The Ignorant Know-It-Alls, Part 3: How to Keep the Sabbath

Jewish tzitzit, or tassels, both styles
Picture by Sheynhertz-Unbayg

3 And he entered again into the synagogue; and there was a man there which had a withered hand.

2 And they watched him, whether he would heal him on the sabbath day; that they might accuse him.

3 And he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, Stand forth.

4 And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace.

5 And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.

6 And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.

~ Mk 3:1-6

The above passage could take an entire sermon to cover completely.  I don’t intend to do that.  I simply want to note these things:


  1. You would have thought that having someone around who could heal miraculously would have been a wonderful thing.  How hard were their hearts to find reason to condemn for such a blessing?  How little compassion did they have towards the man with the withered hand?
  2. Once again, we see the arrogance of the religious leaders in becoming angry with Jesus because He did not interpret the Law about the Sabbath their way.  Much like many today who have forgotten the purpose of a calendar, the Jews in Jesus’ day had forgotten the purpose of the Sabbath.
  3. Worse, they were stubbornly persistent in their ignorance to the point of condemning an innocent man (in this case, Jesus).
  4. Jesus makes an odd statement.  “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?”  Why would He state this?

The first, I hope, is rather obvious.  If not, then I doubt there is anything I can say to help you.  The second is mostly what this series is all about.

The third item is related to the second, but it is worth an exploration.  The fourth is rather interesting, and why would Jesus mention killing?

Condemning the Guiltless

It was another encounter with the Pharisees which provoked another interesting response from Jesus, and it too was over the rules the Jews had set up around the keeping of the Sabbath day.

12 At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat.

2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.

3 But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him;

4 How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?

5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?

6 But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.

7 But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

8 For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.

~ Mt 12:1-8

I truly do not understand why people want to argue with me over this, as Jesus makes it clear that David was “guiltless” (His words!).  In fact, His whole point is that if one wanted to be picky and unmerciful, then one could find fault with David and the priests alike for their actions.  The latter should be obviously ludicrous, as they were doing the work of God in their day.  Likewise, if anyone still wants to believe that David sinned by taking the shewbread, then feel free to look in the mirror and call yourself a Pharisee.

Far too long we have treated “grace” like a dirty word, and it is high time to grow up!  In fact, that is an entire (hopefully soon upcoming) article in its own right.

In the end, the Pharisees not only criticized Jesus’ disciples who were guiltless, they condemned to death the One Who was truly guiltless of any sin whatsoever.

“To Save Life, or to Kill?”

Why would Jesus say that?  Have you ever really thought about it?

Saving life is probably obvious to most.  Even cattle and sheep were allowed to be pulled out of a hole in the ground on the Sabbath day.  In fact, this very principle is used at one point by Jesus to defend healing on the Sabbath.

It should be obvious that health and safety issues override the command to rest on the Sabbath.  It would be wrong to say putting on a seat belt is “work” and fail to do so in the name of the Sabbath day.  Likewise, if a child becomes seriously ill, it would be right and proper to seek medical attention on the Sabbath.

I remember reading once where a nurse was asked to work on the Sabbath during a regional emergency.  Now, she could have been hardhearted like the Pharisees and refused rather than help out with the hundreds of injured.  However, she told her boss that she could not in good conscience accept pay for the day, and then she rolled up her sleeves and went to work.  Mercy prevailed in her mind.

Most of us, I suspect, will never have to face a dilemma of that magnitude.  In one sense, that is very good because that means disasters are not frequent occurrences.  However, the smaller the severity, the more that good judgment must come into play.  It can certainly be abused.  A hangnail is not an emergency that means staying home from services.

However, there are all sorts of situations in between these extremes that may not be so easy to judge.  At least the general principle of aiding in health and well being, particularly of another, should be evident.

But, Jesus did not stop there.  He said, “Or to kill?”  Was that just hyperbole for the sake of contrast?  I really do not think so.  It has long been acknowledged that the Jews had a tradition of not declaring or starting a war on the Sabbath (apparently, though, they did not always hold to that tradition, according to Josephus).  However, one was obligated to fight on the Sabbath if attacked.

The Jewish Encyclopedia in their article on the “Sabbath” points to the works of Josephus to uphold the idea that resting on the Sabbath was not enforced for soldiers at war.

3. But Pompey himself filled up the ditch that was oil the north side of the temple, and the entire valley also, the army itself being obliged to carry the materials for that purpose. And indeed it was a hard thing to fill up that valley, by reason of its immense depth, especially as the Jews used all the means possible to repel them from their superior situation; nor had the Romans succeeded in their endeavors, had not Pompey taken notice of the seventh days, on which the Jews abstain from all sorts of work on a religious account, and raised his bank, but restrained his soldiers from fighting on those days; for the Jews only acted defensively on sabbath days….

~ Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Chapter 7 (emphasis mine)

Nehemiah was a very zealous man for the Sabbath.  However, he also was zealous in building the wall around Jerusalem, and half of the men held spears while the other half worked on the wall.  I imagine they did not work on the actual building of the wall on the Sabbath (although the circumstances might mean it was deemed as necessary), but does anyone really believe that they put down their swords and spears on the Sabbath?

The walls of Jericho fell on the seventh day of marching around it.  That means at least one Sabbath was during this time!  However, a careful reading of the text reveals that this activity must have occurred during the Days of Unleavened Bread, which would have included two holy days!

It is apparently on the First Day of Unleavened Bread that Joshua receives instructions from the preincarnate Christ–“the Commander of the Lord’s army” (5:15)–about how Jericho is to be taken (6:2-5). Their first march around the city seems to have occurred later that day. The city being only a mile away and their march around it measuring about another mile, this would not have taken long. The subsequent marches begin early in the morning (verses 12, 14). The seventh day, the Last Day of Unleavened Bread, though a Holy Day, was not especially restful for them that year. God had His work for them to do. They rose at dawn and marched around the city seven times before giving a great shout with the trumpet blasts. So far, this was about eight miles of marching, but God’s work was not yet done. …

~ United Church of God Bible Commentary, “The Fall of Jericho

So, What’s the Point?

You may be wondering by now what point I’m trying to make.  Actually, it was Jesus Who was making the point to the Pharisees!

Jesus’ short statement interjected in the examples He gave show an understanding that the Pharisees would have had that it is acceptable to defend one’s self on the Sabbath day.  If in combat, it would have even been acceptable to kill.  Not only would that not have been considered murder, but it would not have been breaking the Sabbath either.

However, no sane human being is going to call war a good thing.  Only madmen wage war just for the sake of waging war.  Any self-respecting Jew would have understood that life is a gift from God, and even the act of killing your worst enemy in war was not a light thing.

So, in today’s vernacular, Jesus’ statement could be sardonically put as, “You allow soldiers to kill on the Sabbath, a very grisly act, and you will not allow someone to do good, to heal and to bless on the Sabbath?  What is wrong with you?”

OK, I added that last question, but it is implied in His statement.

Whenever asked a trick question, Jesus had a tendency to point back to the root of the issue.  When asked about divorce, He stated the purpose of marriage.  When asked about the Sabbath, He pointed out the purpose of the Sabbath (and Who was Lord of it, BTW).

The most important take away is to ask, “Why?”  If we cannot properly answer “Why?”, then we cannot properly answer “How?”


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