One of my favorite quotes from GK Chesterton is “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” We see that at play in one of the Gospel stories (Luke 6:6-11) of Jesus encountering a suffering man who is in need of healing.
While in a synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus saw a man present with a withered hand. The scribes and Pharisees were watching to see if Jesus would cure him, since Jesus had been performing miracles.
But they didn’t watch out of any concern for the man who was suffering. They wanted to see if Jesus would do “work” on the Sabbath so that they could accuse him of violating the command of God that work is not to be performed on the Sabbath.
When God issued the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, the third commandment was that the Sabbath is a day of rest so no work is to be performed on that day. A miraculous cure, in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees, was work and therefore prohibited.
Think about that for a moment. The scribes and Pharisees weren’t merely saying that normal care for the sick was something that could only happen six days a week. (I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t treat your sick child today; bring him back tomorrow if he’s still alive). They were saying that miraculously curing a person (without breaking a sweat, mind you) was somehow a grave sin in the eyes of God.
They had forgotten what the intent was behind that commandment. It was to set aside a day for rest from the labors of the other days of the week, from the “daily grind”, so to speak. We need time away from work to rest and relax and spend time with family/friends and pray. We need regular time away from the normal troubles of life.
The intent of the commandment certainly wasn’t to force people to sit idle in their houses all day long, not even moving for fear that they might do something that someone would interpret at work. Which is effectively what the scribes and Pharisees were saying when they went so far as to consider a miraculous cure to be prohibited work.
Although apparently putting for the effort to get dressed and walk to the synagogue on the Sabbath wasn’t “work” in their eyes.
Jesus cuts to the core of the issue with his question to the assembly: “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?” He says this to draw attention to the fact that the scribes and Pharisees had turned the law upside down. God was focused on doing good when he gave us that law. The scribes and Pharisees were focused on a litany of “small laws” outlining what exactly was permitted to be done on the Sabbath and outlawing all other actions. Instead of a time of relaxation and peace, it was a burden to bear in trying to ensure one did not accidentally do something prohibited.
The big law was forgotten, and in its place were a myriad of small laws. Following those small laws had been twisted to the point where, in their eyes, doing evil and destroying life (allowing the man with the withered hand to continue suffering) was more important than doing good and saving life (performing a miraculous cure on the Sabbath).
Social justice today has become a lot like that. In place of a big, overarching principle, there are a plethora of disconnected little principles fighting with each other. How do we balance freedom and equality? How involved should the government be in the daily life of the people? To what extent should economic activity be regulated? How do we provide for the health care needs of the people?
These are important question, but all too often they are answered in isolation from each other. Or worse, in accord with philosophies that place a stance of a political party or a tenet of an economic theory over the common good.
All social justice can be summed up in the title of this blog post: defense of the weak. The strong can defend themselves. The weak cannot. Social justice needs to focus on defending the weak, period. When we lose track of that, we lose track of the Gospel message.
Jesus always sided with the weak. He did not do so at the expense of the strong, or to bring down the strong, but against any mistreatment or neglect on the part of the strong. It’s very tempting to exercise strength in a callous manner, no matter how good a person may be.
Case in point, the scribes and Pharisees at the time of Jesus.