As you read the New Testament, it seems that the Jewish religious leaders prided themselves on at least four pillars. First, they were careful to separate themselves from foreigners, heretics, and public sinners. Second, they strictly observed the Sabbath. Third, they ferociously guarded the temple and its religious rituals. Fourth, they were punctilious in their tithing. On various occasions throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged the religious leaders in each of these four areas.
Perhaps more than any other, Jesus and the religious leaders clashed on their understanding of the Sabbath. Jesus taught the Sabbath’s original intent: that God gave it to humans as a means of rest from their regular daily labours. He did not deny its necessity but restored its intent.
By the time of the New Testament, religious leaders had crafted some 1,500 rules to help them guard the Sabbath. They taught, for example, that a person may not carry a needle and a thread at the same time on the Sabbath, lest that person be tempted to thread the needle and work. Looking into a mirror was forbidden, lest you notice a grey hair and be tempted to work by plucking it. A person was only permitted to walk 1,999 steps on the Sabbath, since anything more than that was considered a journey, which violated Sabbath rest.
It goes without saying that none of these rules had any biblical warrant. The religious insistence on keeping these laws had turned the Sabbath into a burden, and Jesus was determined to restore the Sabbath to what God intended. This is why he so frequently clashed with the religious leaders over this particular law. One such confrontation is recorded in Luke 14:1–6.
In that text, Jesus visited the home of a leading Pharisee. The text makes it clear that he was being set up. It was the Sabbath, and a man with dropsy had been planted there. The religious leaders “were watching him carefully” to see if he would violate the Sabbath by healing the man. Jesus healed him and then, in a sort of mini parable, asked, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on the Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” His question silenced his critics.
Jesus’ question highlighted the problem that the religious leaders faced. Their devotion to their own interpretation of God’s law put them in conflict with the biblical principle of compassion. We sometimes face the same temptation.
There is a temptation for our own principles to get in the way of us showing the compassion of Christ. On a recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts, one of the hosts was talking about how she had that week walked past a homeless beggar who frequents a spot near the entrance of a local shop. She had walked past him many times before without pausing to offer him any help. Her justification was a very principled one: The man clearly would not work and therefore he should not eat. Her commitment to this principle validated her inaction.
On that particular day, however, she was convicted that her commitment to that principle was preventing her from showing compassion to a fellow image-bearer. She stopped and offered the man something to eat. “Next time,” she said, “maybe I’ll sit with him and engage him in conversation.”
For her, her commitment to a particular biblical principle had gotten in the way of showing the compassion of Christ to someone in need. She felt convicted of a Pharisaic attitude, whose commitment to their interpretation of the Sabbath left them cold and unfeeling toward the man in need.
As you reflect on these verses this morning, ask yourself whether your life is characterised by displaying the compassion of Christ, or if you are perhaps allowing other principled stances to prevent you from showing compassion as Christ did. If necessary, repent and realise that compassion is perfectly in keeping with Christian character.