[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
After the surprising claim of Jesus in Luke 6:1-5 that He and His followers are the new priesthood, the new sacrificial system, and the new center for the worship of God, Jesus reiterates this point through a dramatic healing in a Synagogue on the Sabbath. As with the account in 6:1-5, the issue of what is allowed on the Sabbath is secondary to the theological and practical point Jesus makes in 6:6-11. Truth and law are to help free people in life and in their worship of God; not hinder them. A proper understanding and application of God’s law will not result in the development of roadblocks to God, but will open up access for all people.
6:6. Jesus, as was His custom on the Sabbath, went to the synagogue to teach. Sabbath teaching in the synagogue usually focused on a particular passage of Scripture, with a few Rabbis reading, translating, explaining, and applying the text (cf. Luke 4:14-16). In this account, the focus is not so much on what Jesus teaches from the words of Scripture, but on how He interacts with the people who are present, and what He teaches through His actions.
On this particular Sabbath, there was a man present whose right hand was withered. The termwithered is a medical term used by Luke to describe a hand that is atrophied or paralyzed (Shepard 1939:164). Some speculate that the Pharisees had brought this man in order to trap Jesus (cf. v 7; McGee 1983:IV,271), but it is just as likely Jesus brought the man to teach the Pharisees and His disciples something. If the latter option is true, then the man with the withered hand could have been the object lesson for the teaching of Jesus that Sabbath. However, it is not likely that Jesus would use people this way, so the most likely option is that the man just came to the synagogue that day. Maybe he was a regular attender; maybe he was just visiting. The point is that he was there.
Early second century commentaries on this passage indicate that the man was a mason, and so his paralyzed hand kept him from performing his work, and therefore, providing for his family (Barclay 1975:72; Evans 2003:241).
6:7. The scribes and Pharisees were also present at the synagogue, listening to and participating in the Sabbath teaching. But on this day, they were more interested in what Jesus did than what He said. They watched Him closely. There are numerous words for watching, looking, and seeing in Scripture, but the one Luke uses here (Gk. paratēreō), means “to spy on” or “to watch out of the corner of one’s eye” (cf. Ps. 36:12 LXX; Bock 1996:178; ZIBCC 1:375). It carries the idea of watching someone with malicious intent. Luke puts this word first in the verse, to give it emphasis.
So the scribes the Pharisees are not in the synagogue to learn, but to find an accusation againstJesus. They wanted to discover some way to charge Jesus with wrongdoing. Jesus knew the Pharisees were trying to find fault with Him, but He does not shy away from the conflict. Instead, He seems to head directly toward it. “He does not back away. The opposition may be secretive; but Jesus is open” (Bock 1994:529).
6:8. Jesus knew their thoughts, that they were trying to trap Him, and so He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Arise and stand here.” Frequently, synagogues followed many of the rules and regulations found in the Temple. Since teaching and discussion Scripture was considered to be a priestly duty, many of the laws and regulations about the priesthood were loosely applied to those who taught and discussed Scripture in the synagogue on the Sabbath. One such rule restricted people with a physical deformity such as a broken foot or broken hand (cf. Lev 21:19).
The deformity of the withered hand would have kept this man out of the Scripture discussion. Though he could attend and listen, he could not speak.
The fact that he was seated reveals his exclusion. In a typical synagogue of the time, the teaching Rabbi would sit, and those who were allowed to teach and interact with the Rabbi would stand near the front. Women, children, Gentile visitors, and those unqualified to participate in the dialogue, would sit in the back of the synagogue and around the edges of the room. Since this man was sitting, he was not being allowed to participate.
Yet, in obedience to Jesus, the man arose and stood. Jesus could have healed the man while he was sitting, but by asking the man to stand, Jesus indicates that the man is about to participate in the teaching.
6:9. Once the man had risen, Jesus said to the Scribes and Pharisees, “I will ask you one thing: Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy?” To save life in this context has nothing to do with receiving eternal life, but is about restoring a man to full health so that he can use his hand. Such an action would indicate to all that the kingdom of God had arrived, and that God was at work through Jesus to redeem and restore the nation (cf. Evans 2003:241; Bock 1994:529). “In the wider Greco-Roman world of Luke’s day, ‘salvation’ had to do with ‘a general manifestation of generous concern for the well-being of others, with the denotation of rescue from perilous circumstances’ including, but hardly limited to the healing of physical malady” (Green 1997:256). This term was related to the hoped-for restoration of Israel which the Messiah would bring. In His actions toward the man with the withered hand, Jesus was hinting at His desire to bring healing and restoration to the withered land of Israel (Green 1997:256)..
The opposite of saving a life is to destroy (Gk. apollumi) it. This does not necessarily mean to kill someone, but can mean “to ruin, harm, or hinder.” To behave toward them in such a way that they cannot live life in a meaningful and productive way, fulfilling their potential within the Kingdom of God (cf. Schweizer 1984:113).
But in asking the question as He did, Jesus shows that there is no neutral ground. By framing the question as an either-or question—you can either save a life or destroy it—Jesus reveals that there are only two options when it comes to helping other people, and being part of the Kingdom of God. There is no neutral ground, and religious people are not always on the side they imagine. If someone refrains from helping another, it is the same has hurting them. “If any illness is left unattended when healing can be provided, evil is done by default” (EBC 8:887).
But the question of Jesus is much deeper than this. The Jewish religious leaders had laws which essentially said the same thing that Jesus has just indicated. Jesus was not asking this question to teach them. He was not even asking this question to see if they knew the answer. Jesus was not asking the question because He thought they had never thought about it before. He asked the question to show them that neither the question nor the answer really mattered.
The question Jesus raises was very similar to a question which the Pharisees already answered in one of their many books on how to keep the law. When it came to the law, the Jewish religious leaders left no stone unturned. Every question had been asked and answered. They had considered all aspects of what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.
One of the questions in their books on the Sabbath was whether or not it was permitted to heal on the Sabbath. Here is the answer they had come up with in one of their books of Sabbath regulations:
1. On the Sabbath, healing to save a life is not only permitted, but a duty. Jews were required to perform work if it would save the life of a person who would otherwise die.
2. Caring for the seriously ill was sometimes allowed on the Sabbath, but only under certain restraints and conditions.
3. Treating minor ailments is prohibited. This is because a minor ailment is not life threatening, and can therefore wait until after the Sabbath is over. Also, treating minor ailments often required the grinding of herbs to prepare medicine, and grinding is one of the prohibited forms of work (Edersheim 1988:2, 60-61; Stern 1992:117).
That was answer of the Jewish experts to the question of Jesus. Yet Jesus did not ask the question because He was ignorant of their answer, nor did He ask it because He thought they didn’t know the answer. He asked because He knew the answer, and He hated it.
It is not that the answer was wrong. It was technically the right answer. It was logical and consistent with the rest of Jewish law. It helped maintain the purity and sanctity of the Jewish Sabbath. But in this instance, Jesus doesn’t care about having the right or wrong answer to a theological question, nor does He want to debate with them about what is or is not work on the Sabbath.
In asking the question, Jesus is showing that the question itself is the problem. Neither the answer, nor the question, is what matters. What does matter? The person standing in front of them all is what matters. The man with the withered hand is what matters. It is not the time to develop theological answers to questions about human need and suffering when a person is standing in front of you who is suffering. At such times, debate and discussion is not helpful, but is only destructive and harmful. At such times, theological questions about what sort of people we can help, and when or why we can help them, are nothing more than theological excuses for a failure to help someone in need. “Law must submit to need. Put another way: law is not designed to prevent one from meeting needs” (Bock 1994:512).
This was why Jesus asked the question. The religious leaders had all the right answers for why this man with the withered hand should be seated in back, kept quiet, and relegated to second-class citizenship within Israel. But Jesus wanted to show that their theological answers to the problem of human suffering did not help people, but hindered them. Their answers did not saves lives, but destroyed them.
6:10. After asking His pointed question, Jesus looked around at them all. This is an interesting detail that Luke includes. It is as if Jesus was challenging anyone to answer His question while the suffering man was standing in their presence. As Jesus looked around, it would be interesting to know if the other teachers averted their gaze.
Jesus was probably also looking upon them with sorrow. They had all the truth one could ask for, but none of the love. Yet truth, if it is properly understood, leads to love.
After looking around the room, Jesus spoke to the man saying, “Stretch out your hand.” When the man did so, his hand was restored as whole as the other. There is a strong sense of irony in the statement by Jesus and the healing of the man. “Note the amount of labor involved in the healing: Jesus merely speaks a sentence” (Bock 1994:530). Undoubtedly, a lot of talking and speaking about the Scriptures had already taken place that day, while the man with the withered hand sat there, unattended, unhelped, and possibly judged. Jesus only says a few more words, but in so doing, heals the man.
Commentaries are often divided as to whether Jesus actually broke a Sabbath-day law here or not. Most argue that Jesus did break the Pharisaical understanding of the Sabbath law, but not any specific command of God. Some of these commentaries brought out how the Pharisees probably had some difficulty accusing Jesus here of any wrongdoing, since He didn’t actually grind any herbs or use any medicine. All Jesus did was command the man to stretch out His hand, which is not technically breaking the law.
One commentary rightfully points out that in the parallel passages of the other Gospels, and on other Sabbath-day conflicts, Jesus provides five reasons why He is allowed to heal on the Sabbath. The first reason, which Jesus gives in Matthew 12, is that the manmade laws of the Pharisees are not the same as the God-given laws of the Hebrew Scriptures. Although Jesus has broken man’s laws, He has not broken God’s laws.
Second, even according to the opinion of some Jewish leaders, it was okay to rescue a sheep who had fallen into a hole on the Sabbath (Evans 2003:242). Jesus argues that if it okay to rescue a sheep, it is definitely okay to heal a man (cf. Matt 12:9-14).
Third, Jesus says in numerous places that the Sabbath was made for man; not man for the Sabbath. This means that God has given the law to help man better serve and glorify God, not to enslave man and require him to glorify the rules.
Fourth, Jesus states in other contexts that “My Father has been working until now, and I too am working.” This means that God works every day, even on the Sabbath, and if God can do it, so can Jesus.
Finally, another Jewish rule allowed circumcision on the Sabbath. Jesus argues that if circumcision is okay, then healing on the Sabbath should also be allowed (Bock 1994: 528; Stern 1992:117).
While all of these arguments are true, they still miss the entire point of the actions of Jesus. It is not about who has the better argument, who knows the law better, or who can present the most logical case. It is not about whether Jesus broke the Sabbath, or changed the Sabbath, or really wanted to teach anything about the Sabbath at all.
Jesus wanted the Pharisees and His disciples to see the man. Jesus saw the man and his need, and had compassion on Him to heal him. He saw something good to do for somebody, and He did it. He did not allow the finer points of legal and theological debate keep Him from helping another person in need. Breaking the rules to help others in need is better than keeping the rules and failing to lift a hand.
It can be argued that if our interpretation of the law keeps us from helping someone in need, then our interpretation and application of the law is at fault. Jesus shows the entire goal and purpose of the law: to help people love one another. If the law does not lead us to love, it has not been properly understood or applied. The truth of this is revealed by its opposite in the following verse.
6:11. After seeing that the man’s hand had been healed, the scribes and Pharisees were filled with rage. The word for rage (Gk. anoia) is where we get the English word “annoy,” but is much stronger than it’s English descendant. In Greek, it is describes irrational anger, even pathological rage (Bock 1994:531; 1996:179; Radmacher 1999:1260; ZIBCC 1:376). The Pharisees were livid at Jesus.
This reveals that they never did see the man. In their minds, he was only a good illustration for a theological argument. But beyond this, they also missed out on seeing God at work. The religious leaders knew that healing only came from God. In John 3, the Pharisee Nicodemus says to Jesus that they all know no man can do the things Jesus does unless God is with Him. Yet the Pharisees, so intent on keeping the Sabbath, won’t even allow God Himself, who gave them the Sabbath, to go against their manmade traditions about the Sabbath and show love and mercy toward another human being.
One reason for the anger of the Pharisees is something Jesus said which Luke does not record, that the healing was accomplished because God was at work in Jesus to perform it (John 5:17-18). This was, after all, the only way a miracle could be performed. Therefore, God Himself works on the Sabbath. The miracle was therefore God’s endorsement of Jesus and His actions on this Sabbath day (Bock 1994:530).
But the worst part about this verse, is what they decide to do with Jesus. Luke records that discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. In His initial question in v 9, Jesus asked if it was lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy? In such a way, He revealed that there is no middle ground. One who fails to do good, ends up doing evil. One who fails to save a life, destroys it.
The Pharisees prove this point when they get upset at Jesus for healing the man on the Sabbath. Though their regulations forbade them from helping the man, they were still allowed by the same law to plot how they might kill Jesus (cf. Mark 3:6). In rejecting to do the good in front of them, they ended up plotting evil.
It is clearly debatable if Jesus did any official “work” on this Sabbath, and so at most, Jesus would have been lightly reprimanded. The reaction of the Pharisees in seeking capital punishment for Jesus is a definite over reaction to the law (Exod 31:14; 35:2). This marks the beginning of the controversy that Jesus has with the religious leaders.
The escalating controversy also marks the beginning of Jesus showing His followers that He is starting a new people with new rules and a new way of living. In the following verses, Luke selects twelve men who will lead the way in forming the “new Israel.” This new people will be defined by their loyalty to Jesus in the new age that was dawning. They would no longer be bound to many of the laws and regulations of the age that was passing away, as that part of the old creation was drawing to a close (Wright 2004:69).