This passage completes a sequence of three controversies that started in 5:33. Jesus has explained in the earlier passages that he brings a new way and that he has authority over the sabbath. When Jesus moves to heal a man on the sabbath, he provides an additional and fundamental explanation for his action. In other words, in Luke's thinking the three controversies form a unit that helps to reveal the rationale for Jesus' style of ministry. If Luke's major lesson is "like teacher, like disciple," then what Jesus teaches here about love's function reveals a central attitude that others are called to follow. The "law of love" demands that Jesus heal on the sabbath. Such a law of concern for others may well be behind the expressions "Christ's law" in 1 Corinthians 9:21 and "royal law" in James 2:8. The law about the sabbath was never designed to restrict one's ability to love and meet needs. Compassion is always appropriate.
Luke begins the account by noting that this healing takes place on another Sabbath. As Jesus ministers, his every move is watched closely. The term used to describe the observing scribes and Pharisees is extremely significant. They were looking (pareterounto) means they were spying on him, watching him out of the corner of their eye. This adds a sinister mood to the story (Riesenfeld 1972:147; Ps 36:12 LXX; Dan 6:12 Q). The text is also clear that the motive for their intense scrutiny is that they are looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They cannot wait to catch him.
Once again Jesus knows the thoughts of his opponents, and again he acts to deal with their thinking by turning their private thoughts into a topic of public reflection. By doing so he again raises the issue of his authority. If they wish to challenge him secretly, he will turn their challenge and doubt into a public hearing. Jesus' openness contrasts with the leaders' covertness. His question gets right to the point and is loaded with irony: "I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" Luke has already revealed the leaders' motives by noting that they have been watching Jesus closely; now Jesus exposes their desire. In attempting to defend the truth of sabbath tradition, they plot harm on the sabbath, while Jesus seeks to meet needs. Who is violating the sabbath? There is a sting in the question.
Zeal often leads to unrighteousness, as ends are cited to justify questionable means. Sometimes in seeking to prevent murder or unrighteousness, God's people engage and even justify acts that are just as reprehensible. A Christian leader once told me that certain people were out to get him for "doctrinal defection." They were watching his every move and examining his every sentence. In their attempt to get hard evidence they had broken into his office, searched his desk and even tried to open his computer files. Apparently trespassing along with breaking and entering was all right in the name of righteousness! The pursuit of righteousness should never cause us to resort to tactics that reflect unrighteousness.
Jesus seeks to do good on the sabbath, but the Pharisees seek to do harm and destroy. Jesus' reply is in the spirit of Old Testament prophetic rebukes (Is 1:11-17; 58:1-14; Amos 4:1-8). God puts a high priority on how people are treated and how needs are met.
So Jesus acts, asking the man to stretch out his hand. The very act will show that healing is present. There is irony in Jesus' response. Can you sense how hard Jesus has labored here, uttering just one command? Will God vindicate Jesus' effort? The text tells of the command's success ever so briefly—the man did so, and his hand was completely restored.
How will such a good act be received? Surely wonder and rejoicing will follow. But instead hard hearts react in fury. Again, the term Luke uses here is crucial. Anoia refers to a blinding, irrational rage that is likened to insanity (Behm 1967b:963; Schurmann 1969:309 n. 69). The religious leaders refuse to consider the evidence and are enraged about the facts God had laid before them. God is not supposed to help sinners or heal through a sabbath violator, yet right in front of them a sabbath violator has healed a sinner on the sabbath against their interpretation of truth and tradition. Jesus' action has confounded them. What can they do? They consider what they might do to Jesus. He must be stopped.
The stubbornness of the leadership's opposition is highlighted here. When we are in sin, we resist reconsidering the route we are taking. In fact, sin that is not repented of often leads into further sin.
Nevertheless, Jesus' action shows that the sabbath, like any day, is an appropriate time to minister and meet needs. It is perfectly permissible to do good on the sabbath. Jesus does not merely proclaim his authority; he lives it. This sabbath healing supports Jesus' claim that he brings something new, while highlighting what should have always been a characteristic of the sabbath: the ministering of good to others. The withered hand's restoration is a vote of confidence for Jesus and a visible rebuke to the leadership.
But that vote of confidence strengthens the opposition party's resolve. The opponents begin to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. Often the product of rage is more folly. Jesus' ministry has produced opposition, even though he has tried to do good to others. The narrative leaves the question for readers to ponder: was Jesus a troublemaker, or did the trouble originate elsewhere? Sin often blindly deflects blame and then compounds its error by seeking harsh means to remove the reminder of its failure. For Luke there is no doubt where blame lies, as well as who has authority to point the way to God.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.