Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (ESV)
There are lots of reasons not to do something—some good, others less so. Jesus’s experience here in Mark 3 warns us against one particularly bad one. As in most cases, the Pharisees thought that they were doing the will of God. In an effort to avoid transgressing the Law (in this case the fourth commandment), they built a hedge around it—an “outer wall” so that they would not risk coming close to the “inner wall”. So where the Law says “on [the Sabbath Day] you shall not do any work” (Deuteronomy 5:14), the Pharisees determined that they—and all Israel—should avoid anything remotely resembling the form of work. As our passage shows us, this would have included acts of mercy.
What motivation lay at the heart of the Pharisees’ hedge around the Law? If you could go back and ask one of them, I’m sure they could have recited the Ten Commandments verbatim. God had given Israel these “ten words” flowing directly out of his provision for them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deuteronomy 5:6). The Pharisees would no doubt tell you that they built hedges to ensure that they—and all Israel—paid proper honor to the Holy One of Israel, who had rescued them from bondage and made them a great nation.
But here in Mark 3, we get a look at the real motivation underlying the Pharisees’ practice: power. Look at verse 2—Jesus has cut in on their authority, both through his teaching and his miraculous works, so they lie in wait for him to slip up—presumably that they might publicly humiliate him for his failure to meet their man-made standards about the Law. Their motive springs not from a desire to honor God, whose power is evident in Jesus’ ministry, but rather from a desire to destroy that ministry.
Jesus next asks them a simple question, forcing the underlying issue: is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath? Their refusal to answer—to acknowledge that a failure to help this man was actually to do him harm—reveals a deeper motive: hardness of heart. They had built a hedge around the Law to exert power over God (look how diligently I keep your commands) and man, and have so hardened their hearts that they only grip their self-deception tighter the more it is exposed.
So what’s the lesson for us? Self-deception is easy. It was easy for the Pharisees, and it’s easy for God’s people today. It’s easy for us to cling tightly to what blessings the Lord has provided out of our own desire for personal security, and call it responsible stewardship—all while our neighbor withers in our midst. It’s easy for us to consider ourselves a Christ-minded people in doctrine while failing to imitate Christ in our communities. May we be honest with ourselves, praying to our Father that his Spirit would work through his Word and expose the idols in our hearts, laying bare our self-deception. And may we never grieve our Lord Jesus with hard hearts that blasphemously pit love for him against love for neighbor.