What Does it Mean to Honor the Sabbath?

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, and he notices a man with a withered hand.  As they often do, the Pharisees and scribes watch Jesus closely, hoping to catch him in an act that would allow them to accuse him of wrongdoing.  In this case: will he cure the man in violation of the prohibition against working on the Sabbath?

Jesus, knowing their intent, calls the man up to stand before them, and he says to the scribes and Pharisees, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?

How do we answer that question?  I think the answer is suggested by a simple comment on the Sabbath once made by Rabbi Jacob Neusner: “Not working on the Sabbath stands for more than nitpicking ritual. It is a way of imitating God.”  Therefore, he suggests that keeping the Sabbath is not just about not doing something, but of celebrating creation.

Jesus question seems to me the right one.  To use Rabbi Nedusner’s language, the question is: does this act honor the Sabbath? Does it imitate God? Does it celebrate creation?  Restoring the man’s hand to health, as Jesus did that day, did exactly that.


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