“He went on from there and entered the synagogue. And a man was there whose hand was withered. And they questioned Jesus, asking, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—so that they might bring charges against Him.” – Matthew 12:9-10
Jesus and His disciples have arrived at the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Pharisees seems to have been waiting for them. They are hoping to entice Jesus into breaking the Law of Moses, specifically the command not to work on the Sabbath, so that they can discredit Him.
Another man was at the synagogue. He had one withered or shriveled hand. In Mark’s telling of this same story, Jesus initiated the conversation with the man by asking him to stand up in front of everyone (Mark 3:3). Jesus was not going to avoid the trap the Pharisees had apparently laid for him.
Matthew records the Pharisees asking if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Their presumed answer was “no.” Their group of Pharisees had come up with a list of 39 things that qualified as forbidden work on the Sabbath in order to keep the fourth commandment found in Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work” (Exodus 20:8–10).
In creating such a list, the Pharisees were going “too far” in doing a legitimate thing. They were tasked, in part, with helping the people of Israel to know how to apply God’s commands to their everyday lives. The problem Jesus has pointed out is that they lost sight of their responsibility to care for people and to show them mercy. Instead, over time, the Pharisees added unreasonable rules and regulations to the Law of Moses. They turned Judaism into a great burden instead of providing great good to the people.
Their requirements forbid “healing” in the sense of non-life-saving medical care. The man whose hand was shriveled was not in a life-or-death situation. They hoped Jesus would heal the man, anyway, so they could accuse Him of breaking the command. In truth, Jesus would be breaking only their interpretation of the command. And His response will show how cynical and cold their attitudes really were.
The rules. We absolutely need them but how often do we tie ourselves to them and sacrifice our compassion? Jesus is teaching us here that compassion wins, love wins all the time.