“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.