Good Deed, Good Day

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 6:9

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?”

Luke 6:9 rsv

Every religious group, I suppose, professes one common aim: they want to honor God. But how differently is that task conceived! In what diametrically opposite ways do religious groups seem to go about pursuing that aim! It all depends, doesn’t it, on the deeply held convictions of each? What do these people really believe about God, about His character and purpose? That will determine what it means for them to honor God and do His will.

During the ministry of Jesus, for example, both He and His most bitter critics cared deeply about sabbath-keeping. They were concerned about how to observe the sabbath, how to honor God in the use of His special day. But their differing views about what that meant and how to do it brought about the sharpest kind of conflict. Listen as I read about that from the sixth chapter of Luke, beginning at verse 6:

On another sabbath, when he entered the synagogue and taught, 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 an accusation against him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man who had 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 he looked around on them all, and 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.


Let’s think first about how the Pharisees looked at this matter of sabbath observance. They placed great stress on the idea that no work was to be done on the sabbath day. And that indeed was a part of the fourth command: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates” (Exod. 20:9-10). The commandment seemed crystal clear. Do your work on six days; rest the seventh day.

In an effort to apply this command to the practical details of life, the religious authorities felt it necessary to spell out exactly what constitutes work. Do you remember the phrase in the Scriptures, “a sabbath’s day journey”? That distance was considered to be about two thousand cubits, something over half a mile. In the view of the scribes, a person could walk that far on the sabbath without it being considered work. Beyond that, walking was a transgression of the command.

Further, they listed various activities, trying to determine whether each qualified as the kind of labor forbidden on the sabbath. They challenged the disciples of Jesus, for example, because one day they picked ears of corn, rubbed them with their hands, and ate. “Plucking,” in the established view, was forbidden because it was seen as a form of harvesting. Further, rubbing the ears seemed too much like preparing a meal, which was also to be avoided on the sabbath. In this way, all of life was carefully hedged about with restrictions, so that God’s people would be kept from unwarranted work on the sabbath day.

For the Pharisees, then, obedience to the sabbath commandment came to focus especially in activities that were forbidden. When they were in the synagogue with Jesus on the sabbath day, therefore, their main concern was that He should not do there what they regarded as unlawful. They felt He should not heal on the sabbath day. There were six other days, they argued, on which such healings could be performed. But let no one do this kind of work on the sabbath day!

Jesus had apparently healed before on the sabbath, so the Pharisees were anticipating that this might happen again. They had overcome their initial astonishment at His healing power. They now watched Him with narrowing eyes. Would He do it again? The credo of these Pharisees was, “Do not heal on the sabbath day.” The corollary of that was, “If you do, you are to be condemned.” As a result, when Jesus did heal, they were furious against Him. They plotted what they might be able to do against Him.

Notice, there’s nothing positive here in what they are calling for. They aren’t recommending any alternate course of action. They just say, “Don’t do this beautiful, merciful, joy-bringing deed. Don’t do it or else!”

I ask myself, “How would I express in words the attitude they are representing here?” They’re telling Jesus that He must not heal the man with a withered hand because the day happens to be the sabbath. Would it be fair to sum up their view like this: “God is a God who wants people on His sabbath day to avoid anything that resembles work. Even if it is to right a wrong, to help a friend, or to save a life, you must not do it. God will judge you, they believed, for breaking His sabbath.

As we’ve observed, the aim is noble: to honor God by keeping the sabbath. But what a strange twisting this seems to be of the will of God! What a sad misrepresenting of His character! These men seem to feel that it pleases God to withhold healing, to quench good works, even to hate and oppose those who may do them. We sense that the Pharisees were almost hoping that Jesus would do a gracious work of healing so that they would have occasion to accuse and destroy Him.

It’s important to see that this unlovely trait is not confined to the ancient Pharisees. It can crop up in almost any religious group. There’s a peculiar kind of wickedness that can be done in the name of religion. It’s hard to imagine the viciousness of which human beings are capable when they try to impose their religious convictions and standards on others. But there it is: “Don’t heal this man, Jesus. It’s the wrong day. If You do it, You will show Yourself to be the enemy of God and man. You’ll be the kind of menace that can’t be tolerated!”


Now here, in sharp contrast to that and to them, stands Jesus. He loves God’s law. He seeks to obey the will of God revealed in the fourth commandment. See Him in the synagogue on the sabbath day, worshiping with God’s people. Luke tells us it was His “custom” to worship weekly in the synagogue. But His approach to the matter of healing on the sabbath is radically different.

As He enters the synagogue to teach, He notices a man there whose right hand is withered. This account always moves me because our eldest son Billy had a right hand just like that. He had been stricken with measles encephalitis, left with extensive paralysis on his right side. The most severely affected member was his right hand. In the process of time, that hand, which could no longer be used, came to be smaller than the other, curled in upon itself, almost useless. Jesus looked on this man in the synagogue, as I’m sure He looked on our son, with great compassion. His heart yearned to do the man good.

At the same time, He was well aware of the critical eyes upon Him. Some have speculated that the Pharisees may have planted this man in the congregation, just to precipitate a controversial healing. But well aware of their scheming and of their hatred, Jesus was determined to heal the man, anyway. We see in Him not only compassion, but great courage.

Jesus intends to make the man whole, but He will not do it without bringing the central issue to light, without speaking to the consciences of those present. “Which is lawful?” He asks. Now He’s addressing the chief concern of His enemies. What is according to the law? Which is according to God’s will? Which best accords with the message of the law and the prophets? That we should do good on the sabbath day or that we should do harm, that we should save life or that we should destroy it?

We can readily understand what Jesus means here by doing good and saving life. That’s the healing He’s planning to do. But who said anything about doing harm or destroying life? Apparently, to Jesus, not to do good when it’s within our power is actually to do harm. Not to save life when we can is in effect to destroy it. Neglect in this case is not benign but malignant. As James puts it, “Whoever knows what is right and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).

Perhaps Jesus is speaking also to the motives of His enemies in this word about doing harm and destroying life. Jesus wants to do good and save life as far as the afflicted man is concerned. They, on the other hand, want to do harm and destroy Jesus. Where does the truth lie in this situation? Jesus is asking. Who is really on God’s side? Who fulfills the heart of the law, honoring God on His day?


Jesus saw more in the fourth commandment than a prohibition of work. He saw the divine intention behind the command. He knew, as He had expressed on another occasion, that man was not made for the sabbath but the sabbath for man. It was a gift from God, a divine rest for the weary, to interrupt a cycle of endless toil. The sabbath was a sign of grace. Remember how the divine power that caused the storm in Noah’s day was restrained at the close of the sixth day, and how the first day that dawned fair and beautiful was the seventh? That was the day when the inmates of the ark were permitted to disembark and when they offered sacrifices of thanksgiving. The sabbath, in other words, had been a sign of God’s great kindness toward humankind. They were to celebrate it in the days following the exodus as a reminder of His wonderful, redeeming love. The reason for excluding work was altogether for our human good, for the restoring of our health, vigor and vision. It was for spiritual renewal. People were to be freed from their ordinary labor concerns, so that they could worship, witness and do good.

So for the Lord, a work of healing and restoration was especially appropriate on the sabbath day. Good day, good deed. This was a totally different approach to sabbath observance because it sprang from a radically different awareness of God. Jesus saw the sabbath primarily as a gift, and He saw God as the gracious, healing, saving Giver.

Some years ago, when I was serving a church in Chicago, a woman in my congregation came to me excitedly one day to tell me how she had witnessed to her neighbor. I was always wanting the members of my congregation to bear witness to Christ, so I eagerly asked her to tell me about it. “Well,” she said, “my neighbor was washing his car on a Sunday and I went outside and told him that he ought not to do that on the sabbath day.” That was all. To the dear lady, that was witnessing “to her neighbor.” There was nothing of good news in it. She didn’t tell him about how Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week, how He offers forgiveness and new life to all who will trust in Him. She only said, “You shouldn’t wash your car today.”


We do witness, all of us, by the way we see the sabbath, by the way we treat people on it. We testify, wittingly or not, to what the Lord of the sabbath means to us.

You see, that was the title Jesus claimed for Himself: “The Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath.” By that, He meant not a bare sovereignty over the day, over the institution. He meant that as the Son of man, as the Lord of glory come to earth, Jesus understood the inner meaning of the sabbath, and He could authoritatively declare what that was. He didn’t mean that He was exempt from the sabbath requirements as a man but rather that He embodied in His whole life its true intent. Jesus is the Lawgiver incarnate. The law represents His character and His purpose. See how Jesus observes the sabbath and you grasp what the Almighty had in mind when He gave long ago the fourth commandment.

The zeal of these Pharisees for God’s law was not blameworthy, of course. But their willful blindness to its divinely intended meaning was. So was their resistance to the Lord of the sabbath when He came to them. Today, as one of Jesus’ witnesses, I preach to you this risen Jesus, who is the Lord of the sabbath, the Lord of all. I invite you to trust in Him, to commit yourself to Him, and to join the celebration. How liberating it is that Jesus who died for us and rose again is Lord of the sabbath, that He is the One we seek to please on this day and in every circumstance of life. We are not bound, friends, by the scruples of others, but only by love for the One who died for us and rose again. In obeying Him is freedom and joy.

Prayer: Lord, it’s easy for us to be caught in rules and forms and to make sharp judgments of others. We pray, Lord Jesus Christ, make Yourself real to everyone who shares this broadcast, that we may know what it is to be free, glad people and how to keep Your day. In Jesus’ day. Amen.