Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.He looked around at them with anger; he was 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 conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Ethicists and philosophers will tell you that there are three main ways in which we make moral decisions. This is a gross oversimplification, but the first is called Deontology – or Rule Ethics. The premise is easy. The right thing to do is to follow the rules. The outcome doesn’t really matter as long as you follow the rules.
A second method is Teleology – or Goal Ethics. The premise here is that you decide what you want your goal to be and you choose an action which moves you toward your goal.
But Jesus seems to espouse a third position, that of Areteology – or Virtue Ethics. This method starts by asking the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?” Choices are made based on whether or not they practice the virtue you want to emulate.
We all use all three in any given moment, and all three can overlap to some extent.
Say for instance the speed limit is 45 mph. A rule follower would follow the speed limit because following the law is the right thing to do. A goal oriented person may desire to arrive at a destination safe and so they drive 45 mph which allows them to achieve this goal. And a virtuous person may want to be a safe driver because it protects themselves and others on the road, and so they drive 45 mph because it is virtuous. All are driving 45 but for very different reasons.
But sometimes these methods can conflict with each other.
In the text, Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand on the national day of rest and asks the question, “Is it lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath?”
Here I can imagine the wheels turning in his opponent’s heads. Which is morally correct? To follow the rule even if it allows harm? Or to break the rule in order to do good?
Jesus doesn’t wait for their reply but demonstrates his way of doing ethics – he heals the man despite the rule, demonstrating virtuous living.
No doubt about it – this way of making choices is complicated. It is so much easier to have a solid rule in place to fall back on when confronted with a moral dilemma. No thinking required. Just follow the rule.
But here Jesus asks us to dig a little. He asks us if we might consider practicing the virtues of mercy, compassion, grace, restorative justice, selflessness, forgiveness, and love – even if it breaks the rules. Even if it places us in harm’s way.
For Jesus, the rules aren’t bad in themselves. Rather the rules act as a guide and tutor. The rules can help us make sure we stay on the path toward God’s goals for humanity (see what I did there?). But just one chapter prior Jesus explains, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), meaning: We aren’t slaves to the rules, especially when the opportunity arises to live virtuously outside of those rules.
Unfortunately we aren’t so far removed from those religious leaders that day. Like them we gravitate toward the easier path. We construct hard and fast rules from the Bible – even from the mouth of Jesus himself – and rather than put in the hard work of practicing the virtues demonstrated by our Lord, we simply follow the rules.
Who needs your mercy, compassion, grace, advocacy, selflessness, forgiveness, and love today? Who are those people who fall outside our comfortable systems and so, do not receive those good gifts which God so desperately wants them to have? The marginalized, the oppressed, the other? Righteousness – or right relationship with God – does not come by our ability to follow the rules. It doesn’t even come by our desire to follow the rules. It only comes by faith. And faith demands that we do the hard work of discernment. Faith requires breaking the rules from time to time.
Do good. Do no harm. Stay in love with God.
His Peddler of Grace,