Flipping Rest into Work, Grace into Law

This post comes to us from Samuel Son. Jesus went into the synagogue again and […]

Mockingbird / 9.15.16

This post comes to us from Samuel Son.

Jesus went into the synagogue again and noticed a man with a deformed hand. Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath. – Mark 3:1-2 (New Living Translation)

No story gets me more steamed than this one of the Pharisees salivating because Jesus is about to heal a man on the Sabbath; it gives them the ammunition to finally “nail” Jesus with a Sabbath infraction, a serious charge. Jesus knows they are springing a trap for him but steps right on it anyways, jeopardizing his life in hopes that this public confrontation will expose the hypocrisy of their moralistic thinking.

Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him. – Mark 3:3-4

Classic Jesus, cutting through the morass of moral reasoning. “Is the Sabbath a day to save life or to destroy it?” The answer is simple. The Pharisees know it. So they don’t answer. An answer would implicate them or let Jesus off. They want to remain lost in their convoluted morality.


Jesus tells the withered-hand man to stretch out his hand, and his fingers unfurl as if they were being stretched out — supernatural healing that feels almost natural. Jesus restores not just the man’s ability to open his fingers, but to hoe dirt, gather sheaves, to feed himself and his family. Jesus saves him from starvation.

At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus. – Mark 3:6

The miracle should stir up faith in Jesus, or at least plant a doubt in the Pharisees’ hearts, because even if they don’t agree with the “work” Jesus did, it wasn’t exactly the kind of work you see every day: before their eyes, knobbled joints flexed like a bird’s wing. But before the once-withered man could clap his now-dexterous hands in delight, the Pharisees picked up their robe and rushed to meet with Herod’s goons.

They hate Herod! They call him a mutt behind his back because he’s only a half-Jew. He has a spotty kosher record and killed some of their own for political ascent. Apparently, they are tolerant about murder but intolerant about the Sabbath.

How evil!


In my mind, the story is a street theater, and the Pharisees don horns and tails, and the audience boos them every time they walk on stage. They deserve the audience’s egg-pelting wrath. Even Jesus gets angry, and Jesus rarely gets angry.

But then Jesus’ anger subsides into deep sadness:

He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. – Mark 3:5

I want to stay angry. Anger is great material for self-justification. True, the material is not durable, but if you are in need of a pop-up self-justification, anger is cheap and quick to come by. Anger immediately separates you from the perpetrator and their sin which automatically puts you in the right. So the more stones you hurl at the sinner in anger, the more stones you gather for your wall of righteousness.

I don’t want to be sad for those whom it’s easy to be angry at. Sadness means you feel for the sinner. And you only feel for a person when you see a little bit of yourself. Sadness is the mist of compassion.

Jesus is sad because he understands why they guard Sabbath so vigilantly, so violently. The Pharisees were adamant about Sabbath-keeping, because it was essential to their Jewish identity. After all, the Sabbath was God’s gift that birthed them into a nation in the first place.


The command to “stop working” freed them from their identity as Egyptian “slaves” when they could not stop working. God’s command to “Shabat!” (“Stop!”) foreshadows William Wallace’s freedom-cry, William Wilberforce’s abolition-cry, and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The Sabbath made rest a human right by making it a divine mandate. They did not earn rest; they were given rest. They did not need to have a productive six-day work week with enough hours clocked to earn their keep and their rest. Heck, they even had to give their cows a break, even the old, infirm good-for-nothing cows. Even slaves had the right to rest, which was a weekly reminder that no human being could ever claim full ownership of another human being.

The Sabbath was grace! The Sabbath was a weekly way to practice their identity as God’s people. Of course they had to be vigilant about it!

Back in Moses’ time, Moses and Aaron encouraged a mob to stone a man who collected wood on the Sabbath, but only after he had received a thumbs-down judgment from God:

One day while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they discovered a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. The people who found him doing this took him before Moses, Aaron, and the rest of the community. They held him in custody because they did not know what to do with him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death! The whole community must stone him outside the camp.” So the whole community took the man outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the lord had commanded Moses.

Ezekiel blamed the Babylonian exile on their refusal to practice the Sabbath. Nehemiah reinstated the practice halfway through the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, because for the Jews to be restored, they needed more than sturdy, defensible walls–they needed to go back to what made them Jews in the first place: stop working, rest and trust God’s grace.


So how did rest turn into work? This has got to be the strangest flip in history. To make a thing it’s very opposite by trying to keep it from its opposite in the first place. But that is what the Pharisees did. So important was Sabbath, they kept erecting walls to protect it. They made the border between work and rest impermeable. Never will they mix.

The danger of hard boundaries is that then you have to keep getting more detailed. When you start defining things, you make a list — like a dictionary which lists the meanings of a word. And lists spawn lists. When you have lists within lists, you get into some strange arguments as my Russian-Jew neighbor, who lived in Jerusalem for a decade, pointed out to me one evening over beer: “You can’t turn on a light on the Sabbath, but then what happens when you open the refrigerator door and the light comes on automatically — is it work or not work?” This is a serious theological exercise! Much like the fabled medieval conundrum of how many angels can balance on a pin.

The worst part is not the hair-splitting. Far worse is the betrayal of the very thing you swore to protect. The irony of the impermeable boundary is that it breaks down. When the human body is alive, there are countless transactions with the environment: through skin, lung, and the five senses. But when the body turns into a corpse, all interchange ceases. The corpse is an impermeable boundary. But it is precisely at that point the corpse begins to decay and becomes part of the environment itself: dust to dust. The Pharisees were so adamant about resting on the Sabbath that they made it hard work.

1940s-man-poised-midair-arms-out-jumping-from-diving-board-into-poolMuch in the way that the Sabbath was a central identity marker for the Israelites, sola gratia/grace alone is a founding slogan of our movement. If the Pharisees can make rest into work, then can we make grace into law?

This is what Bonhoeffer was warning against in his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship. In it, this Lutheran pastor-turned-prophet is judging his Lutheran church, in the good-old John-the-Baptist fashion, for “cheapening” grace by making it into work. Bonhoeffer’s worry was not his Lutheran church’s low view of the Law but its legalism concerning grace, specifically, the doctrine of justification by grace.

Bonhoeffer writes:

It is true, of course, that we have paid the doctrine of pure grace divine honours unparalleled in Christendom, in fact we have exalted that doctrine to the position of God himself. Everywhere Luther’s formula has been repeated, but its truth perverted into self-deception. So long as our Church holds the correct doctrine of justification, there is no doubt whatever that she is a justified Church!

Justification by grace is supposed to free us from worrying about justification. But, as Bonhoeffer observed, justification by grace became a doctrine to protect, so much so that adherence to it became more paramount than Christ himself. Bonhoeffer wasn’t trying to balance the equation by heightening the Law or requiring a greater appreciation of it. Rather, Bonhoeffer was arguing for more grace. He was trying to free grace from the way it became a law when the protection of doctrine superseded the life of living courageously as justified sinner.

One particular friend of mine loved to quote Luther’s famous pecca fortitersin boldly” before he whiffed some weed. In those two words, we heard Luther say, “Don’t be a wuss and sin and repent later because you are covered” (Luther was known for his earthy tongue). But this wasn’t what Luther meant.

Luther meant to free the mind that was stuck in inaction. He meant to free the mind that was worried about the goodness of doing any given act; he was arguing that of course every act is sinful, so boldly commit your sinful righteous act; go ahead and do good since your filth-rag goodness has already been cloroxed by grace. Grace alone frees us.

Again, Bonhoeffer:

As Luther saw it, “sin boldly” did not happen to be a fundamental acknowledgement of his disobedient life; it was the gospel of the grace of God before which we are always and in every circumstance sinners.

Bonhoeffer’s more academic work, Ethics, is really the thesis version of The Cost of Discipleship. Sin boldly, because there is no such thing as good and evil for the Christian, only trust. Trust in Christ’s justification, once and for all. When he agreed to help assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was “sinning boldly,” trusting in his justification by Christ.

The Pharisees saw all of life in the absolute categories of work and rest. So they could not see that saving a person is actually rest. Jesus saw that everything was rest, that everything was grace, so he was free to work even on the Sabbath.

We are justified by grace. We don’t have to be so anxious about whether our means of discipleship is another form of legalism; actually, trying to avoid legalism is a way to justify ourselves not by grace but by the doctrine of grace. We are justified no matter what, and the only thing left to do is trust that justification. In others words, “Sin boldly!” as Christ did when he called forth the withered-hand man in front of everyone on the Sabbath.

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