In this Gospel narrative the atmosphere is of serious hostility to Jesus on the part of certain men of religion. They want to accuse him of transgressing against the important commandment of observing the sabbath and are keeping a close eye on him for this purpose. And Jesus challenges their obedience to the commandment which in reality disregards or even buries the meaning and the very heart of the Torah. Thus the argument is about observance of the Torah, the word of God received and passed down by Moses. However, the polemical context must not distract us from the heart of this passage, from the truth and beauty of what Jesus says about the Torah and which he puts into practice in healing a poor sick man. For Jesus the hostile intention of others becomes the opportunity for an important teaching on the meaning of the Torah, on what God has most at heart. Let us never forget that the Gospel is always a lesson, a correction and a consolation for us, and that we must accept all three of these things.
The Gospel speaks of a man with a withered hand who is present in the synagogue when Jesus enters on the day of the sabbath. It also tells us of certain scribes and Pharisees who observe Jesus to see whether he will heal that man on the sabbath so that they may find an accusation to make against him. But even apart from the specifically polemic intention of this episode, all the Gospels are also imbued with two opposing rhetorical questions which some people put to Jesus: “How can this man come from God if he does not observe the Law?”. And also: “How can he not come from God if he carries out powerful signs and acts of love?”.
Here the Gospel is merciless in denouncing those who under the pretext of defending God and his Law neglect the needy and condemn those who, in doing good, seem to transgress a commandment. Indeed not only do these men of religion not suffer with the sick man but they also use him as a trap in order to subject Jesus to the grave accusation of impiety.In this case Jesus makes gestures of compassion which seem to violate the law of the sabbath. And thus the suffering man, God’s true interest, remains an outcast, as if the shalom [peace] of the sabbath were not for him too, while those men of religion continue to empty the Torah of its primary meaning, which is God’s compassionate and merciful love for all people, starting with the most deprived.
It may be seen from the Gospels as a whole that in Jesus’ interpretation the will of God expressed in the Commandments is above all in defence of the weakest, it is God’s ingenious way of creating the law of those without law, giving to all others the duty to observe the corresponding Commandments. For example, the sabbath is also and above all a duty of believers on behalf of their sons and daughters, their men and women slaves, their livestock, as well as of the foreigners who help them in their work and tire themselves out for them and with them, human creatures who had no rights. Thus the Commandment to observe the sabbath creates a right for them to rest, so that the sabbath may be at the same time a space and a prophecy of shalom, a life that is comforted and saved for all, both men and women. For this reason in restoring the health of the man with the withered hand Jesus does not transgress the sabbath but fulfills it, bearing witness that God’s solicitude for human beings is always true, and that God continues to do good among his own, also on the sabbath. For it was precisely for the joy of all that God made the day of the sabbath.
Jesus calls the sick man to stand in the midst of the holy assembly to show that the weakest person is the most precious in God’s eyes, and he puts to those custodians of the Torah this question: “Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”. These are grandiloquent words which give centre stage to the salvific intention of the Commandment of the sabbath and shame our religious casuistry which always asks the same thing: “Is it licit? Is it illicit?”. We are always responsible, Jesus says, for doing good and for not doing evil, and therefore love for our neighbour does not clash with other commandments because it involves their soul.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 21, 2019
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