Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
Our English translation of this gospel really doesn't capture an important element of the event it describes. What at first reads like a standard “Jesus vs. the Pharisees in the synagogue” story is actually much more complex. This complexity is brushed over by the way the translators chose to translate the manner in which the Pharisees observe Jesus and the man with the withered hand interacting. Our version reads, “the Pharisees watched him closely.” Older versions do a better job: they were “spying.” To describe their behavior as “spying” helps us to understand the question Jesus asks of them, “. . .is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” Jesus will do good on the Sabbath by healing the man's hand; while the Pharisees do evil on the Sabbath by spying and plotting evil. Jesus will save the man's life; while the Pharisees conspire to take Jesus' life. The more fundamental contrast here btw Jesus and his enemies is the contrast btw secrecy and publicity. When following the first commandment of love, Jesus holds himself (and us) to a higher standard of public behavior. Loving or failing to love are always public events.
The basic theological difference btw Jesus and the Pharisees comes down to how they answer the question: how do we become righteous?; that is, by what means do we enter into a right relationship with God? The Pharisees teach that entering into a right relationship with God requires that we studiously observe the Law. Jesus doesn't disagree. But he does teach that “observing the Law” requires much more than simply “following the rules.” In order to observe the Law faithfully, we must go underneath the Law, seek out what motivates its rule and regulations, and align ourselves with the living spirit of the Law. What's the one commandment that grounds all the others? The originating rule that motivates all the rules? Love God, self, and neighbor first; then, all the other commandments may be properly observed and righteousness obtained. In fact, love first and then observing all the other commandments comes naturally! And note: there is no way to follow the first commandment of love secretly or privately. Loving God, self, and neighbor is always public, always a public testimony to one's righteousness.
If following the first commandment of love always entails public acts that witness to your right relationship with God, then your public behavior must be worthy of the one who died to make that relationship possible. Paul writes to the Corinthians about a man in their church who's taken up with his father's wife. It's not clear if this woman is the man's mother or step-mother; regardless, it's an incestuous relationship—a sin that even the pagans of the day condemned. Paul urges the church to toss this guy out so that he might repent and be saved. By tossing him out of the church, the church will also prevent his sin from corrupting the whole body. This is a medicinal move, a cure meant to spare the man and the church from eternal death. The man's public behavior does not give testimony to his right relationship with God; in fact, it does just the opposite: it bears witness to the fact that he is not aligned with Love and threatens—by example—to leaven the church with “malice and wickedness.” Keeping his sin private might stall public scandal, but an injury to a part of the Body is an injury to whole Body. Heal one part, the whole is healed.
Jesus publicly violates the Law of the Sabbath in order to obey the Law of Love, thus teaching the Pharisees and us that the rules flow from Love as a means for us to love publicly. Just as the Pharisees fail to love when they plot evil on the Sabbath, so the man in Corinth fails to love by sinning. The cure—for the Pharisees, the man, and for each of us—is repentance, confession, penance, and the healing word of God's mercy.___________________
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