On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And 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.
Our common response to these stories is to shake our head at those silly Pharisees and their silly rules. But I have to respect their willingness to sacrifice and their fervor to follow the laws of God. Yes, by this point in history law upon law had been added to keep people from breaking a commandment, and many attributed the same weight to the man-made laws as to God's Law. But I am sure many of the Pharisees and other Jews did this in an attempt to truly please God, not simply to retain power or to catch this new prophet in a sin.
Ever on the move from the large crowds, the disciples were walking through a field one Sabbath. Possibly unconsciously they pick off a few heads of grain to munch. (Let's be honest; we all know what that's like!) The Pharisees left no room for such an action. Clearly Jesus' disciples were in violation of the law for harvesting and threshing grain! They were completely serious - one didn't even spit on the ground on the Sabbath in case it would make a furrow for something to grow! Jesus takes responsibility for the actions of the disciples by citing the time when King David fed his hungry troops with consecrated bread meant only for consecrated priests from the tribe of Levi. As King David put the physical needs of his soldiers above ritual law, so Jesus put the needs of his disciple over the man-made laws protecting the Sabbath. Jesus' last statement would have filled them with anger as he claimed to be Messianic and the Lord of the Sabbath.
Jesus did follow many of the religious customs, continuing to worship in the local synagogue each Sabbath. As usual, he was chosen to speak. Seeing a man with a withered hand close to Jesus, his opposition watched closely to see if he would follow Sabbath rules of rest or continue his mission to "release the oppressed". Jesus not only healed the man he first provided one of his potent quotables, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” Of course they have no good way to answer this, which likely adds to their fury.
So what can we take from this? How should we honor the Sabbath without becoming legalistic? Commandment number four still applies to believers today. When my parents were growing up there were "blue laws" that kept businesses closed on Sundays. Most people attended church and spent time with families on Sundays. The only work done was related to getting Sunday dinner on the table. Today Sundays are as busy as any other day, and sometimes even church activities can shove rest and worship out of our spiritual lives. Football and other sports on Sundays can crowd out our focus on God as well.
Jesus' example was to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship in the synagogues without the minute restrictions placed on the observance of the law by the Pharisees. The focus of the Sabbath should be first on honoring and worshiping God as we follow his example of rest on the seventh day. The second should be on loving our neighbor as ourselves. Taking one day out of the week to focus on these two concepts and allow ourselves time to physically and mentally rest would affect our entire week in a positive manner. It is up to each of us to pray for discernment about how our Sabbath should be spent. This should be done on a regular basis to avoid keeping the letter of the law and completely missing the true spirit of it as the Pharisees in this story.
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
- Matthew 22:36-40