On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
We read this confident in the knowledge that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites, that we’re not like that as we’re set free from legalism, and we’d never get furious with people who don’t confirm to our own expectations…
Religious people have a tendency toward legalism. We don’t mean to, but it’s an effective way of keeping us from breaching sacred boundaries. The Commandment to observe the Sabbath is pretty strong (most of us don’t follow it with anything like the rigour that our Orthodox Jewish sisters and brothers, or some of our co-religionists, do).
To refrain from work is a good thing, it ensures we rest, spend time with those we love, and devote some of our week to God. Yet these worthy aims became bogged down in legalism to the point where there was a debate about whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Of course Jesus turning the table on the religious folk made them furious.
Yet so many of us can become furious when things don’t conform to what we think is right. We get angry, or disparaging, about the wrong type of hymnody or liturgy; sniffy about whether the minister does, or doesn’t, vest in liturgical garb. We can become very patronising about other churches which do things differently – despite the oft quoted myth that the URC is terribly ecumenical in outlook.
Instead of reading this passage with smug satisfaction that we’d be like the Pharisees, pray that God will open our eyes to see the aspects of our lives that we miss, blot out or ignore.
Lord Jesus, help us to turn away from our righteous indignation, to see ourselves as you see us, to recognise our weaknesses and imperfections, that, even as you call us to be holy, we may not be sanctimonious. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is minister of Barrhead, Shawlands and Stewarton URCs in Scotland.