WHY DID JESUS BREAK SABBATH LAWS?
Anne Rice is an author of a series of bestselling ‘Vampire books’ and Tom Cruise brought one of her books to the screen. She was an atheist for decades, but then became a memebr of the Catholic Church in 1998. Her conversion raised eye brows among her old fans, while Christians questioned the morality of her ‘Vampire books.’ After 12 years being a Chrsitian she left Chrsitianity because of certain attitude of Christian fundamentalism and a rigid attitude to birth control and homosexuality and other issues realting to human freedom. She said she is committed to ‘Christ, but not to Christianity.’ In a message posted in her Face book she said, "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen," She further added,. "No wonder people despise us, Christians, and think we are an ignorant and violent lot. I don't blame them. This kind of thing makes me weep. Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian."
She stressed that Christ is more important than Christianity. She said, "It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else." The question is whether such humanists really have to leave the Christian fold to argue their case. The other question is whether people are using conscience as a refuge or as a mask for doing what they want to do and create a following and establish an ideology. Some people also pretend the involvement of the Holy Spirit for exercising their authority and prefernces. Others have the courge of their covictions and preapred to pay a price for their stand. During the second world war there were people who stood against Nazism and paid a heavy price; Conscientious objectors of war who could not accept just war principles suffered for it through social exclusions and prison sentences.
Cardinal Newman who struggled with his conscience about institutionalised Church of England and finally looked for true faith in the Catholic Church in the 19th century. He was beatified during the recent state visit of the Holy Father to the British Isles. On the other hand Anne Rice who had struggled with her conscience and left the church, but not Christ. This attitude is growing and it is time that Christians realise the difference between loving Christ and following the dictates of the institutionalised Church. A significant number of Anglican priests are now struggling with their conscience with gay ordination and women bishops. They may be looking towards Rome for a sanctuary. It is difficult not to accommodate and appreciate all these different attitudes, stresses and strains, and not to feel the pain of torturing Jesus Christ again and again for preserving rigid structures and formularies. Jesus' healing on the Sabbath is telling us something very important in this context.
Our Lord started his ministry with a declaration: “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them and to make their teaching come true.” (Matthew 5:17-20). Any breach of Sabbath laws is considered to be indefensible even today for conservative Jews. Hence you could think of the trouble it caused for Jesus, the Pharisees were plotting to kill him for this. Then why did Jesus broke the law is the question that I would like to explore. Was Jesus, like the politicians of today, saying one thing in his manifestoes and do exactly the opposite afterwards? Is there any real evidence that Jesus broke Sabbatical observances? We see six narrations about Jesus healing three men and a woman on Sabbath in the following gospel stories: Luke 13. 10-17, crippled woman at a Synagogue; Luke 14: 1-6, man with dropsy at the home of a prominent Pharisee; Luke 6: 6-11; Matthew 12:9-14 and Mark 3: 1-6, hand of paralytic man in a Synagogue. John 9: 1-16, healing a blind man on the Sabbath. Therefore, there is scriptural evidence that Jesus broke the Sabbath laws by healing four people on Sabbath in Synagogues in the house of a Pharisee and on a way side.
Further more, his disciples broke the law by eating the corn while walking through a corn field on a Sabbath (Matt 12: 1-8; Mark 2:23-28: Luke 6:1-6). So Jesus deliberately broke the law in Synagogues and in the house of a Pharisee and at a public road, not in secret, in a private place, but in a place where law was read and taught by the teachers of the law and supervised by the law enforcing officers- the Pharisees. So it may seem as a deliberate challenge. Jesus knew the law and its implications because in two instances he reasoned out why he is breaking the law before healing. In the case of crippled woman, he healed her first and then explained why he broke the law. However, in a strict sense, it is not entirely correct to say that Jesus broke the law as we would see later; Jesus understanding of the Sabbath was different from that of Rabbis and Pharisees.
Jesus argued the reason for breaking the law and then did what he needed to do. Rescuing a sheep from a ditch on a Sabbath is of less importance compared to the healing of a man because a ‘man is worth much more than a sheep.’ In Mark and Luke, Jesus asked the question in the Synagogue: He asked the people, “What does our law allow us to do on the Sabbath? To help or harm? To save a man’s life or destroy it?” In Luke 14:1-6 Jesus asked teachers of the Law and the Pharisees, “Does our Law allow healing on the Sabbath or not?” As they did not answer, he answered the question for them by healing the man. “If any one of you has a son or an ox that happened to fall in a well on a Sabbath, would you not pull him out at once on the Sabbath itself?
Jesus broke the law to respond to a need, he healed these people; he liberated them from bondage and gave them freedom. One special aspect of these healing from that of all others is this that the people who received the healing from Jesus on the Sabbath did not ask him for this miracle. Why didn’t they ask? It is possible that they were afraid to ask for it on a Sabbath. They could be punished for that, so they kept quiet and were willing to accept the status quo. Jesus knew this and the weight and restriction of the law upon them and therefore, Jesus took the initiative. Jesus realised their need and responded to it with the real conviction that it is lawful to do good things on the Sabbath.
Jesus thus corrected a traditional misunderstanding. Jesus had the authority to do it because Jesus was also the Lord of the Sabbath because Jesus said, “Sabbath was made for the good of man and man was not made for the Sabbath.” There are situations in our lives where we are called upon to express our longing and commitment for justice and we should take courage through the grace of God to do the right thing. Gandhiji was forced to encourage civil disobedience for his non-violent struggle against British Imperialism to achieve Indian independence.
In the case of crippled woman Jesus expressed a special empathy: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, to be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” Secondly, Jesus is giving a lead for the emancipation of women as well. Jesus is saying that if it is correct to lead animals to drink on the Sabbath, it is much more so to liberate a woman from her long oppression under Jewish traditions of the day. Jesus’ mission was all about this liberation as we read in Luke 4.18-19. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set free the oppressed and announce that time has come when the Lord will save his people.” This crippled woman was healed without a plea for the cure being put to Jesus by her and without Jesus requiring faith as a precondition. This incidence serves to highlight God’s regard for the poor and powerless. Thus God does not forget the cry of the afflicted (Ps 34:6; Ps 69:33).
These Sabbath healings have further significance: firstly, in the case of giving sight to the blind man, Jesus reveals the spiritual blindness of Pharisees; they were blind to the needs of people around them; they carefully observed the letter of the law and not the Spirit of the law. Secondly, Sabbath is intended to be a memorial of a celebration of wholeness and inclusiveness on the part of God. It recalls God’s own rest at the completion of His work of creation (Gen 2:2-3). God finished his work of creation in six days and on the seventh day, when all was completed, He rested. Therefore, it is a celebration of completion and fullness. But when we deliberately and systematically destroy God’s beautiful creation and break our communion with him, the celebration of Sabbath has no real significance. It was Jesus’ mission to heal this fractured world. We are created and shaped for this mission in partnership with God. Therefore, far from showing disrespect to the celebration of Sabbath, Jesus’ action makes the Sabbath celebration meaningful by liberating these four people from their respective bondages.
Viewed under this light, Jesus’ Sabbath breaking can be seen as an attempt to liberate Sabbath from its strict legalism and misunderstandings. Our worship is to place God at the centre of our existence and make His glory our supreme concern, transcending all other considerations. Sunday worship is not a time or place to parade our talents for preaching, singing, chanting and organising for creating self preserving and perpetuating identities for ourselves. It is a time and place for sensing the unspoken needs of others and responding to it through the grace of God. It is a time for committing our lives to a Eucharistic lifestyle of taking, thanking, breaking and giving. It is time for sharing our blessings with others in need. May God bless us to do this everyday of the week.
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