We keep rereading scripture (and other classic texts, but I’m especially interested in scripture) because they strike us differently as our own circumstances change. This morning Luke 6:6–11, which in some seasons has just been for me a Standard Bible Story, smacked me. There was a startling, then painful, recognition, not as in “Oh, I remember this Bible story” but as in “Wow—isn’t this what we’re seeing now every day?”
In this story, on “another sabbath” (because the preceding story is also set on a sabbath) Jesus goes into a synagogue to teach (as Luke tells us he was doing all around Galilee). But a man was there with a withered hand. So there’s the set-up: Jesus presumably knows what he’s going to talk about—he has some sort of teaching for the synagogue attendees—but there’s this man there with a basic physical need.
So this sets up some suspense for the reader. Will Jesus simply proceed with his message (teaching, doctrine), which is what he came here to do? Or will he let himself be thrown off message by the commonplace and potentially annoying circumstance that there’s this guy there whose hand is atrophied? After all, aren’t there sick and disabled people all over the place? Can you really abandon your preaching and teaching every time another one shows up?
But already, even just this far into Luke, there is no real suspense, is there? The attentive reader knows full well (remembering that unforgettable little sermon in Nazareth, and the hostility with which it was received, and the reason for the hostility) that while Jesus has some proclaiming to do, he’s not one to do a lot of proclaiming without at least as much enacting. Of course Jesus is going to heal the man with the atrophied hand.
So that’s part of the set-up.
But there’s another element: the scribes and the Pharisees who were there were watching him very closely (παρετηροῦντο δὲ αὐτὸν, they were observing him, spying on him) in order to be find an accusation to lodge against him (ἵνα εὕρωσιν κατηγορεῖν αὐτοῦ, or in other manuscripts ἵνα εὕρωσιν κατηγορίαν). And Jesus knew this about them when he saw them: he already know their dialogismous, the debating that was going on in their heads.
So this is what grabbed me first, this particular mode of presence: being there, watching and listening, not to observe in hope of learning something, or in hope of getting to know someone you don’t already know, or coming to understand something that you do not yet understand. Not even just being there with no hope or expectation at all, but just maybe some curiosity. Rather: already having a script running in your head, and expecting and hoping to find ammunition for further condemnation or someone or something you already know you don’t like. Hunting for the gotcha.
I saw that this week when a friend with whom I disagree on some things sent me an email starting with, “Wait. I want to get you on record here.” Really?
What predisposes anyone to fall into that particular mode of presence? In the case of the scribes and Pharisees in this story, it’s apparently zeal for the law. They have their fixed ideas about rules that must be observed in a properly godly society. In particular: the sabbath rules.
They didn’t make these rules up themselves! The sabbath is in scripture. They are not wrong to see it as God’s commandment, and as one of the core commandments that defines the identity of God’s people. Jesus would not contradict them on this point.
Nor, I think we can safely say, are the scribes and Pharisees thoroughly malignant people who would not be happy to see the man with the withered hand healed. “The Pharisees” and “the scribes” are often considered to be nothing but hypocrites by modern Christian folk. Modern Christians know that in the gospels, in their encounters with Jesus, they usually come off as hypocrites. But Jesus and everyone around him knew that the “scribes” were the literate people in a largely illiterate culture, the ones who could tell everyone else what the scriptures said. And the Pharisees were religiously and morally serious people who wanted to teach others how to live godly lives. They were out to make Israel holy again! Such a righteous objective! They presumably knew God’s benevolence and power and would have appreciated a miraculous healing as much as anyone else.
But not on the sabbath, right? I mean, there are six other days, plenty of time for all kinds of good works. Would it be so hard for Jesus to do both? Both observing the sabbath by not working, as the law clearly required, and doing good works on other days? Perfectly reasonable expectation, don’t you think? Unless he’s out to cause trouble. Do your works of mercy, sure: but make sure not to violate God’s law in the process.
Nobody in this story is saying that the sabbath commandment isn’t divine law! But there’s a disagreement about how to honor it.
Jesus sees more deeply into the law, more deeply into the heart of the Lawgiver, than they. And he sees that they are getting themselves tied in knots—and trying to time him in knots—because of their literal-rigid (originalist?) way of reading and applying the scriptures. He does not denounce them, though. He asks them a question. Fascinatingly, he invites them to compare scripture with scripture, seeing how scripture interprets scripture—so that they may do likewise. He asks whether they have not noticed how approvingly the author of 1 Samuel narrates David’s violation of the law (which law we find in the book of Leviticus) for proper handling of the sacred bread. He clearly wants a lightbulb to turn on in their heads: he wants them to understand that they should be interpreting the sabbath laws with the same freedom that David (and 1 Samuel) used in validating a literal violation of the sacred bread.
Jesus is clearly uninterested in strict application of the sabbath law on the surface level. He is interested in the spirit of the law, which he says is: affirming life. So he looks around at all of them (“glared at them” might not be too much), tells the afflicted man (“with anger” according to numerous manuscripts) to stretch out his hand, and then goes ahead with the healing.
It seems right has prevailed, Jesus has done his good work of healing and also at the same time delivered the valuable lesson that faithful interpretation and application of the law means doing what affirms life. All ends well. Right?
Well, no. And this is the other thing that is somehow, oddly, comforting in our present moment:
αὐτοὶ δὲ ἐπλήσθησαν ἀνοίας καὶ διελάλουν πρὸς ἀλλήλους τί ἂν ποιήσαιεν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.
They were filled with anoia, Luke tells us, which is to say, with mindlessness, with stupidity and anger, and yammered on with each other about how they would get him. Does this not also ring a bell for us today?
Jesus did not manage to bring those were filled with anoia to their senses. He cast out many demons and healed many diseases, but righteous religious zeal? That he did not heal. And eventually it collaborated with raw Roman force to nail him to a cross. And it is perhaps even now still crucifying him daily.
Comforting? In a way. Certainly sobering.