In today’s world, people are often compared unfavorably to animals. The very people who call out that we should save the whales are the very people who want to kill babies. This is the result of evolution, which thinks that we came from animals anyway, so what is the difference between a human being and an ant? The question of the relative value of a human being and an animal is answered for us in this miracle story of a man with a withered hand. It has profound consequences for us, and not just in how we view the Sabbath.
Last time we saw that what we need to do to live is something that we do on the Sabbath. We have to eat, and so we eat. And we don’t have to be on the point of starvation to make use of that aspect of Sabbath observance. Presumably the disciples were not on the point of death. Well, neither is the man with the withered hand on the point of death.
In Jewish law, it was acceptable to heal someone on the Sabbath only if his life was in danger. The man with the withered hand obviously was not on the point of death. He had lived with the condition a long time. If Jesus wanted to do so, He could easily have waited until Monday to heal the man with the withered hand. This is very important for how we understand this passage, because the principle here is that love and mercy do not delay. We are not to delay our acts of mercy because of some perceived conflict that the act has with some other law of God. As Jesus says in the immediately preceding context, God desires mercy more than sacrifice. But Jesus did not want the man to suffer one minute more than he already had suffered. Jesus loved the man and had compassion and mercy on him.
The Pharisees don’t like it, of course. They are so concerned with the letter of the law that they ignore the spirit of the law. The Sabbath was not made to constrict man but to free him from work so that he could worship God. Remember that we have said that the day is for worship. What we have to do to live and what we can do to show mercy to people are the two categories of exceptions to the kind of work forbidden on the Sabbath.
So how does Jesus argue His case. Well, He argues from the lesser to the greater. If it is fine to help out a sheep, then it is more than fine to help out a human being. Notice that the person has “a sheep.” Literally, he has one sheep. It is the only sheep he has. If his sheep falls into a pit on the Sabbath day, then of course, the poor man must get his sheep out, because otherwise the sheep will probably die, or become quite sick. If it is then lawful to help a sheep on the Sabbath, then it is all the more lawful to help a human being in need on the Sabbath. The reason this is so is that human beings are of more worth than sheep. We have already seen this principle before in Jesus’ teaching on worry. We are not to worry, because God takes care of the sparrow, and we are of much more worth than many sparrows. The same is true here of sheep.
And so the principle here is that human beings are the most valuable creatures on earth. And if Jesus values them that highly, then so should we. Animals are not more important than human beings. We can see this principle in the Old Testament as well, where any animal that had a habit of attacking human beings was to be killed. If the animal even did it once, it was supposed to be put down. Protecting human life is the substance of the sixth commandment, which says “You shall not murder.” If we are not to murder, then we are to do its opposite, which is to protect human life, and do what is conducive to preserving human life. And that means exercising mercy on the Sabbath.
As I said, the Pharisees did not like Jesus’ interpretation of the law, because it reversed the priorities of the Pharisees, who were obsessed with very restrictive laws about the Sabbath. The Pharisees even said that healing was only permitted if the man was about to die. But when it came to sheep, the Pharisees had no problem with helping a sheep get out of its predicament. As a result of what Jesus said and did, healing the man, and undercutting the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law, the Pharisees decide to do something that is certainly not allowed on the Sabbath: they plot to kill Jesus! I don’t want us to miss the irony of this: the Pharisees are all gung-ho about keeping the Sabbath. They don’t want Jesus to heal on the Sabbath. So, when he does, they decide to break not only the fourth commandment, but also the sixth commandment! What is more, they decide to break both commandments on the same day! So much for their law-abiding tendencies. It serves as a solemn warning to us. We cannot break one commandment in seeking to keep another. If we do, we will find that we have broken both laws. The law is a whole. If you break one point, then you have broken the whole law.
And of course, it is precisely such law-breaking that Jesus came to heal. Our souls are withered because there is no health in us. We are desperately in need of Jesus’ healing. And when Jesus heals us, we will find that He has introduced us to real Sabbath rest. You see, the Sabbath has always pointed us to something greater. There still remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, as Paul tells us in the book of Hebrews. That rest is another way of saying heaven. It is complete rest from sin in that there will be no sin in the new heavens and the new earth. So when Jesus heals us, He introduces us to that Sabbath rest, because we are no longer under the condemning power of sin. Furthermore, God gradually frees us from the reigning power of sin in our lives by implanting the Holy Spirit within us. That is God’s act of mercy that He gives to us, and it happens all the time, every day, Sabbath included.
So, how are we to do these acts of mercy? Firstly, we do them out of gratitude for what God has done for us. This may seem obvious. However, it is always necessary to keep this in mind. And we do not do it in order to “pay God back” for what He has done. It is not a “you scratch my back, I scratch your back” kind of thing. Rather, God gave His Son for us whole. Therefore we give ourselves whole to God.
What are acts of mercy? This question is especially important, since we are not able to heal like Jesus healed people. Instead, we are to do what we can to help people. Hospitals, nursing homes, and shut-ins are especially needy people. It is impossible to visit them too much. They are often very lonely people. I want to encourage the congregations here, in that I think such people do get a lot of visits and phone calls from our congregations. There is always more to be done. However, we do a lot, and that is cause for praising God.
We especially need to help those who are helpless, like the unborn and the elderly. It is definitely an act of mercy to seek to save the lives of the unborn. We do not have an abortion clinic anywhere around here. But there are abortion clinics in Fargo. Pray, pray, and pray some more about it. Another way to help is to visit prisoners. This one is difficult and a bit scary for some of us. And yet, that can be some of the best ministry opportunities that we can have. Usually, it is when people are down and out that they are the most receptive to the Gospel ministry.
I dare say that there are many people out there whom we will regard as not worthy of receiving mercy. But then, who is worthy of receiving mercy? We certainly are not. No one is. So we should not limit our acts of mercy because we think such and such a person does not deserve to be helped. That is a very dangerous way of thinking, because we will leave ourselves out, if we think that way.