Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent.
Courtrooms across the US prominently display Justice as a classical Greek figure holding a balance. She’s blindfolded to signify voluntarily ignoring extraneous information and beliefs that might tip the scales unfairly. In essence, then, Justice relies on gravity—deciding what feels most important on a case-by-case basis—and legal arguments amount to amassing heavier rationale on one side or the other. Weighing priorities sets new precedents and strikes down old ones. We’re taught courts serve justice by upholding the law, when in fact the law’s purpose is to uphold justice. When the law confounds justice, it’s no longer useful and sacrosanct. In these situations, the law is already broken, incapable of functioning effectively, and irrelevant. Jesus demonstrates this in Luke 14.
The Sabbath Doctrine
He’s dining with a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath, which is most irregular, as Jesus isn’t known to cozy up to the religious establishment. The host and his friends watch His every move for the slightest infraction of Sabbath protocol. Jesus, being wise to this, stays on His best behavior. Then He notices a man with dropsy—pronounced swelling secondary to a more serious disease, such as heart trouble. Christ’s power to remedy the man’s condition raises a legal issue. The law forbids work of any kind on the Sabbath. Jesus is a healer; healing the man breaks the law. Not healing the man is unconscionable, however. Rather than take the law into His hands, He drops it in His adversaries’ laps. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” He asks. But His underlying question really is, “Is it just for this man to suffer because I’m forced to conform to legal traditions?”
They don’t have a ready-made answer. What was black-and-white moments ago turns stubbornly gray. They feel the scales tip from precedent to principle and they have nothing to counter-balance the shift. Jesus heals the man and replaces the Sabbath law with a Sabbath doctrine. “If your son or ox falls into a well on the Sabbath, do you let him drown? No. You immediately pull him out.” Jesus substitutes flexible application that upholds justice for strict adherence that undermines it. He teaches this doctrine in context of the Sabbath, but it should govern our actions every day of the week.
An Appearance of Wisdom
Many of us have been in the sick man’s position: hurting inside, showing symptoms outside, and praying someone would take the liberty to bend the rules for our benefit. In a lot of cases, when that doesn’t happen, we became outlaws, disregarding Christ’s laws of love completely instead of separating man’s rigid dogma from His pliable principles. Once we grasp His law’s objectives—the justice it upholds—we apply it as befits each situation’s need. We weigh the priorities and decide what’s best. Christ gives us that freedom. Listen to Paul’s take on this:
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!'? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2.30-23)
Religious rules break on their own, particularly when tightly gripped by those who ignore purpose to focus on performance. They have an appearance of wisdom, but they lack value by reinforcing attitudes and prejudices Christ commands us to avoid. When someone tries to corner us with rules, or groups offer their hospitality in hopes of condemning us, we don’t have to fall into their traps. As Jesus demonstrated, obeying God sometimes means breaking the law.
Religious laws that value conformity over compassion don't uphold justice. We don't break them--they're already broken.
(Tomorrow: Beyond Knowledge)