It’s a long time since I thought of Jesus as the old children’s hymn puts it: Gentle Jesus meek and mild, look upon a little child pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee. I was surprised to discover that it was written by Charles Wesley, who clearly wanted to give people an understanding of Jesus as compassionate and kind. However, the meaning of language has changed over the years and there is a down side to this image, especially the emphasis on meek and mild, because it suggests that Jesus is submissive, even compliant and timid. That was certainly not Wesley’s intention and I don’t get that from reading the Gospels, do you?
From time to time I have been asked by people why anyone would want to undermine Jesus’ ministry, or oppose him, after all he did so much that was good. But throughout the Gospels we find a growing resistance and opposition to Jesus as we see in our Gospel reading for this Sunday. Jesus has been
invited to a meal by a leading Pharisee on the Sabbath day – no doubt after going to a Synagogue Service, and we are told that ‘they were watching him closely’. That sounds ominous!
They are not watching over him to care for him; they are suspicious, guarded and mistrustful, all because Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath day. Jesus is fully aware of the tensions around ‘Sabbath’ and the way people guarded the Sabbath with strict laws. What Jesus wanted to do was to get people to look at why the Sabbath was so important.
The Sabbath was meant to be a time of rest and re-creation, and as such was a wonderfully liberating social innovation that eventually had a profound impact on the way western society came to live and work throughout history, because it was marking out a day when people stopped working – were not enslaved to work 24/7. Just as God rested on the seventh day from the work of creation, so humanity is invited to rest and find time to offer God our thanks and praise, time for one another, time to be restored and enjoy the goodness of God’s creation.
So ‘Sabbath’ was always meant to be life-giving, and that’s what Jesus is challenging his opponents to see and recover. What could be more life- giving than restoring people to health. Isn’t that actually a symbol of the Sabbath itself?
Those who got Jesus’ message, those who were healed, those who found liberation and hope in Jesus welcomed him, but being a ‘change agent’ as Jesus certainly was, can be a very lonely path for those who feel threatened by the changes, even though the changes bring new life and hope. The Pharisees were generally good well-meaning people, wanting to do the right thing. But sometimes the ideals we hold sacred can become our idols that keep us from living into God’s gracious and life-giving vision for our world.