By Benedict Augustine
“He stretched it out and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel
with the Herodians against him to put him to death.”
The Pharisees pick an odd time to plot a murder:they decide on this immediately after Jesus heals a man’s withered hand. He does not announce his intention to overturn social order or lead his fellow Jews away from God, nor does He threaten the Pharisees themselves; instead, He heals a man’s of a particularly debilitating injury. This act of love obviously clashes with the preconceptions of the Pharisees. Their God did not afflict people in vain, but punished them for some good reason, for some kind of sin. That Jesus, Who claimed God as His father, reversed that condition, on the Sabbath no less, could only mean one thing: Jesus was the Evil One.
This ironic conclusion of the conspirators clearly demonstrates that intelligence and learning in a person do not count for much if his heart has “hardened.” They break numerous commandments in order to correct Jesus’ possible violation of the Sabbath. They would rather imagine God as a cruel deity taking pleasure in the suffering of His childrenthan as a compassionate creator hoping to redeem His creation. Filled with such righteous indignation, they stand there dumb as Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” They see nothing evil in letting this man suffer, but they do sense something deeply wrong in healing him. The Law, as they understand it, does not seem to make provisions for healing on the Sabbath, but it does declare the Sabbath as a day of rest. Therefore, they do not see Jesus healing a man, but Jesus breaking a law.
Although to outsiders, this obsessively legalistic perspective seems to have little appeal to any person in their right minds, this reverence of the law made perfect sense to the Jews. In their collective history up to that point—and afterward, for that matter—people had failed them time and again. Their kings failed them; most of their prophets seemed to fail them; the priests failed them; even the people failed themselves. History taught the Jews one thing: human beings were bound to fail. By contrast, God’s Law remained, uncorrupted, unchanged since its recording by Moses over a millennium ago. The Law, not man, could redeem Israel. Should the Messiah arrive, He would most certainly agree with this assessment and tout the Law as the Pharisees did and as their predecessors,the Maccabees, did. He would not violate the Law, and he would dare not supersede the Law in his own person. Unfortunately, Jesus does exactly that.
The Pharisees feel that they would lose what little gains they had made with such innovations while Jesus knew that Law promised something much greater than befuddling an insecure people. Jesus also understood that the Law in itself has no life, confers no life, and if idolized, actually destroys life.Thus, Jesus makes the point that God instituted Sabbath, and the Law as a whole, to restore men, not confine them. A day of rest, a day of love, a day of prayer should heal men, not paralyze or wither them.
In their zeal, the Pharisees fall into the same trap as any group that despairs of men and seeks stabilityfrom the law: they believe that the Law is bigger than men. This thinking easily transitions into the State being bigger than men; hence, both the Pharisees and Herodians imagined a political messiah, not a spiritual one. In modern centuries,thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx championed a slavish devotion to the state and its laws as though the sheer political power of the state made its laws sacrosanct—“might makes right.” In this warped mentality, eliminating men for the sake of the law, for the sake of state, makes perfect sense.
Even Americans today cling to the idea that the laws of the government can make things right and absolve the sins of the people. Tomorrow will mark the 41stanniversary of the disastrous decision of Roe v. Wadethat made abortion legal in the United States. Millions of babies have died since then. In minds of so many reluctant mothers and fathers, the logic of the law had more weight than life of their children. Like the Pharisees seeing the Sabbath as an excuse to let the sick suffer, so many in America see freedom as an excuse to let infanticide run rampant. Those who support abortion see their opponents as the Pharisees saw Jesus: a threat to their conscience and their conception of the good.
Abortion proves that legalism is alive and well even today. The hissing and seething of the pro-choice movement prove that the vindictive spirit of the Pharisees lives on. Following the lead of Jesus, Christians should continue confront this logic of death, grieve over it, and proceed to heal those in need.