Breaking the Law


Today’s readings (click below to open in a new tab/window):
Psalms 54; 146, Genesis 15:1-11, 17-21, Hebrews 9:1-14, John 5:1-18

The fourth commandment is “Remember to keep holy the Sabbath.” For most Christians Sunday is the Sabbath but after church is over it’s not much different than the rest of the week. We are free to go shopping, eat out, and do as we please. Therefore we may underestimate the enormity of Jesus’ decision to perform a healing miracle on the Sabbath. This wasn’t someone declining an opportunity to “take it easy” – it was an act of defiance punishable by death.

For observant Jews, the Sabbath is a day of rest and worship, beginning at sunset on Friday and ending with the appearance of the first three stars on Saturday evening. Sabbath is rich with traditions, prayers, obligations, and rules. One key Sabbath concept is that no work is to be done: even candles must be lit and food prepared in advance. Today it is a strictly religious tradition observed more closely by some Jews than others, but among Jesus’ contemporaries there was no distinction between religious and secular law.

What might have been important enough to Christ to merit this act of disobedience? Mercy.

Could he have waited to heal the ailing man? Possibly. People had walked past and over this lame man for decades. Jesus didn’t break rules just for the sake of breaking them: by choosing mercy over law on the Sabbath, he demonstrated that mercy is always God’s highest priority. No excuse – our own need to be “holy” or even the threat of punishment – justifies withholding it.

For all our claims to be a people freed of legalism, Christians have developed plenty of rules to stand between us and mercy. From baptisms to funerals and everything between, we have our own unclean persons, our own restricted privileges, and our own inviolable traditions. Conscience tells us when mercy is the right response, but fear of breaking the rules and being punished by our social group may keep us from exercising it. When the Spirit prompts us, let’s be brave enough to break a rule or two and touch that “untouchable” person with our hands, hearts, and words.

Comfort: The Lord wants us to love mercy – that means receiving as well as giving.

Challenge: Critically consider whether  rules you have set up for yourself get in th way of being merciful to others.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: What does our willingness (or unwillingness) to show mercy say about our relationship with Christ?

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