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The Economy of Mercy

by Sep 11, 2023Friar Reflection

Today’s gospel from Luke tells of Jesus’ encounter with the scribes and Pharisees centered around what is proper action on the Sabbath. There were 913 regulations and guidelines arising from the reading of the Torah (Pentateuch). To the modern mind, it is hard to conceive how that sheer number would be a good thing for a worshiping people. But it is important to understand the intent and purpose of the Sabbath work regulations. They are rooted in the religious and spiritual significance of the Sabbath day, and while the number and nature of the regulations could be seen as restrictive, they were intended to enhance the quality of life and promote a deeper relationship with the Divine.

These regulations served several important purposes: rest and renewal, inculcating a spiritual focus (creating a sacred space in time for spiritual reflection, worship, and connection with God), reminding one of the Covenant, enhancing belonging within communities and families, social equity (distinctions between master and servant, rich and poor, were minimized), reinforcement of ethical values such as compassion and kindness, environmental stewardship, making clear distinctions between the sacred and the secular, and emphasis on identity as a people chosen by God. Overall, the Sabbath work regulations were designed to create a day of holiness, reflection, and spiritual connection with God.

Those are all good things. One wonders whether Jesus could have waited one more day before healing the man. Maybe, but Jesus “realized their intentions…Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?’”

What were the intentions of Jesus? Let me suggest that they are perhaps several:

  • He was challenging their rigid interpretation of the Sabbath law and emphasizing the principle of doing good and showing compassion, even on the Sabbath. It should be noted that later in this same chapter the Lucan version of the “Sermon on the Mount” appears in which Jesus stands as the magisterial authority on the meaning of the commands and Sabbath laws.
  • This was one of a series of miracle cures and healings performed by Jesus – all with the intent to demonstrate his power and authority over disease and all that is the corrupted part of Creation. Such a demonstration was aimed as revealing his Divine Nature
  • Perhaps most importantly, to reveal the intrinsic nature of God: mercy. Jesus’ actions emphasized God’s compassionate nature. Should mercy be delayed? Or borrowing a more modern expression: mercy delayed is mercy denied.

While directly a challenge to the religious authorities to rethink their priorities and interpretations of the law, the upcoming “Sermon on the Plains” will direct that same challenge to the whole of the People of God.

What about us? I don’t think any of us have to think too hard when our instinct for rules and regulations overcame our instinct for mercy.

Image credit: Jesus Heals the Man with a Withered Hand, Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (1684), Walter Museum, Public Domain