Notes on Prayer: Luke 18:9-14

This is a special Thanksgiving Day edition of the Monday Notes on Prayer. When we speak of thanksgiving, it is usually meant in the sense of giving thanks to God. The Greek verb for this is eu)xariste/w (and the eu)xarist– word group). It properly refers to showing good favor (xa/ri$) toward someone; however, in a religious context, it is typically used in the sense of a person being grateful (or thankful) for the favor shown to them by God. The majority of occurrences of the verb (24 out of 38) are in the Pauline letters, most frequently in the opening greeting and introduction (exordium) of the letter. The verb is rare in the Gospels; apart from its use in the Last Supper scene (Mark 14:23 par), and in the similar context of the Miraculous Feeding episode (Mark 8:6 par) where there are also eucharistic overtones, it occurs just three times, twice in Luke (17:16; 18:11).

In these notes, we have been studying the teaching and example of Jesus regarding prayer, most recently in the sayings, parables and other details unique to the Gospel of Luke. There are two distinct traditions in 18:1-14—the parable and saying(s) in vv. 1-8 (discussed in the previous study), and the parable in verses 9-14. As it happens, the verb eu)xariste/w occurs in this passage (v. 11), as an example of the wrong way to give thanks to God.

Luke 18:9-14

The narrative introduction to this parable (v. 9) establishes the context for it, with the reason for Jesus’ telling of it. The setting of the illustration itself (v. 10) is simple and straightforward, and it specifically involves prayer:

“And he also said this (illustration) cast alongside toward some (of) th(ose) having persuaded upon [i.e. convinced] themselves that they were just [di/kaio$], and making the remainder (of people) out to be nothing: ‘Two men stepped up into the sacred place to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], the one (was) a Pharisee and the other a toll-collector.'” (vv. 9-10)

The Temple-setting of the parable is fully in accord with the role of the Temple in Luke-Acts, emphasizing it as a place for prayer and worship of God, rather than the (sacrificial) ritual of the Temple-cultus. For more on this, see Part 1 of the article “The Law in Luke-Acts”, and also Parts 6-7 of “Jesus and the Law”. The afternoon hour for public prayer (c. 3:00 pm), tied to the time of the evening sacrifice, features prominently in two narratives (1:10; Acts 3:1; cf. Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:1). As is typically the case, the idiom of prayer is expressed by the verb proseu/xomai, “speak (out) toward”, i.e. toward God.

The two contrasting figures in the illustration are a Pharisee and a toll-collector (telw/nh$). Pharisees are mentioned frequently in the Gospels as opponents of Jesus, or as those discussing/debating points of Law (Torah) with him; they are representative of the religiously devout and observant Jews of the time. The “toll-collector” was a local agent for the Roman administration in the provinces, collecting indirect taxes (i.e. tolls, customs fees, etc). As such, they were traditionally associated with corruption and exploitation, in addition to the ‘impurity’ related to their work on behalf of the pagan government; for faithful and observant Jews, the toll-collector became a stock figure-type representing “sinners” (Mark 2:15-16 par). The telw/nh$ is mentioned most frequently in the so-called “Q” material of Matthew and Luke, and other Lukan passages (Lk 3:12; 5:27-30; 7:29, 34 pars; 15:1; 19:2ff).

In the parable Jesus gives the prayer offered to God by each of these two men, continuing the contrast. The prayer of the Pharisee is as follows:

“The Pharisee, (as) he was standing, spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself: ‘God, I give (thanks) to you for (your) good favor, that I am not as the remaining (one)s of men—(those) seizing (things), without justice, (partner)s in adultery, or even as this toll-collector (here)—(for) I fast twice (during) the Shabbat-week, (and) I give a tenth from all (thing)s whatever I acquire.'” (vv. 11-12)

As is proper in prayer, the Pharisee gives thanks to God (using the verb eu)xariste/w, cf. above), in gratitude for the favor and blessings shown to him. However, the incorrect orientation of his prayer is indicated through a bit of wordplay that is lost in most translations:

pro\$ e(auto\n tau=ta proshu/xeto
“he spoke out these (thing)s toward (God) toward himself”

In conventional English, this would be rendered “he prayed these things about himself”, translating the first preposition pro/$ in the sense of “about, regarding”. However, the real implication, based on the actual wording, is that, while speaking toward God, the Pharisee is really speaking toward himself—i.e., the focus is not on God, but on himself. How is this done? First, he separates himself from the remainder (loipoi/, pl. “[one]s remaining”) of humankind; this reflects quite typical (and natural) religious thought—there are the devout and faithful ones, and then all the rest who do not show the same care or concern for God. A similar sort of prayer is recorded in the Talmud (b. Ber. 28b, j. Ber. 2.7d). The Pharisee rightly attributes his religious devotion to God, at least in terms of the form of his prayer (i.e. thanking God for His favor), and properly echoes the traditional idea of Israel (the faithful ones) as the chosen people of God. What is especially bad, in the context of the parable, is the way that he includes the toll-collector standing nearby as a “sinner” merely on the basis of his profession. On this point, compare the Zaccheus episode (19:7ff), and the Synoptic tradition in Mark 2:15-16 par.

The second aspect that is highlighted has to do with the Pharisee’s declaration of his religious devotion, marked by regular fasting and tithing of his possessions. This may be related to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-13), where charitable giving and fasting are two of the three typical religious activities (along with prayer) emphasized by Jesus. There, too, he makes a clear contrast between outward action and inner attitude, things done publicly and in secret. Jesus’ disciples are not to behave in these matters as many other religiously-minded people do. For more, see the earlier study on Matt 6:5-8. In spite of the Pharisee’s customary use of the verb eu)xariste/w, he appears to be emphasizing his own religious devotion rather than the favor (xa/ri$) of God.

The toll-collector’s prayer comes in verse 13:

“But the toll-collector, having stood far off, did not wish not even to lift up his eyes unto heaven, but (instead) struck his chest (as he stood), saying: ‘God, (please) you must be accepting to(ward) me a sinful (man)!'”

It should be noted both the similarities, but also the stark differences, between the Pharisee and toll-collector, in (a) their position as they pray, and (b) the content and focus of their prayer. First, their position. They both are said to be standing, using the same verb (i%sthmi), but described very differently:

    • For the Pharisee, a single word is used—aorist passive participle sta/qei$ (“was standing”)—with nothing, apparently, in his position or posture to indicate humility before God. The circumstantial passive form, rather Lukan in style, suggests that the Pharisee has placed himself in a prominent position.
    • For the toll-collector, an active perfect participle is used (e(stw/$), along with the modifying adverb makro/qen (“[from] far off”), presumably meaning that he stood in the back of the courtyard. Moreover, his attitude toward God is also described vividly in other ways—unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, and beating his chest (as a sign of sorrow). His posture is one of humility and repentance.

With regard to the description of the prayer itself, the situation is reversed: the Pharisee’s is lengthy (by comparison), and the toll-collector’s extremely brief (just three words). They both begin the same way, addressing God—o( qeo/$ (“[O,] God…”)—at which point the prayers diverge. The Pharisee declares his faithfulness and religious devotion. The toll-collector does not feel that he can offer anything comparable, but instead, refers to himself precisely as the Pharisee would regard him, as a “sinner”, or, to be more accurate, as a sinful person (compare Peter’s admission to Jesus in 5:8). Moreover, he offers no thanksgiving to God for the favor shown to him; rather, he fervently implores God to show favor. He uses an imperative form of the verb i(la/skomai, related to the noun i(lasmo/$. These words are extremely difficult to translate accurately, and consistently, in English. The basic idea is religious, and involves God being appeased so as to accept a person (their offering, etc) and treat them favorably. Essentially, the toll-collector is asking God to accept him, to be gracious and show favor to him, in spite of his sinfulness.

“I relate to you (that) this (one) [i.e. the toll-collector] stepped down into his own house having been made right (in God’s eyes), alongside the other (one who was not)—(for it is) that every (one) lifting himself high will be set (down) low, but the (one) lowering himself will be set (up) high.” (v. 14)

The conclusion of the parable is straightforward, and features a reversal-of-fortune motif common to many of the parables (as also in the Lukan Beatitudes, etc). Things were “made right” for the person considered to be a “sinner”, while the “just-ness” of the seemingly devout and faithful person was not confirmed. This reflects two sides of the dikaio– word group and the verb dikaio/w. Just as the two men “step up” into the house of God (Temple), so now they “step down” each into his own house, but with different results. For the toll-collector, things “have been made right” between he and God, while the Pharisee, who considered himself to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes was not declared to be so, as a result of his action and attitude in prayer. The parable concludes with a proverbial saying also found, in a different context, at 14:11.

It seems likely that Jesus was not addressing this parable to other such Pharisees, but to his own disciples, instructing (and warning) them much as he does in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-13). The contrast in the parable is extreme—the humble and repentant “sinner” will be accepted by God over the person who is religiously devout—but the main point is actually quite simple: Jesus’ followers (believers) are to behave with humility before God, especially in prayer and other religious matters.

Jesus and the Law, Part 5: The Sabbath Controversies (continued)

In the Part 4 of this series I examined the main “Sabbath Controversy” story in the Gospels—the Sabbath healing miracles; here I will look at the second narrative tradition (Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath), as well as provide several concluding observations on the subject.

The Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath

This episode appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5), and follows a simple narrative outline (using the Markan version):

  • As Jesus and his disciples pass through a grainfield on the Sabbath, the disciples pluck the heads of grain (to eat, being hungry), v. 23
  • Pharisees observe this (or otherwise learn about it) and apparently object to the disciples’ action: “(for) what are they doing on the Sabbath (day)s that which is not right/lawful?”, v. 24
  • Jesus responds by citing the episode of David at the sanctuary of Nob (1 Sam 21:1-6), where he and his men ate from the sacred loaves in the sanctuary (the “bread of the Presence”), vv. 25-26
  • The narrative concludes with a twin saying in vv. 27-28: (a) “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath”, and (b) “so too the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath”

The Lukan version is nearly identical to that of Mark; in Matthew there are included additional/expanded sayings of Jesus (Matt 12:5-7, on which see below). Interestingly, neither Matthew nor Luke includes the saying of v. 27 in Mark. Clearly this narrative is much simpler and shows less development than the healing miracle story-form previously discussed; however, it does have several elements in common (in addition to the Sabbath setting):

    • Jesus (or his disciples) take part in modest activity which responds to human (physical) need
    • Religious authorities (Pharisees) object to it as a violation of the Sabbath (though by any reasonable standard it is hardly such)
    • Jesus answers with a declarative saying and a practical example

Some critical scholars have thought that the narrative episode is an artificial construction, either as a reflection of early Jewish-Christian disputes, or to provide a setting for the saying(s) in Mark 2:27-28 par. However, if it is a product of the early Church, one would perhaps expect a more relevant life-setting than we find here. The healing miracle stories are more clearly intended to illustrate a saying of Jesus, and the critical view is more plausible in those instances.

Whether the disciples’ action in any way constitutes a violation of the Sabbath, as the Pharisees in the narrative claim, will be touched on briefly below. More noteworthy is the way that Jesus comments on the incident (and the Pharisees’ objection to it):

  • The example of David and his men from 1 Sam 21:1-6 demonstrates an instance when a far more egregious (apparent) violation of religious law and ritual was permitted in the face of human need (physical hunger). In the original historical context of the Old Testament narrative, the only issue mentioned is whether David and his men were in a state of impurity (vv. 4-5); if they had been, presumably they would not have been permitted (properly) to touch the sacred bread. Interestingly, this example does not deal directly with the legal question raised by the Pharisees, though the added sayings in Matthew increase the relevance.
  • The principal saying of Jesus (in all three Synoptics) is: “the Son of Man is lord (even) of the Sabbath”. This will be discussed in more detail in a separate note. Mark has the additional saying “the Sabbath came to be through man, not man through the Sabbath” (v. 27). The Greek preposition used is dia/ (“through”), but here better rendered in normal English as “for (the sake of)”—that is, God instituted the command to rest on the Sabbath to serve and help human beings, not the other way around (but cf. the reason stated in Exod 20:9-11). The twin sayings in Mark, then, make two basic points: (a) the Sabbath rest is meant to aid the human condition, and (b) the Son of Man has authority over the Sabbath.

These sayings of Jesus are fundamental to his teaching and view of the Sabbath—but how exactly should they be understood? Here it is necessary to refer back to the conclusion of Part 4, where I specified two main aspects for understanding and interpreting the Sabbath controversy stories—the legal-religious aspect, and the theological-christological aspect. Each will be discussed here in turn.

Conclusion:
The legal-religious aspect

The command to observe the Sabbath is specified in Exodus 20:8-11 (part of the Decalogue), cf. also Exod 16:26; 23:12; 31:13-17; 34:21; 35:2; Lev 19:3, 30; 23:3. The reason given is that the Sabbath—the seventh day—is holy, dedicated to YHWH (v. 10), in honor of his work as Creator (v. 11a); God blessed the Sabbath day and declared (made) it holy (v. 11b). The basic command involved the prohibition that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, but there are few specific and practical examples in the Torah itself as to what defines or constitutes “work”; thus, one task of religious authorities and interpreters of the Torah, was to clarify this point (e.g. tractate Shabbath in the Mishnah, ch. 7).

Interestingly, in neither the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics nor the episode of the disciples’ plucking grain, is there a clear violation of the Sabbath. Jesus’ healing miracles (as recorded) involve no actual work—commanding the man to stretch out his hand, or laying his hands on the crippled woman. Exod 34:21 forbids work on the Sabbath related to harvesting (and see m. Shabb. 7.2), but the disciples’ behavior would scarcely qualify; the example in Num 15:32-36 is perhaps a closer fit, but even that is highly questionable. What, then, should we make of the objection made by the religious authorities (“scribes and Pharisees”)?—there are several possibilities:

    • it is a sincere objection, based an ultra-strict interpretation of the Sabbath law
    • an overly-strict interpretation is being used (under pretense) in order to accuse Jesus or to portray him as a “sinner”
    • it is being used as a pretext to mask opposition to Jesus, out of jealously, personal animus, etc
    • it is a caricature, lampooning the religious views of the “scribes and Pharisees”

Arguments could be made in favor of each of these; the second and third would best fit the actual description of events in the Gospel narrative, though I am inclined to believe there is a touch of the fourth in the Gospel tradition as well. The response of the Synagogue leader in Luke 13:14 is the only instance where we find an explanation: superficially, at least, he draws upon the actual reasoning in the original command (Exod 20:8-11), with the implication that healing could be done on any of the six days when work is allowed—why not wait a day to heal the woman? Jesus’ response dramatically emphasizes the human element—this woman has been suffering for eighteen years, why should she not be healed on the Sabbath (i.e. why should she have to wait another day)? With regard to the Sabbath healing stories, the legal question is clearly specified—

“is it right/lawful [e&cestin] to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matt 12:10; Lk 14:3)

which Jesus expands/generalizes in Mk 3:4 as:

“is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath … to save life… ?”

Three different (but parallel/similar) examples are used in dealing with the care of animals; even on the Sabbath, one would naturally: (a) untie an ox/donkey and lead it to drink (Lk 13:15), (b) lift out a sheep that fell into a pit (Matt 12:11), or (c) pull out an ox that has fallen into a well (Lk 14:5 with var.). The implication is obvious—how much more should one care for a human being on the Sabbath! But is it possible that this principle giving priority to human (physical) need over technical observance of the Sabbath regulation means that Jesus is, in fact, opposing the Law? Consider the example in Num 15:32-36, regarding the man who is put to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath—would not Jesus oppose such an application of the Law, in a manner similar to that described in John 8:1-11? It is an interesting question, but one which requires that we proceed to the second main aspect of the Sabbath-controversy stories.

The theological-christological aspect

This is best examined in terms of the principal saying of Jesus in Mark 2:28 par:

“the Son of Man is lord [ku/rio$] (even) of the Sabbath”

I discuss this saying (in its Matthean context) in more detail in a supplemental note, but here several different interpretations can be considered:

    • taking the Hebrew/Aramaic expression “son of man” in its ordinary sense (as “human being, mortal”), it may be a more dramatic way of saying what Jesus does in v. 27—that human need and care takes priority even over the Sabbath law
    • that Jesus (as the “Son of Man”) has authority (ku/rio$ in the basic sense of “lord, master”) which surpasses even that of the (Sabbath) Law, either in the sense that
      (a) by his word or action he can override the Sabbath regulations
      (b) he has authority to declare the true purpose, intent, and interpretation of the Sabbath
      (c) following the teaching and example of Jesus takes priority over specific observance of the (Sabbath) Law
    • that Jesus (the “Son of Man”) is also Lord, in the divine sense (as “Son of God”), even as God the Father (YHWH) is Lord; the Sabbath observance is dedicated to God, in his honor, and he has complete control over it

Again, arguments could be made for each of these points, but 2b perhaps best fits the overall Gospel presentation. We should, however, consider several related points:

  • Rather than simply rejecting (or correcting) the Pharisees’ criticism and application of the Law, Jesus takes the opportunity to address a deeper question as to the nature and ultimate purpose of the Sabbath command, much as he does else where in his teaching (such as in the Sermon on the Mount)
  • In what is perhaps the earlier strand of Gospel tradition, Jesus’ emphasis is on the priority of caring for the (physical) need of human beings, rather than the nature of his personal authority (regarding the Law)
  • The saying in Mark 2:28 par would seem to emphasize Jesus’ authority (as “Son of Man”, cf. also Mk 2:10 par) in relation to the Law
  • The additional sayings in Matt 12:5-7 stress even more clearly that Jesus’ authority—in his own person—surpasses that of the Law (and the Temple)
  • The Sabbath healing in John 5 is connected with an even more developed discussion regarding Jesus’ divine authority (as Son of God) and his relationship to God the Father

This suggests a process of development in Gospel tradition, leading from a relatively simple combination of short narrative and saying of Jesus to a more extended discourse with unmistakable Christological implications. But is it possible, at the historical level, that Jesus’ opponents—that is, certain “scribes and Pharisees” and other religious authorities—recognized the claims implicit in his words and actions from the beginning? Consider how, in the Synoptic tradition, the Sabbath healing of Mark 3:1-6 par represents the moment when the religious authorities begin to seek Jesus’ destruction (v. 6), a result seemingly out of proportion with the events of the narrative as we have them. John 5:18 specifically connects Jesus’ violation (“loosing”) of the Sabbath with saying that God was his Father (“making himself equal with God”), as their reason for wishing to kill him. This same question and issue will arise again regarding Jesus’ relationship to the Temple—which is the subject of the next part in this series.

Jesus and the Law, Part 4: The Sabbath Controversies

The so-called “Sabbath Controversy” stories in the Gospel, at first glance, appear to be among the most prominent traditions relating to Jesus and the Law (Torah); however, a closer examination reveals a number of historical-critical and tradition-critical difficulties which complicate the picture. These traditions are part of a larger grouping of narrative episodes, which one may refer to under the heading “Controversies and disputes between Jesus and religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees)”. For a thorough list of relevant verses, see my Survey of Passages earlier in this series. Such episodes typically follow one of two basic narrative patterns:

    1. The religious authorities (Scribes and Pharisees) react negatively to an action or saying by Jesus, which provides the setting for a subsequent saying or parable. A developed (and especially memorable) example is the episode in Luke 7:36-50, involving the anointing of Jesus by a “sinful” woman, and which takes place in the house of a Pharisee.
    2. The Scribes and Pharisees ask a question of Jesus, in order to test him, which elicits a (sometimes enigmatic) saying or parable in response. In some stories, the end result is that Jesus’ opponents are silenced—they are unable to answer or unwilling to question him further. The episode involving the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) or the question regarding paying tax/tribute to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17) are among the more familiar examples.

The “Sabbath Controversy” stories follow the first pattern; there are two basic traditions involved:

    1. The episode involving Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath—Mark 2:23-28 (par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5).
    2. A healing miracle performed on the Sabbath—this takes several different forms, but the most widely attested (in the triple Synoptic tradition) is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11).

Critical commentators have expressed doubt generally regarding the authenticity and historicity of these stories, claiming that the setting is artificial and contrived. This may, however, be partly due to a misreading of the traditional narrative, ignoring the natural simplifications and formal/typical elements shaping the story. For example, we need not imagine that there were Pharisees standing around in the fields on the Sabbath at just the right moment to catch Jesus’ disciples plucking grain—rather, the traditional narrative simply records, in representative and typical fashion, the ways in which certain scrupulous and religiously devout Jews responded and reacted to the behavior of Jesus and his disciples. The sheer number of these controversy-stories in the Gospels makes it virtually certain, on objective grounds, that Jesus’ often provocative teaching and actions struck many religiously-minded observers as questionable or problematic.

Yet many scholars would hold that the Sabbath Controversy stories are actually products of the early Church, reflecting the disputes between Christians and Jews regarding Sabbath observance, etc. However, if this were the case, one might expect a narrative context that better fits the life-setting of early Christians—healing miracles and plucking grain in the fields do not seem especially relevant in this regard. A more plausible critical approach—at least with regard to the Sabbath healings—is outlined below. Since the healing miracle story setting is more prevalent in the Gospel tradition, I will begin there.

Healing Miracle(s) performed on the Sabbath

This takes several different forms, considered (when taken at face value) as separate episodes in the Gospels, but which may conceivably stem from a single historical tradition. The main episode, narrated in all three Synoptic Gospels is the healing of a man with a dried/withered hand, which takes place in the Synagogue (Mark 3:1-6; par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11). The common elements (using the Markan account) are as follows:

    • Jesus is in a local synagogue on the Sabbath (vv. 1-2)
    • A person is present with a noticeable physical ailment (man with a dried/withered hand, v. 1)
    • People (presumably Pharisees, but unspecified) watch Jesus to see whether he will heal the person on the Sabbath (v. 2)
    • Jesus asks those watching: “is it right/lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (v. 4)
    • They are silent, and Jesus looks around at them with grief/anger (over their hardness of heart) (v. 5)
    • Jesus tells the man “stretch out your hand”, the man does so and is healed (v. 5)
    • After this event, the Pharisees leave with the purpose of destroying Jesus (v. 6)

There are several key differences in the Matthean version:

    • It is certain of the people watching (presumably Pharisees) who ask the question “is it right/lawful to heal on Sabbath (days)?” (Matt 12:10)—Matthew adds the detail that they asked the question so that they might be able to accuse/charge Jesus with an offence (controversy pattern #2 above)
    • Similarly, instead of the question in Mark 3:4, here Jesus cites the example of a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath, how naturally one will grab hold to lift it out. He concludes with a statement, similar to the question in Mk 3:4, “it is right/lawful to do a fine thing [i.e. do good] on Sabbath (days)”

Luke’s account generally follows the Markan, but with several additions (some which heighten the dramatic effect):

    • He adds the detail that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue (Lk 6:6)
    • He specifies that it is the “scribes and Pharisees” who are watching Jesus (v. 7), including (with Matthew) the detail that they asked the question in order to accuse Jesus
    • He explains that Jesus saw/knew their thoughts (v. 8)
    • He adds the detail that the Pharisees were filled with mindless rage (v. 11)

Luke also records a similar story in Lk 13:10-17; it is worth comparing the similarities and differences with the prior episode. First the similarities which fit a basic narrative form:

    • The Synagogue setting (v. 10); as in Lk 6:6, Jesus is described as teaching in the synagogue
    • A person with a physical disability (v. 11)—here it is a woman who was bent/stooped together and unable to straighten up (she is described as having a “spirit of weakness/infirmity” for eighteen years)
    • Jesus calls the person to him (v. 12); upon his command, the person is healed (v. 13)
    • A statement by Jesus to the effect that it is proper to to good (i.e. to heal) on the Sabbath; the statement, with its example involving animals, is similar to that in Matt 12:11-12
    • Jesus’ opponents are effectively silenced (here, “put to shame”, v. 17)

Apart from certain details, there are also these notable differences:

    • The personal detail in vv. 11, 12, 16, which suggest a stronger or more developed tradition
    • The response to the healing by the ruler of the Synagogue (v. 14)—this is especially significant in the way it frames the religious-legal issue (see below)
    • The positive response of the people in the Synagogue is emphasized, rather than the negative reaction of the suspicious/hostile Pharisees (vv. 13, 17b)

Even though Lk 13:10-17 is almost a doublet of Lk 6:6-11, there are enough differences to suggest that we are dealing with separate historical traditions (at some level), which may have been combined in Matthew’s single account. It is possible to isolate two distinct core elements (sayings) central to the episode(s):

    1. The question whether it is right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, and
    2. An illustration involving caring for an animal on the Sabbath

These two are incorporated in different ways within the Sabbath healing stories in the Synoptics. It is noteworthy, however, that we find the same two elements in a sayings-context where the healing miracle is less prominent—in Luke 14:1-6. Consider, indeed, how close this is to the account in Mark 3:1-6 / Matt 12:9-14:

    • Jesus is in a particular place on the Sabbath, in the presence of Pharisees (here it the house of a Pharisee, not a synagogue)
    • A man is present suffering from a physical ailment (here “dropsy”, i.e. excess of water or fluid, resulting in edema or swollen-limbs)
    • Jesus responds to the “scribes and Pharisees” and asks: “is it right/lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (cf. Mark 3:4; Matt 12:9)
    • Jesus’ ‘opponents’ are silenced (twice, v. 4a, 6)
    • Jesus gives an illustration involving caring for an animal in need, close to that in Matt 12:11—here it is an ox in a well instead of a sheep in a pit

Thus we have (in Luke) three separate narrative episodes each with a similar format and common/overlapping elements. This raises the critical question whether specific sayings of Jesus (in various/variant form) have been applied to the diverse healing-miracle tradition in such a way as to produce the distinct narratives we see in the Gospels. In other words, might not the Sabbath healing narratives serve as dramatizations, illustrating the sayings of Jesus in Lk 14:3, 5, along with the religious-legal issues involved? It is possible that we can see something of the sort at work in the Gospel of John; the fourth Gospel has no narrative matching that of the Synoptics (above), but in the two closest healing miracles (involving physical disability), there is also a “Sabbath controversy” element:

  • John 5:1-17: the healing of a paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethzatha)
  • John 9:1-7ff: the healing of man blind from birth

These two narratives are similar in many respects: each involves a reaction from the religious authorities, and a questioning of the man who was healed (cf. Jn 5:10-16; 9:13-34), followed by Jesus encountering the man a second time and addressing him (5:14; 9:35-38), and finally Jesus answers the religious authorities (5:17; 9:39-41). In neither narrative is the Sabbath setting central to the main account of the healing miracle, though in John 5 it is more closely connected, at least at the literary level—note:

    • The healing miracle itself (vv. 1-9a)—no mention of the Sabbath
    • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-18), with two overlapping themes:
      (i) Jesus violating the Sabbath by performing work (healing)
      (ii) Jesus identifying himself with God the Father
      These are combined in the saying of Jesus in verse 17, and the summary in verse 18
    • Discourse of Jesus (vv. 19-47)—on the Son doing the work of the Father

This is a far more developed and expanded narrative structure than we find in the Synoptic Gospels, and, as such, is typical of the Gospel of John. Despite the centrality of the Sabbath motif in chapter 5, there is reason to believe that it represents a secondary development or application. Consider, for comparison, the way the Sabbath motif is similarly introduced in 9:14-16, but otherwise plays no part in the narrative of chapter 9. In John 7:21-25 mention is made of Jesus healing on the Sabbath, with controversy surrounding it implied, but without any clear narrative context—is it a reference back to chapter 5? There is, of course, no way to be certain just how the various Gospel traditions and narratives developed, and traditional-conservative commentators will always tend to take the narrative episodes more or less at face value. Still, the manner in which the “Sabbath controversy” element variously presents itself, in my view strongly suggests adaptation and combination of traditional material.

What exactly is at work in these narratives? The following aspects of the question should be considered:

  • The legal-religious aspect, as best represented by the twin sayings of Jesus in Luke 14:3, 5
  • The dramatic aspect—historical-critical questions aside, it cannot be doubted that the Sabbath controversy element heightens the dramatic effect of the healing miracle stories in the Synoptics; it also dramatizes powerfully the conflict between Jesus and many of the religious authorities of the time
  • The literary aspect—illustrated by (a) the use of the Sabbath theme to join traditions together (as in Mark 2:23-3:6), and (b) the role of the Sabbath setting to join narrative and saying (in John 5, a more complex structure joining narrative and discourse)
  • The theological-christological aspect—whether at the historical or literary level (or both), the “Sabbath-controversy” setting was joined with the larger theological (and religious) issue of Jesus’ own (personal) authority. This is most prominently displayed in John 5 (with its great discourse of vv. 19-47), but is manifest in smaller ways in the Synoptic Gospels as well.

It is the legal-religious and theological-christological aspects which relate most directly to the topic of Jesus and the Law; I will discuss these after first examining the second of the main “Sabbath Controversy” narratives—Jesus’ disciples plucking grain in the fields on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28; par Matt 12:1-8; Lk 6:1-5)—in the continuation of this article in the next part of the series.