In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis wrote about the law of fair play. It goes like this. “I gave you a bite of my orange; give me a bite of yours.” Or, “Don’t hit me; I didn’t hit you.” From where did such laws arise? They seem to be innate. It would seem that there is a sense of justice in every one of us. Even though our best judgment is stained by sin we seem to operate on the basis of some unseen sense of right and wrong. This quarter our lessons will focus on the theme of justice.
But justice gone amuck is just meanness. Sometimes, in the name of fidelity to the truth, Christ followers can be just plain rigid. Face it—for some people in our world, being a Christian is equal to being a bigot and being narrow. Love of rules for rule’s sake is not justice; it is legalism. Jesus is most surprising when it comes to justice. At times he argues that even the smallest commandment matters (Matthew 5:18, 19). In texts like our lesson text today he almost seems to throw justice (moral rightness) out the window in favor of mercy bestowed on people. How are we to make sense of what Jesus taught about justice, especially justice in light of the Sabbath laws of his day?
Defending the Disciples
In the previous literary context Jesus extended what is termed “the great invitation” (Matthew 11:28-30). Twice he invited us to rest. The fact that we argue about the command to rest shows how deep-seated this perverted sense of justice really is. Jesus had to correct the Pharisees’ wrong-headed sense of justice. The Mishna contains a tractate that lists 39 ways to violate the Sabbath. But in following the rules, the religious elite missed justice.
At that time (a loose temporal connector) Jesus and his disciples passed through some grain fields, picked the heads of grain, rubbed them with their hands (Luke 6:1), and ate the grain, which was perfectly legal to do (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The religion police kicked it into high gear. They tried to drive a relational wedge between Jesus and his disciples. Because the disciples violated the Pharisees’ sense of justice (they claimed three times in our text that “unlawful” things had been committed), they criticized the disciples.
But Jesus defended his disciples by citing an Old Testament narrative and an Old Testament law. In other words, he met his antagonists on their own turf. In 1 Samuel 21:1-9 David ran from King Saul. He and his fellow soldiers were hungry, so they stopped at Nob (where the “house of God,” that is, the tabernacle, was being kept) and ate the consecrated bread. The bread was holy, but David and his companions were hungry. Jesus then moved from tabernacle to temple. He cited an Old Testament law (Numbers 28:9, 10). The priests offered sacrifices on the Sabbath. That constituted work. The Pharisees’ sense of justice was perverted. When rules fail to serve people, they are upside down.
Helping the Needy
At a synagogue in Galilee there was a man with a shriveled (literally “dried up like a plant”) hand. He could well have been a victim of polio. The religion police were waiting for Jesus to slip. They baited him with the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus put the healing of the man on hold and answered his critics with practical wisdom, a “how much more” style of argument, and a strong affirmation. A sheep does not schedule its fall on a certain day of the week, and people are more valuable than sheep. Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath—even if doing good seems like work.
Jesus drew attention to the man’s disability by asking that the man stretch out his hand. The miracle took place instantaneously. But a mark of a fallen world was that the religious people plotted how to kill Jesus. If you are too good, they will put you on a cross.
Knowing the Messiah
It is not wide of the mark to say that Jesus is justice. Grace and truth coexist in Jesus (John 1:14). Midway between these two Sabbath controversies are statements about Jesus. He is greater than the temple (Matthew 12:6). His mercy triumphs over sacrifice (religious obligation, see Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13; James 2:13). He is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). Knowing Jesus helps us have a true sense of justice, the kind of justice that prioritizes helping the hungry and ministering to the disabled over certain nuances of religious obligations.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Lesson study ©2018, Christian Standard Media. Print and digital subscribers are permitted to make one print copy per week of lesson material for personal use. Lesson based on International Sunday School Lesson, ©2013, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.