On the same day Jesus saw a man performing a work on the Sabbath
. Then he said to him, ‘Man! If you know what you are doing, you are blessed . But if you do not know, you are cursed, and a transgressor of the law .’ Luke 6, 5 (a unique reading in Codex D)
Today’s text is curiously familiar, yet unfamiliar – familiar because we’re used to hearing stories of Jesus in which he casts doubt on the importance of keeping ritual rules like not labouring on the Sabbath, unfamiliar because we can’t quite place this one
. In fact, it is one of the few stories of Jesus that are entirely plausible yet are not found in the canonical gospels . It comes from just one fifth century manuscript of Luke’s gospel, Codex D, now in . No-one knows how it came to be there, and only there. Had it been handed down orally for over three hundred years? Was it the creation of a preacher who wanted to make an important point that wasn’t quite clear enough in the canonical gospels? But maybe what matters is not how this saying came to be in Codex D but what it prompts us to learn. Cambridge
Here is a man who is clearly doing something that the Jewish law forbade. Right-thinking, religious Jews would have condemned him for this, just as right-thinking Christians have often condemned those who disobey the church’s rules. Jesus does not do this, but neither does he say that what the man is doing is obviously OK. He says that whether or not it is OK depends on the man’s understanding of what he is doing. This cannot be judged from outside; only the man himself can be certain as to whether he believes that what he’s doing is right, for him, now. This development is of massive significance, because it undermines the ability of any external agency to judge the moral value of an act. An external agency might of course decide that the act, whatever the motive behind it, must be punished – what lawyers call ‘strict liability’, the kind of law enshrined in the very earliest law codes. Maybe the reason this saying is not found elsewhere is that the early church found this development deeply disturbing; if it were to be accepted, the church could not say with any finality, ‘Thou shalt not ...’ but could instead only ask, ‘What’s your motive for doing that?’ It is a mark of the maturity of our modern legal system, and also of its having been influenced by the thrust of the Jesus teaching, that our courts seek to discover not only whether the accused did what has been alleged but also, crucially, why.
Jesus, we know, did do on the Sabbath day what was regarded as ‘work’. Neither that fact nor today’s text tell us whether he thought that Sabbath observance was generally a good idea, though we also know from his famous saying, ‘The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath’ that he would have made that judgement on the basis of its human utility. But today’s text is not concerned with whether or not the rule about Sabbath observance is a good one; it is about the fact that it is a rule, and this man is breaking this rule when it might be assumed that it applied to him.
Jesus expressed doubts about the wisdom of doing what the rules said you should simply because the rules said so. But the problem with rules is that they can make us unfree whether or not we obey them. You’re obviously not free if you simply obey the rules. But it should be equally obvious that you’re not free of the dominion of rules if you simply disobey them – if, that is, you decide to break the rules exactly because they are the rules. In that case, as in the first, what you do is being driven by the rules, one way or the other; in neither case are you behaving autonomously. It’s this understanding that our text makes crystal clear. If this man working on the Sabbath really understands what he is doing and is doing it because he knows it’s right for him to do it, he is ‘blessed’, and, we might want to add, free. If on the other hand he’s just being bolshie, breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules, that is not commendable; he’s just a ‘transgressor of the law’; he is not free.
In Christian history there have been groups who have believed that all rules should be abolished, or at least that rules didn’t apply to them. The Jesus of our text doesn’t appear to have been such an antinomian. It’s not that the rules don’t have some utility – some of them at any rate; it’s that any utility they may have as wise guidance is lost when they become rigid rules that people feel they must keep at all costs. It’s one thing to accept traditional guidance when you have neither the time nor the inclination to think things through for yourself and want to behave in a way that has generally been found to be both safe and defensible. But it’s something quite else to think that traditional guidance is unchallengeable, or that it must always unfailingly take precedence over our own intuitions, however deeply felt or carefully thought through.
I think that something further may be implied in this story. Change is an unavoidable part of life at every level. Consequently, it’s unrealistic to think we can go on forever obeying the same old laws and conventions. And maybe the way laws and conventions are best developed is by serious people thinking seriously about whether and when to follow the traditional guidance, and whether and when to try something that the traditional guidance forbids. Of course, such explorations sometimes turn out badly. I don’t think that the Jesus teaching would call such disasters ‘the judgement of God’; that wasn’t how Jesus thought of God. But because there is this risk, it takes a certain kind of courage to act on a sincere belief that some traditional constraint does not apply to the situation you are in, either for reasons you understand or because you have a deep intuition about the matter. That courage is an aspect of what we call ‘faith’, and I hope it was possessed by the man Jesus encountered working on the Sabbath day.