IN grouping together the three miracles of healing described in the last chapter, we do not wish to convey that it is certain they had taken place in precisely that order. Nor do we feel sure, that they preceded what is about to be related. In the absence of exact data, the succession of events and their location must be matter of combination. From their position in the Evangelic narratives, and the manner in which all concerned speak and act, we inferred, that they took place at that particular period and east of the Jordan, in the Decapolis or else in the territory of Philip. They differ from the events about to be related by the absence of the Jerusalem Scribes, who hung on the footsteps of Jesus. While the Saviour tarried on the borders of Tyre, and thence passed through the territory of Sidon into the Decapolis and to the southern and eastern shores of the Lake of Galilee, they were in Jerusalem at the Passover. But after the two festive days, which would require their attendance in the Temple, they seem to have returned to their hateful task. It would not be difficult for them to discover the scene of such mighty works as His. Accordingly, we now find them once more confronting Christ. And the events about to be related are chronologically distinguished from those that had preceded, by this presence and opposition of the Pharisaic party. The contest now becomes more decided and sharp, and we are rapidly nearing the period when He, Who had hitherto been chiefly preaching the Kingdom, and healing body and soul, will, through the hostility of the leaders of Israel, enter on the second, or prevailingly negative stage of His Work, in which, according to the prophetic description, ‘they compassed’ Him ‘about like bees,’ but ‘are quenched as the fire of thorns.’
Where fundamental principles were so directly contrary, the occasion for conflict could not be long wanting. Indeed, all that Jesus taught must have seemed to these Pharisees strangely un-Jewish in cast and direction, even if not in form and words. But chiefly would this be the case in regard to that on which, of all else, the Pharisees laid most stress, the observance of the Sabbath. On no other subject is Rabbinic teaching more painfully minute and more manifestly incongruous to its professed object. For, if we rightly apprehend what underlay the complicated and intolerably burdensome laws and rules of Pharisaic Sabbath-observance, it was to secure, negatively, absolute rest from all labour, and, positively, to make the Sabbath a delight. The Mishnah includes Sabbath-desecration among those most heinous crimes for which a man was to be stoned. 1 This, then, was their first care: by a series of complicated ordinances to make a breach of the Sabbath-rest impossible. How far this was carried, we shall presently see. The next object was, in a similarly external manner, to make the Sabbath a delight. A special Sabbath dress, the best that could be procured; the choicest food, even though a man had to work for it all the week, or public charity were to supply it 2 – such were some of the means by which the day was to be honoured and men to find pleasure therein. The strangest stories are told, how, by the purchase of the most expensive dishes, the pious poor had gained unspeakable merit, and obtained, even on earth, Heaven’s manifest reward. And yet, by the side of these and similar strange and sad misdirections of piety, we come also upon that which is touching, beautiful, and even spiritual. On the Sabbath there must be no mourning, for to the Sabbath applies this saying: 3 ‘The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and He addeth no sorrow with it.’ Quite alone was the Sabbath among the measures of time. Every other day had been paired with its fellow: not so the Sabbath. And so any festival, even the Day of Atonement, might be transferred to another day: not so the observance of the Sabbath. Nay, when the Sabbath complained before God, that of all days it alone stood solitary, God had wedded it to Israel; and this holy union God had bidden His people ‘remember,’ 4 when it stood before the Mount. Even the tortures of Gehenna were intermitted on that holy, happy day. 5
The terribly exaggerated views on the Sabbath entertained by the Rabbis, and the endless burdensome rules with which they encumbered everything connected with its sanctity, are fully set forth in another place. 6 The Jewish Law, as there summarised, sufficiently explains the controversies in which the Pharisaic party now engaged with Jesus. Of these the first was when, going through the cornfields on the Sabbath, His disciples began to pluck and eat the ears of corn. Not, indeed, that this was the first Sabbath-controversy forced upon Christ. 7 But it was the first time that Jesus allowed, and afterwards Himself did, in presence of the Pharisees, what was contrary to Jewish notions, and that, in express and unmistakable terms, He vindicated His position in regard to the Sabbath. This also indicates that we have now reached a further stage in the history of our Lord’s teaching.
This, however, is not the only reason for placing this event so late in the personal history of Christ. St. Matthew inserts it at a different period from the other two Synoptists; and although St. Mark and St. Luke introduce it amidst the same surroundings, the connection, in which it is told in all the three Gospels, shows that it is placed out of the historical order, with the view of grouping together what would exhibit Christ’s relation to the Pharisees and their teaching. Accordingly, this first Sabbath-controversy is immediately followed by that connected with the healing of the man with the withered hand. From St. Matthew and St. Mark it might, indeed, appear as if this had occurred on the same day as the plucking of the ears of corn, but St. Luke corrects any possible misunderstanding, by telling us that it happened ‘on another Sabbath’ – perhaps that following the walk through the cornfields.
Dismissing the idea of inferring the precise time of these two events from their place in the Evangelic record, we have not much difficulty in finding the needful historical data for our present inquiry. The first and most obvious is, that the harvest was still standing – whether that of barley or of wheat. The former began immediately after the Passover, the latter after the Feast of Pentecost; the presentation of the wave-omer of barley making the beginning of the one, that of the two wave-loaves that of the other. 8 Here another historical notice comes to our aid. St. Luke describes the Sabbath of this occurrence as ‘the second-first’ – an expression so peculiar that it cannot be regarded as an interpolation, 9 but as designedly chosen by the Evangelist to indicate something well understood in Palestine at the time. Bearing in mind the limited number of Sabbaths between the commencement of the barley and the end of the wheat-harvest, our inquiry is here much narrowed. In Rabbinic writings the term ‘second-first’ is not applied to any Sabbath. But we know that the fifty days between the Feast of Passover and that of Pentecost were counted from the presentation of the wave-omer on the Second Paschal Day, at the first, second, third day, &c., after the ‘Omer.’ Thus the ‘second-first’ Sabbath might be either ‘the first Sabbath after the second day,’ which was that of the presentation of the Omer, or else the second Sabbath after this first day of reckoning, or ‘Sephirah,’ as it was called. To us the first of these dates seems most in accord with the manner in which St. Luke would describe to Gentile readers the Sabbath which was ‘the first after the second,’ or, Sephirah-day. 10
Assuming, then, that it was probably the first – possibly, the second – Sabbath after the ‘reckoning,’ or second Paschal Day, on which the disciples plucked the ears of corn, we have still to ascertain whether it was in the first or second Passover of Christ’s Ministry. 11 The reasons against placing it between the first Passover and Pentecost are of the strongest character. Not to speak of the circumstance that such advanced teaching on the part of Christ, and such advanced knowledge on the part of His disciples, indicate a later period, our Lord did not call His twelve Apostles till long after the Feast of Pentecost, viz. after His return from the so-called ‘Unknown Feast,’ 12 which, as shown in another place, 13 must have been either that of ‘Wood-Gathering,’ in the end of the summer, or else New Year’s Day, in the beginning of autumn. Thus, as by ‘the disciples’ we must in this connection understand, in the first place, ‘the Apostles,’ the event could not have occurred between the first Passover and Pentecost of the Lord’s Ministry.
The same result is reached by another process of reasoning. After the first Passover 14 our Lord, with such of His disciples as had then gathered to Him, tarried for some time – no doubt for several weeks – in Judæa. 15 The wheat was ripe for harvesting, when he passed through Samaria. 16 And, on His return to Galilee, His disciples seem to have gone back to their homes and occupations, since it was some time afterwards when even His most intimate disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – were called a second time. 17 Chronologically, therefore, there is no room for this event between the first Passover and Pentecost. 18 Lastly, we have here to bear in mind, that, on His first appearance in Galilee, the Pharisees had not yet taken up this position of determined hostility to Him. On the other hand, all agrees with the circumstance, that the active hostility of the Pharisees and Christ’s separation from the ordinances of the Synagogue commenced with His visit to Jerusalem in the early autumn of that year. 19 If, therefore, we have to place the plucking of the ears of corn after the Feast recorded in St. John v., as can scarcely be doubted, it must have taken place, not between the first, but between the Second Passover and Pentecost of Christ’s Public Ministry.
Another point deserves notice. The different ‘setting’ (chronologically speaking) in which the three Gospels present the event about to be related, illustrates that the object of the Evangelists was to present the events in the History of the Christ in their succession, not of time, but of bearing upon final results. This, because they do not attempt a Biography of Jesus, which, from their point of view, would have been almost blasphemy, but a History of the Kingdom which He brought; and because they write it, so to speak, not by adjectives (expressive of qualities), nor adverbially, 20 but by substantives. Lastly, it will be noted that the three Evangelists relate the event about to be considered (as so many others), not, indeed, with variations, 21 but with differences of detail, showing the independence of their narratives, which, as we shall see, really supplement each other.
We are now in a position to examine the narrative itself. It was on the Sabbath after the Second Paschal Day that Christ and His disciples passed 22 – probably by a field-path – through cornfields, when His disciples, being hungry, 23 as they went, 24 plucked ears of corn and ate them, having rubbed off the husks in their hands. 25 On any ordinary day this would have been lawful, 26 but on the Sabbath it involved, according to Rabbinic statutes, at least two sins. For, according to the Talmud, what was really one labour, would, if made up of several acts, each of them forbidden, amount to several acts of labour, each involving sin, punishment, and a sin-offering. 27 28 This so-called ‘division’ of labour applied only to infringement of the Sabbath-rest – not of that of feast-days. 29 Now in this case there were at least two such acts involved: that of plucking the ears of corn, ranged under the sin of reaping, and that of rubbing them, which might be ranged under sifting in a sieve, threshing, sifting out fruit, grinding, or fanning. The following Talmudic passage bears on this: ‘In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered as sifting; if she rubs the heads of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she bruises the ears, it is grinding; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing.’ 30 One instance will suffice to show the externalism of all these ordinances. If a man wished to move a sheaf on his field, which of course implied labour, he had only to lay upon it a spoon that was in his common use, when, in order to remove the spoon, he might also remove the sheaf on which it lay! 31 And yet it was forbidden to stop with a little wax the hole in a cask by which the fluid was running out, 32 or to wipe a wound!
Holding views like these, the Pharisees, who witnessed the conduct of the disciples, would naturally harshly condemn, what they must have regarded as gross desecration of the Sabbath. Yet it was clearly not a breach of the Biblical, but of the Rabbinic Law. Not only to show them their error, but to lay down principles which would for ever apply to this difficult question, was the object of Christ’s reply. Unlike the others of the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath Law has in it two elements; the moral and the ceremonial: the eternal, and that which is subject to time and place; the inward and spiritual, and the outward (the one as the mode of realizing the other). In their distinction and separation lies the difficulty of the subject. In its spiritual and eternal element, the Sabbath Law embodied the two thoughts of rest for worship, and worship which pointed to rest. The keeping of the seventh day, and the Jewish mode of its observance, were the temporal and outward form in which these eternal principles were presented. Even Rabbinism, in some measure, perceived this. It was a principle, that danger to life superseded the Sabbath Law, 33 and indeed all other obligations. 34 Among the curious Scriptural and other arguments by which this principle was supported, that which probably would most appeal to common sense was derived from Lev. 18 v 5. It was argued, that a man was to keep the commandments that he might live, certainly not, that by so doing he might die. 35 In other words, the outward mode of observation was subordinate to the object of the observance. Yet this other and kindred principle did Rabbinism lay down, that every positive commandment superseded the Sabbath-rest. This was the ultimate vindication of work in the Temple, although certainly not its explanation. Lastly, we should in this connection, include this important canon, laid down by the Rabbis: ‘a single Rabbinic prohibition is not to be heeded, where a graver matter is in question.’
All these points must be kept in view for the proper understanding of the words of Christ to the Scribes. For, while going far beyond the times and notions of His questioners, His reasoning must have been within their comprehension. Hence the first argument of our Lord, as recorded by all the Synoptists, was taken from Biblical History. When, on his flight from Saul, David had, ‘when an hungered,’ eaten of the shewbread, and given it to his followers, 37 although, by the letter of the Levitical Law, it was only to be eaten by the priests, Jewish tradition vindicated his conduct on the plea that ‘danger to life’ superseded the Sabbath-Law, and hence, all laws connected with it, 39 while, to show David’s zeal for the Sabbath-Law, the legend was added, that he had reproved the priests of Nob, who had been baking the shewbread on the Sabbath. 40 To the first argument of Christ, St. Matthew adds this as His second, that the priests, in their services in the Temple, necessarily broke the Sabbath-Law without thereby incurring guilt. It is curious, that the Talmud discusses this very point, and that, by way of illustration, it introduces an argument from Lev. 22 v 10: ‘There shall no stranger eat of things consecrated.’ This, of course, embodies the principle underlying the prohibition of the shewbread to all who were not priests. 41 Without entering further on it, the discussion at least shows, that the Rabbis were by no means clear on the rationale of Sabbath-work in the Temple.
In truth, the reason why David was blameless in eating the shewbread was the same as that which made the Sabbath-labour of the priests lawful. The Sabbath-Law was not one merely of rest, but of rest for worship. The Service of the Lord was the object in view. The priests worked on the Sabbath, because this service was the object of the Sabbath; and David was allowed to eat of the shewbread, not because there was danger to life from starvation, but because he pleaded that he was on the service of the Lord and needed this provision. The disciples, when following the Lord, were similarly on the service of the Lord; ministering to Him was more than ministering in the Temple, for He was greater than the Temple. If the Pharisees had believed this, they would not have questioned their conduct, nor in so doing have themselves infringed that higher Law which enjoined mercy, not sacrifice.
To this St. Mark adds as corollary: ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ It is remarkable, that a similar argument is used by the Rabbis. When insisting that the Sabbath Law should be set aside to avoid danger to life, it is urged: ‘the Sabbath is handed over to you; not, ye are handed over to the Sabbath.’ 42 Lastly, the three Evangelists record this as the final outcome of His teaching on this subject, that ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath also.’ The Service of God, and the Service of the Temple, by universal consent superseded the Sabbath-Law. But Christ was greater than the Temple, and His Service more truly that of God, and higher than that of the outward Temple, and the Sabbath was intended for man, to serve God: therefore Christ and His Service were superior to the Sabbath-Law. Thus much would be intelligible to these Pharisees, although they would not receive it, because they believed not on Him as the Sent of God.
But to us the words mean more than this. They preach not only that the Service of Christ is that of God, but that, even more than in the Temple, all of work or of liberty is lawful which this service requires. We are free while we are doing anything for Christ; God loves mercy, and demands not sacrifice; His sacrifice is the service of Christ, in heart, and life, and work. We are not free to do anything we please; but we are free to do anything needful or helpful, while we are doing any service to Christ. He is the Lord of the Sabbath, Whom we serve in and through the Sabbath. And even this is significant, that, when designating Himself Lord of the Sabbath, it is as ‘the Son of Man.’ It shows, that the narrow Judaistic form regarding the day and the manner of observance is enlarged into the wider Law, which applies to all humanity. Under the New Testament the Sabbath has, as the Church, become Catholic, and its Lord is Christ as the Son of Man, to Whom the body Catholic offers the acceptable service of heart and life.
The question as between Christ and the Pharisees was not, however, to end here. ‘On another Sabbath’ – probably that following – He was in their Synagogue. Whether or not the Pharisees had brought ‘the man with the withered hand’ on purpose, or placed him in a conspicuous position, or otherwise raised the question, certain it is that their secret object was to commit Christ to some word or deed, which would lay Him open to the capital charge of breaking the Sabbath-law. It does not appear, whether the man with the withered hand was consciously or unconsciously their tool. But in this they judged rightly: that Christ would not witness disease without removing it – or, as we might express it, that disease could not continue in the Presence of Him, Who was the Life. He read their inward thoughts of evil, and yet he proceeded to do the good which He purposed. So God, in His majestic greatness, carries out the purpose which He has fixed – which we call the law of nature – whoever and whatever stand in the way; and so God, in His sovereign goodness, adapts it to the good of His creatures, notwithstanding their evil thoughts.
So much unclearness prevails as to the Jewish views about healing on the Sabbath, that some connected information on the subject seems needful. We have already seen, that in their view only actual danger to life warranted a breach of the Sabbath-Law. But this opened a large field for discussion. Thus, according to some, disease of the ear, 44 according to some throat-disease, 45 while, according to others, such a disease as angina, 46 involved danger, and superseded the Sabbath-Law. All applications to the outside of the body were forbidden on the Sabbath. As regarded internal remedies, such substances as were used in health, but had also a remedial effect, might be taken 47 although here also there was a way of evading the Law. 48 A person suffering from toothache might not gargle his mouth with vinegar, but he might use an ordinary toothbrush and dip it in vinegar. 49 The Gemara here adds, that gargling was lawful, if the substance was afterwards swallowed. It further explains, that affections extending from the lips, or else from the throat, inwards, may be attended to, being regarded as dangerous. Quite a number of these are enumerated, showing, that either the Rabbis were very lax in applying their canon about mortal diseases, or else that they reckoned in their number not a few which we would not regard as such. 50 External lesions also might be attended to, if they involved danger to life. 51 Similarly, medical aid might be called in, if a person had swallowed a piece of glass; a splinter might be removed from the eye, and even a thorn from the body. 52
But although the man with the withered hand could not be classed with those dangerously ill, it could not have been difficult to silence the Rabbis on their own admissions. Clearly, their principle implied, that it was lawful on the Sabbath to do that which would save life or prevent death. To have taught otherwise, would virtually have involved murder. But if so, did it not also, in strictly logical sequence, imply this far wider principle, that it must be lawful to do good on the Sabbath? For, evidently, the omission of such good would have involved the doing of evil. Could this be the proper observance of God’s holy day? There was no answer to such an argument; St. Mark expressly records that they dared not attempt a reply. 53 On the other hand, St. Matthew, while alluding to this terribly telling challenge, 54 records yet another and a personal argument. It seems that Christ publicly appealed to them: If any poor man among them, who had one sheep, were in danger of losing it through having fallen into a pit, would he not lift it out? To be sure, the Rabbinic Law ordered that food and drink should be lowered to it, or else that some means should be furnished by which it might either be kept up in the pit, or enabled to come out of it. 55 But even the Talmud discusses cases in which it was lawful to lift an animal out of a pit on a Sabbath. 56 There could be no doubt, at any rate, that even if the Law was, at the time of Christ, as stringent as in the Talmud, a man would have found some device, by which to recover the solitary sheep which constituted his possession. And was not the life of a human being to be more accounted of? Surely, then, on the Sabbath-day it was lawful to do good? Yes – to do good, and to neglect it, would have been to do evil. Nay, according to their own admission, should not a man, on the Sabbath, save life? or should he, by omitting it, kill?
We can now imagine the scene in that Synagogue. The place is crowded. Christ probably occupies a prominent position as leading the prayers or teaching: a position whence He can see, and be seen by all. Here, eagerly bending forward, are the dark faces of the Pharisees, expressive of curiosity, malice, cunning. They are looking round at a man whose right hand is withered, 57 perhaps putting him forward, drawing attention to him, loudly whispering, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath-day?’ The Lord takes up the challenge. He bids the man stand forth – right in the midst of them, where they might all see and hear. By one of those telling appeals, which go straight to the conscience, He puts the analogous case of a poor man who was in danger of losing his only sheep on the Sabbath: would he not rescue it; and was not a man better than a sheep? Nay, did they not themselves enjoin a breach of the Sabbath-Law to save human life? Then, must He not do so; might He not do good rather than evil?
They were speechless. But a strange mixture of feeling was in the Saviour’s heart – strange to us, though it is but what Holy Scripture always tells us of the manner in which God views sin and the sinner, using terms, which, in their combination, seem grandly incompatible: ‘And when He had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their heart.’ It was but for a moment, and then, with life-giving power, He bade the man stretch forth his hand. Withered it was no longer, when the Word had been spoken, and a new sap, a fresh life had streamed into it, as, following the Saviour’s Eye and Word, he slowly stretched it forth. And as He stretched it forth, his hand was restored. 58 The Saviour had broken their Sabbath-Law, and yet He had not broken it, for neither by remedy, nor touch, nor outward application had He healed him. He had broken the Sabbath-rest, as God breaks it, when He sends, or sustains, or restores life, or does good: all unseen and unheard, without touch or outward application, by the Word of His Power, by the Presence of His Life.
But who after this will say, that it was Paul who first introduced into the Church either the idea that the Sabbath-Law in its Jewish form was no longer binding, or this, that the narrow forms of Judaism were burst by the new wine of that Kingdom, which is that of the Son of Man?
They had all seen it, this miracle of almost new creation. As He did it, He had been filled with sadness: as they saw it, ‘they were filled with madness.’ So their hearts were hardened. They could not gainsay, but they went forth and took counsel with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him. Presumably, then, He was within, or quite close by, the dominions of Herod, east of the Jordan. And the Lord withdrew once more, as it seems to us, into Gentile territory, probably that of the Decapolis. For, as He went about healing all, that needed it, in that great multitude that followed His steps, yet enjoining silence on them, this prophecy of Isaiah blazed into fulfilment: ‘Behold My Servant, Whom I have chosen, My Beloved, in Whom My soul is well-pleased: I will put My Spirit upon Him, and He shall declare judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive nor cry aloud, neither shall any hear His Voice in the streets. A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench, till He send forth judgment unto victory. And in His Name shall the Gentiles trust.’
And in His Name shall the Gentiles trust. Far out into the silence of those solitary upland hills of the Gentile world did the call, unheard and unheeded in Israel, travel. He had other sheep which were not of that fold. And down those hills, from the far-off lands, does the sound of the bells, as it comes nearer and nearer, tell that those other sheep, which are not of this fold, are gathering at His call to the Good Shepherd; and through these centuries, still louder and more manifold becomes this sound of nearing bells, till they shall all be gathered into one: one flock, one fold, one Shepherd.