nearby to hear her call for help. The ground has given way beneath her, and all she can see is the yawning, black, chasm beneath her. This beam is her only security, and she fights to hold on as tightly as she can.
You’ll have to watch the movie to find out what happens next, but it reminds me of times in our life when the ground gives out underneath us, and so we grasp for whatever we can hold on to. Whatever we can clutch tightly to that is familiar, that gives us security.
Sometimes, this happens when something unexpected happens that threatens our way of life. And how we respond when we’re under threat can say a lot about us. It can reveal what is most important to us, and it makes us more clearly define the boundary lines around what makes us secure.
Today, we’re going to read a Jesus story where he crosses over some boundary lines, where he challenges some things that are held important. Let’s read Luke 6:1-11.
We start today’s set of stories “on the Sabbath,” and you might be like me and ask, “why is Jesus always raising a commotion on the Sabbath? Didn’t he do anything worth writing down on the other days?”
But it’s also good to remember that Luke is arranging these stories to give us a higher level viewpoint of Jesus’ ministry and how he progressed from unknown cousin of John the Baptist… to a rabbi who was known for his teaching and miracles, to a sensation across all of Galilea, to the reviled and disappointing would-be Messiah who met his end on the Roman cross. But, of course, that wasn’t the end of the story (spoiler alert).
And this story actually serves as a major crux in that whole arc that Luke is relaying to us. He started back in chapter 4, with Jesus coming out of the wilderness, full of the power of the Spirit, going straight to his hometown on the sabbath to teach about salvation and healing and good news for all who were in need of it, saying, “Today… this day right here… is the fulfillment of what you’re hoping for. Rescue is here.”
That starts a series of stories that we’ve been progressing through for the past few weeks that show how Jesus is living out that promise, and continuing to preach the same message each Sabbath that comes in the different towns he is spending time in.
And so we start again with, “One Sabbath…” and we see Jesus and his disciples walking along through a grainfield, and his disciples happen to be grabbing a little snack by plucking individual heads of grain off the stalks, rubbing them in their hands to release the grain from the husk and the chaff, and nibbling on the kernels as they went.
There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary with this. This wasn’t stealing, not only because they were probably eating less than a handful of kernels each, but also because OT law allowed for travelers, foreigners, and anyone, really, to “glean” from the edges of fields. In fact, God had commanded farmers to allow it as a sign of his generosity and providence, as a way to point to the goodness of God.
But the Pharisees… Remember last week when I said we’d be hearing that phrase a lot?
Well, the Pharisees are at it again, apparently keeping a close eye on Jesus and his disciples. And they notice the snacking and it raises all the alarms for them, because of the day that it was happening on, the Sabbath.
Now, unless you happen to be a Jewish scholar, learned in all the ins and outs of Second Temple Judaism and it’s understanding of OT laws and adherence to them, you might be thinking this is a bit of an overreaction. That’s definitely what I was thinking.
What could be “unlawful” about what they were doing?
Well, here’s the deal. In the time of Jesus, there were two main things that defined Jews and set them apart from all the other people groups as “God’s chosen people.” Circumcision and Sabbath.
They were marked in their bodies and marked in their use of time. There were lots of various rules and laws that they tried to follow from the OT, but these two were the big ones. So big, in fact, that religious leaders had spent a lot of time and mental energy thinking about exactly how to “keep the Sabbath holy” as a day set apart for God.
After all, hadn’t God himself said that not keeping the sabbath was one of the big reasons they were defeated by Babylon and sent into exile? And even after coming back from exile, then they were under the rule of Persia. That gave way to the Macedonians, and then the Romans. And here we are in the first century, and Israel is still not free.
Apparently they still haven’t been following God’s commands well enough to get him to send his Messiah to fully rescue and restore them. At least, that’s what the Pharisees thought. “If we can just follow God’s laws well enough, then we can earn his favor again. Then God will love us again, and rescue us.”
So, because they had this thought process, they spent a lot of effort on defining the rules and the ways to follow the rules as best they could. So, they set up OTHER rules in order to help them better understand the boundaries and how to stay in them.
“If we weren’t supposed to work on the Sabbath, then what does it mean to work? Well, planting and harvesting are OUT. So, you know what, let’s make sure not to lift anything too heavy. And let’s not even walk too far. And let’s not gather anything or pluck anything that might seem like the slippery slope to harvesting.”
Enter Jesus and the boys, taking a stroll and grabbing a snack.
Whoah whoah whoah, do you WANT to get God mad at us?! Aren’t you a teacher?! Why are you doing what’s not permitted on the Sabbath?!
And Jesus answers with an obscure story from 1 Samuel about how David one time seemed to step over the boundary with eating something he wasn’t supposed to eat.
And then Jesus drops this loaded statement, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
But before you can see how the Pharisees respond to that, or ask what was meant by the callback to David, or find out where Jesus and his disciples were walking to, Luke just skips ahead to “another Sabbath” and we’re carried along like a tour group that doesn’t have time to take pictures or ask questions because the tour guide is scurrying us along to the next important site to see.
So we hold on to our questions about what Jesus meant by him being Lord of the Sabbath as we join him on another Sabbath, teaching in the synagogue.
Now, it just so happened that a man was in attendance whose right hand was shriveled. We don’t know how long he’s been like this, but we DO know that in an agrarian society like 1st century Palestine, this would have made it very hard for him to do any job that would have been available for him. No one wants to hire someone for a manual labor job if it seems like they won’t be able to keep up. You can’t dig if you can’t stretch out your arm. You can’t carry loads if you can’t reach out with both hands. You aren’t useful to the community if you’re the weakest link.
This malady was definitely keeping him from experiencing the full life that Jesus wanted him to experience, in more ways than one.
But we ALSO know that the culture at that time assigned blessings and cursings to the action of God. In other words, people in that time assumed that if you had a good life, or were rich, or had lots of kids, that meant that God had blessed you with those things, so you MUST have done something good to earn that blessing. You must be a good person or have pleased God in some way to make him bless you like that.
On the flip side, if you were poor, or sick, or had experienced some tragedy that left you mangled or wounded, that meant that God had cursed you to experience such a fate. Therefore, you must have sinned in some way to make God mad enough at you to burden you with that awful thing.
We KNOW that people had these thoughts at this time because Jesus’ own disciples articulate this exact line of reasoning one time when they ask Jesus about a certain guy who was born blind, assuming it was because of someone’s sin and just asking whose sin had caused the blindness.
So if this guy in our story today had lived for any amount of time with this shriveled hand, that meant that he had already experienced the stares, whispers behind his back, adults ushering their children away from the deformed man who must be so full of sin that God cursed him. His life had been full of shame and accusation.
We can imagine that he had probably spent a lot of time trying to make amends for whatever sin he figured he had done that had caused his disability. He had probably gotten into the habit of hiding his hand in the folds of his cloak so as not to draw attention to it. Better to just pretend it wasn’t there and try and be a good God-follower, visit the synagogue faithfully, pray often, and maybe he could somehow earn healing, or at the very least, be ignored by the rest of the community instead of enduring the stares and suspicion anymore.
Whether or not Jesus knew about this man beforehand isn’t told to us. But the Pharisees knew, because we see them “looking for a reason to accuse Jesus” of wrongdoing, so they are standing back and watching if he would heal on the Sabbath. This wouldn’t have been the first Sabbath where Jesus healed, and perhaps there were a few extra people in need of healing attending synagogue whenever Jesus was in town. Later in Luke, there’s even a synagogue leader who tells everyone that the “other 6 days” are better options for receiving healing.
So, while the people in need of healing are just grateful for any moment to be near Jesus, the religious leaders aren’t too happy about the fact that Jesus is taking attention away from proper behavior on the Sabbath. His teaching is taking attention away from their own. And their little kingdom of religious observance is being invaded from the outside by needy people, disrupting their careful piety.
And here’s this man, this sinner, with the disgusting hand. But instead of calling attention to him, or sending him away, they stand back to see what Jesus will do. After all, if he’s trying to posture himself as a “great rabbi” who was “sent by God,” then he SHOULD be setting a better example of following the rules that had been set up to be considered a good God-follower. If they can find him doing something that seems to go against the Sabbath observance rules, then they can expose him as an attention-hungry charlatan who is leading people AWAY from God.
Luke tells us that Jesus knew what they were thinking, so instead of speaking to them directly, he addresses the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand here in front of everybody.”
You can imagine the feeling in the room. Everyone knew who was being asked to stand in front of them, no matter how much he tried to hide his hand in his cloak. Perhaps this had even happened before, where the man was used by whichever teacher is there that week as an object lesson for what happens when you sin against God: you receive the curse of deformity!
So everyone is wondering what Jesus will say. Some are wondering if Jesus will point out this sinner as an example of “what not to do.” Some are curious if Jesus will heal, like they’ve heard that he has done before. Jesus’ own disciples might be wondering who this guy is and why Jesus has suddenly taken an interest in him, but they know they just need to keep watching to find out what Jesus will do. The Pharisees are watching, too. They lean forward, increasing their eagle-eyed scrutiny of every word Jesus says, every twitch of his face, searching for something to use against him to debase his authority.
And the man with the shriveled hand, suddenly quite hot in his face, aware of all the stares, his mouth dry, his heart racing. Will Jesus rail against me? Or will he heal me? No, I shouldn’t even get my hopes up for that.
So the man gets up and stands there in the middle of the gathering, feeling every gaze from the crowd as needles, poking into him from every direction. No sound other than his pounding heart. He held his breath along with the rest of the room, waiting for Jesus to speak.
Then Jesus speaks to the whole group, “We’re all so concerned with lawfully abiding by the Sabbath. So…which is LAWFUL on the Sabbath: to do good? Or to do evil? Is it better to save life? Or to destroy life?”
Now Jesus is brilliant in the way that he words this statement, because he’s exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees’ rules surrounding Sabbath-keeping. Many wise teachers of the law had offered many many words on the subject of how do we keep the Sabbath? What are the situations that would make it okay to “break” the Sabbath? And they had come up with the over-arching rule that in order to keep the Sabbath day holy, as commanded by Yahweh, they were not to do any “work” that was not ABSOLUTELY necessary to preserve life.
So if the action to be taken was necessary to save a life, then THAT was okay to do on the Sabbath. But what did it mean to “preserve life”?
Over the years, the scribes who had passed down and interpreted the law had come up with the hypothetical position that any non-life-threatening injuries could wait for healing. This was so that God-fearing Jews could prioritize Sabbath observance as a symbol of their own piety.
So if you broke a finger, or got a nasty cut, don’t bother the doctor, don’t bother the priest, not on the Sabbath. Wrap it up and wait until the next day. That way, we can show how serious we are about keeping the Sabbath. That way, we can keep the emphasis on our EFFORT. We’re forgoing the scratch, or the chipped tooth for an extra day so that we can say “we’re good rule followers.” We can take pride in how well we are EARNING God’s favor.
So since the man’s hand isn’t a life-threatening condition, the Pharisees reason that his treatment could wait for another day. If Jesus takes action now, he’s unnecessarily breaking the Sabbath command against working.
Now we see why the Pharisees are just waiting, watching closely. They aren’t just passive witnesses to what Jesus is doing. They’re SPYING with the intent of bringing formal charges against Jesus. In fact, they’re not only willing to TOLERATE the suffering of another person, but they’re even willing to USE it as leverage against Jesus. What will Jesus do? Will he break the rules? Or will he stick to the traditions, keep the elders happy, follow the wisdom handed down?
Jesus refuses to even engage in the Pharisees’ conversation about the minor nuances of what constitutes a life-threatening injury. He puts it as starkly as he can: “You want to talk about what’s LAWFUL on the Sabbath? Let’s see, is it LAWFUL to save life? Or is it lawful to destroy life?”
Jesus is brilliant because he removes all the nuance and makes it a clear-cut choice between two things. For Jesus, there is no way that you can look at suffering, do nothing, and call yourself impartial. Nope, you’re either doing good or evil. There’s no such thing as “just wait until tomorrow.” You’re either saving life or you’re destroying it. And if you think that there is ever a good reason to delay action in helping someone, you’re actually actively harming them.
Jesus is calling out the fact that the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law had set up Sabbath rules in a higher place than actually helping PEOPLE. They didn’t rush this guy over to Jesus for healing. No, they had set up the synagogue, the Sabbath itself, as a BARRIER to the healing of this man.
They had set up Sabbath-keeping as a litmus test for how faithful you were to God. Oh, I’m sorry that thing happened to you today, but if you REALLY want to prove yourself as a faithful God-follower, then you’re going to wait until tomorrow to get healing. If you really want to earn some points with God, you’re going to hold Sabbath rules higher than anything else, including human suffering.
But Jesus refuses to let the rules be the thing that God is known for. No, when people think of God, see him in action, the most fundamental thing is God’s desire to SAVE. That’s not to say that Sabbath isn’t important, but Sabbath was made FOR God’s purpose of wholeness and healing for all creation, and the restoration of human beings is not just PERMISSABLE on the Sabbath, it’s not just LAWFUL, it is RIGHT.
The Pharisees might be willing to let suffering continue, especially if it gives them ammo against Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t USE people for ulterior purposes.
So he says to the man, “stretch out your hand.”
The man’s worst fears and biggest hopes are realized all at once. His deformity that has plagued him and caused him to be a pariah in his community, that he tries to keep hidden, Jesus wants to expose it. But will it be for healing or not? The only way he can receive what Jesus is offering him is to trust Jesus and respond to his call.
The man decides to risk it and trust Jesus and reveals his shameful hand. But AS HE DOES, it’s revealed to be healed! Jesus had previously declared that he was Lord of the Sabbath, his authority extended above Sabbath rules, his command overcame tradition, and now he has just PROVEN that statement.
Unlike other stories of healing, we actually don’t even get to know how the man responded, or how the crowd reacted, though we can imagine there was amazement and rejoicing and praising God and marveling at Jesus’ authority. He truly IS Lord!
No, all we get to see is how the Pharisees and teachers of the law react. Instead of accepting Jesus’ claim as Lord of the Sabbath, they are “furious”. And this word that Luke uses means more than just anger. They aren’t ticked off that Jesus is popular or that he isn’t subservient to them. This “fury” is rage that comes from incomprehension. They can’t comprehend that God would go against his own rules for Sabbath. They can’t imagine a situation where anything could be more important than keeping the Sabbath. So therefore, Jesus must NOT be truly sent by God. He must be leading people away from God. He must be stopped!
Jesus had just boldly asked whether it was better to save life or destroy life on the Sabbath as a way of showing that God cares more about the flourishing of people than about the strictness of “rules.” Jesus had chosen to save life. The Pharisees respond by working to destroy Jesus.
I love this story because it so clearly demonstrates that Jesus cares more about human flourishing, healing, rescue, wholeness… than he does about rules. He bends the rules towards compassion and service and salvation.
And that was threatening to the Pharisees because the rules gave them security. Keeping the rules was the way they “knew” how to stay in God’s favor. Keeping the rules let them know who was in and who was out. When you believe that God’s love is conditional upon how you act and how well you keep the rules, then the rules become very important.
We aren’t that different from the Pharisees in that way, are we? We like security. And we want the thing that gives us security to be dependable. If it’s unchanging, then we can depend on it. Don’t change things! I don’t like that, it makes things seem less secure. Less sure.
We want the boundary of our security to be CLEAR. Make it clear who is in and who is out. Make it clear which doors are open and which are closed. That makes me feel secure. That gives me peace of mind. That helps me feel like my preferred way of life is unthreatened.
Security. I love it! Especially if I’m in control of it. Tell me the rules so that I can exercise my authority in making sure everyone keeps them. Show me where the boundaries are so I can know who is outside of the boundaries. That makes my life more peaceful because it makes it clear who I have to love or hate. Who do I have to share my life with, and who can I dismiss and pay no mind to because they are outside the boundary?
But when someone comes along, or something happens in our world that seems to rattle our security, shake the fences we’ve created, we start to react by policing the boundaries in order to protect OUR peace.
I was having such a great life where I got to choose how to live and who to care about and what to make important in my life, as long as I stayed inside the boundaries. But if the boundaries change, then I have to spend time and resources figuring out who to love. I have to change my mind about things that I’ve held to for a long time. That’s hard work. It’s uncomfortable. I would rather protect my security. I would rather keep a tight hold on the things I can control.
But the good news is that we don’t need to create our own security with our own rules and boundaries that define who is included and who is excluded. We don’t need to control and clutch because Jesus is LORD… His authority reigns over our rules.
Jesus is Lord, and the security that HE provides is way better than any security we could create for ourselves!
We want security that is dependable… well Jesus is UNCHANGING in his gracious pursuit of us.
We want security that is clear… well Jesus couldn’t be any more clear in his invitation of unconditional love.
We want our security to give us peace of mind… and Jesus gives us peace that passes all understanding. We can’t comprehend this peace because it doesn’t rely on our categories. His peace doesn’t live under our control. His peace overwhelms every other concern we could have because He is the Prince of Peace and He. Is. Lord.
But, like the Pharisees, we often have a very hard time trusting in Jesus as our Lord. We often prefer to hold on to our own types of security, because then WE’RE in control. WE execute the authority over our lives. And that is true when life is going along pretty smoothly, but it is even MORE true when things are feeling chaotic.
When our lives are under threat, it’s so natural for us to want to hold on tighter. To clutch things a little closer. To hide what is most important and dear to us. What does Jesus want us to do? Stretch out our hand and trust him? Oh man, that is hard!
It’s hard to trust when the world feels like it’s in the tailspin of loss and uncertainty that we’ve been experiencing these last few years.
I’ve lost so much. People have died. Friends have moved. Our world is changing. There are threats everywhere.
People are divided. People are leaving the faith. Our church is shrinking. My health is not what it used to be. Are the best days behind us? I’m trying to clutch to what I can and I’m not sure that I can relax my grip. I’m not sure if I can trust that Jesus is Lord, that he’s in control, that his authority means GOOD for me.
Jesus’ authority was a threat to the Pharisees’ way of life, too. And in their attempt to tighten their grip on what was familiar, what was comfortable to them, they closed themselves off from the healing, the salvation, that Jesus was declaring for them. They weren’t even looking for the movement of God’s grace towards that man with the shriveled hand because they had let the synagogue and the Sabbath itself become something that actively segregated this needy man from God’s help.
They were viewing God’s grace as a finite commodity, dished out in sparing amounts, given only when earned. So they lived as if they were in a drought, strictly defining the boundaries so that they could wrap their arms around the bucket of “right living” in order to collect what they could from God. And if you didn’t adhere to the rules, you weren’t worthy of sharing in the blessing of God.
And if I’m honest, I find myself doing this same thing. Do you? We hold tightly to these artificial boundaries that we have constructed, scrutinizing who is allowed IN and cutting ourselves off from those who are OUT.
But we were never meant to be a bucket, to receive from God for only ourselves. We were created to be a CONDUIT. We were created to join God in spreading his blessings to those around us. Blessed to BE a blessing!
If we can put our faith in Jesus, if we can RISK that he is worthy of trust when no other hope can be trusted, then we can start to live as if Jesus is Lord. Because he is Lord! He is the highest authority. His lordship influences every area of our lives because his authority can be trusted in every area of our lives.
And when we believe and live in the reality that Jesus is Lord, it enables us to relax our grip. It enables us to become a CONDUIT of grace, of healing, of salvation. It enables us to pass along whatever we have been given because we know there is more blessing where that came from and we GET to share it.
We don’t have to horde anymore. We don’t have to clutch anymore. We don’t have look behind us at the “good old days” anymore, because we worship the Lord of the Sabbath, the One who teaches us how to trust him by freely giving grace and blessing. By providing so well for us in our need. By being a stronger security than we could ever create on our own.
God is our strong foundation. He brings beauty from ashes. He creates life when all we see is death. He redeems what was exiled, restores what was broken, reconciles what is divided, and renews what was old.
He is committed TO us all, walks WITH us all, works FOR all of our good, and invites us to trust him as our Lord. And that’s good news.