But in anger he looked around at all of them, and was deeply grieved at the hardness of their hearts.
Within the beginning chapters of Mark’s gospel its central plot and conflict is starkly portrayed. Jesus challenges those surrounding him about the reality of the commandment to keep the Sabbath. They are carefully observing him in hopes of “catching” him in violation of the Sabbath. They suffer from the worst kind of legalism, where the law is merely a too for self-justification and a means of judging and condemning others. At the heart of the tension in this gospel incident is Jesus’ question: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save or destroy life?” Yet those to whom Jesus asks the question, “said nothing.”
Jesus asks those around him a question, but because they are not there to meet or engage him but only to trap him, they say nothing in reply. There is, for them, no life in the law but only death. As the story plays out, we see that Jesus, in healing the man with the withered hand, does good on the Sabbath, while those who are intent in judging and persecuting him do evil. “The Pharisees left, and immediately they began to consult over him with the Herodians, on how they might destroy him.” (Mark 3:6) The teachers of the law are the ones who have profoundly violated its truth and its spirit by planning on the Sabbath to destroy life rather than to save it.
Pope Francis writes that “ideas . . . are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 232). As Jesus teaches, “The Sabbath is made for human beings, and not human beings for the Sabbath.” The law is a means to loving :God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength” and “our neighbor as ourself.” It is a treasure of human wisdom which shows us a way to practice the love to which we are called and which is the purpose of our life. It is not something that is meant to serve our building of a false identity and to give us power over others; it is rather the way in which we submit to the yoke of God’s law and way and become evermore a servant of salvation for others.
It is significant that those whose heart is hardened refuse to engage in a dialogue with Jesus. The problem is not the law regarding the Sabbath; the problem, as Pope Francis points out, lies in our dissociation of the law of tradition from the law of life and spirit that lies within our fellow human beings. Teachers of the law must also be learners and disciples of the way, as that way is incarnated in the lives of the real human beings around them. To truly engage Jesus may have allowed the Pharisees and Herodians to realize that Jesus was not a threat to their law and tradition but the very incarnation of its source. Those whom Pope Francis calls the holy, faithful, people are a source of great wisdom and insight into the true meaning and call of the tradition and the law. As any teacher can attest, teaching is a relationship and an encounter. It is not imposing ideas but rather sharing a dialogue about those ideas, a dialogue that springs from the way that is Jesus as present in each of God’s children.
Those who leave the site of Jesus’ healing and consult on how to destroy him violate the law of the Sabbath which calls on us to set aside for at least one day the violence of our own projects and works and to learn the ways and works of God. It is meant to be a training in learning how to work as the Father works, creatively and lovingly. To live the meaning of the Sabbath is to practice replacing our designs with God’s design and our judgments with God’s judgment.
For us, as for the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, it is not always easy to realize the difference between saving life and destroying it. Human history is replete with the horrible effects of human being’s attempts to set the world straight and to purify it of its ambiguities, to make things right as an individual or group sees the right. We must be ever-vigilant and always listening and learning from others if we are to live and work in the service of “doing good” and “saving life.”
Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies. We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people.
Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 232-3