Everything that Jesus sought in his life and ministry is revealed in today’s gospel. Jesus walks into a synagogue where there is a man “who had a withered hand.” Like so many gospel stories, Jesus finds himself in the middle of a situation where good needs to be done. There is a man who is suffering, and Jesus wants to heal him. And yet, this gospel story bristles with tension and ominous threats of violence because also in the synagogue that day are some Pharisees who see exactly what Jesus does—a man in need of a healing—but perceive the situation quite differently. For them, the man with the withered hand represents not a possibility for Jesus to do good, but the chance that a Sabbath law will be broken.
Instead of being intimidated, Jesus speaks out: “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” With that question, Jesus confronts us with the heart of the gospel. Yes, laws are important, but they should never get in the way of doing good. Yes, we need laws and traditions to guide us, but if they become obstacles to love, justice, compassion, and mercy, they need to be broken. In fact, to make any law, practice, and tradition more important than mercy, justice, compassion, and love is evil. There aren’t many times in the gospels that Jesus is angry, but Jesus is angry in this gospel story because the Pharisee’s rigid legalism prevents them from grasping what really matters.
On the Sabbath, Jesus defies a law in order to set somebody free, and in doing so tells us something about what it means to follow him. Like Jesus, we are called to be ministers of God’s healing and life, savvy instruments of God’s mercy and love. After all, if we don’t stand on the side of mercy, compassion, justice, and love, we are not standing with Jesus, but against him.
Paul J. Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, and a member of the Passionist Family of Holy Cross Province.