Is it Lawful to do Good or Harm on a Sabbath?

(Luke 6:6-11)

You would think that the answer to the question posed by the title of this post is a no-brainer. Consider the Pharisees and scribes who were always following Jesus and who knew the law and try to understand their position. They saw themselves as the keepers of the law and the guardians of it to ensure it was followed to the letter. They would go to the most extreme lengths to keep the most minute precepts of the law so as to maintain what they perceived to be right.

But they failed. Miserably! How many times did Jesus call them to account for their failures in relation to the truth of the law? Countless times. And why did they fail so miserably all of the time? Because they missed the point of the law. They missed the requirements of justice, mercy and faith that were embodied in the law and used it instead as a big stick to beat the people into submission, and this scripture is a classic example of how they failed.

healing the withered handWhile Jesus was teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath day, a man came to him with a withered hand. Now let’s think what the Pharisees could or should have thought about this scenario. They could think, “Isn’t it fantastic that this man is here today for Jesus can heal him and fix his hand and all will give glory to God.” But instead they were waiting to see if Jesus would heal him so that they could have something to accuse him with! Their thoughts might have been, “If Jesus heals this guy, we’ve got him! You aren’t allowed to work on the Sabbath and healing is work so we dare you to do it and then we’ll have you on a plate!”

But Jesus knew what treachery they were up to and he planned to show their malice for what it was. He called the man over and then 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?” (Verse 9) Now how were the scribes and Pharisees going to answer that? How petty would they look if they said, “Well, yes you should do good…but the law says you can’t work on the Sabbath so you should wait until tomorrow.” What if the man was at the point of death and couldn’t wait till tomorrow? In another version of this event it says Jesus looked around at them all in anger for their hardness of heart. (Mark 3:5) And so he should. Where was the compassion of these men? Where was the mercy, love, justice and the desire for what is right to be done?

Jesus even showed them that they too broke the Sabbath on occasions so that the law could be kept. He showed in John 7:22-24 that they would circumcise a child on the Sabbath to keep the requirements of the law of circumcision, and that too is “working on the Sabbath.” They do not tell the parents of the child to come back the next day, because the requirement of the law of circumcision is it was to be done on the eighth day. And there was a health reason for this that I am certain they were unaware of, because it has been shown that Vitamin K levels, which assist with blood clotting, are at their highest levels on the eighth day. (Note: I don’t particularly agree with circumcision as it is not necessary under the New Covenant).

The Lord finishes this discussion in John 7:22-24 saying, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” And this is the key to the whole question of the Sabbath. Judge with right judgement. What is the right thing to do? Is it right to leave someone suffering to keep the Sabbath? Jesus had already made the point that, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) So if the Sabbath is made for man, is it not right that a man should be freed from bondage to infirmity on a Sabbath as much as on any other day? While keeping the Sabbath may have had the appearance of religion, if it was going to cause or prolong suffering for someone, how is that loving your neighbour as yourself? If it were the reverse and the Pharisees had the withered hand, would they have felt the same way when the resolution to their infirmity in Jesus Christ stood before them on the Sabbath?

I have mentioned many times that the way the Lord sees and perceives things is much different to the way that man does. And here he is teaching us to learn to think as God thinks. Don’t judge by appearances but get to the heart of the matter to find out what is the good, right, true and just path to take. What is the path that leads to righteousness and shows the love of God rather than the appearances of it? Find that path and follow it.

(Picture sourced from

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