1 Sam 3:1-20, Mark 2:23 – 3:6
This week we have two stories of Jesus pointing out that the preservation on human life is the highest concern of the law. In defending his students’ plucking and eating wheat as they walked and then healing a chronic ailment on the sabbath, Jesus demonstrated that restful inaction on the sabbath is less holy than action which strengthens and improves human life.
As they were walking through a field, some of Jesus’ disciples (and not Jesus) plucked heads of grain, rolled them in their hands, and ate the tender parts (Mark 2:23). We know they were not on a long journey, because it was the sabbath and the Pharisees who would not have gone farther than a Sabbath’s walk were with them. The young disciples were simply hungry, and so they ate. They did not gather grain to eat for another time, but just met their sudden hunger with what was at their fingertips. For this they were criticized by some assembled Pharisees who rightly noted that separating the heads of grain from the stalks as well as the inevitable hand-threshing were both prohibited sabbath activities. Jesus defended them saying that hunger was a just cause for prioritizing human thriving over sabbath observance. He argued that the sabbath was made for humans, and not humans for the sabbath.
On another sabbath, Jesus performed a public miracle as a means of illustrating his point. He told a man with a deformed hand, which was not a life-threatening injury, presumably, to stand in front of all the assembled worshipers in the synagogue. He then asked, “what is legal on the sabbath, to do good or to do evil, to save a life or kill?” (Mark 3:4). Jesus left no middle ground with his question. To desist from doing good when it is possible is to do evil, and to refuse to save a life is necessarily killing, even if death is not immediate. Imagine the soul-crushing disappointment of the man with the shriveled hand if he had been that close to the healing messiah, only to be turned away because he showed up on the wrong day.
No, Jesus argues that to feed the hungry and to help the sick is the highest responsibility of the Law, even over sabbath regulations. For this [some] Pharisees partnered with the Herodians to plot Jesus’ murder (Mark 3:6, but pay attention to Mark’s lack of nuance. Jesus and his followers were still welcome at Pharisee parties, and Pharisees like Nicodemus stood by Jesus even after all his disciples fled). The irony is that Jesus’ legal teaching is almost identical to modern Jewish law on the matter.
The principle of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) demands that action be taken during the sabbath, or any other time, to save human life. And saving a life is broadly construed. If someone is seized by ravenous hunger, for instance, not only may he eat during the fast of Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the year), but he may even eat unclean things if they will brighten his eyes (B. Yoma 83b). If any individual is suffering or in extreme pain, it is always preferable to err on the side of caution and help them rather than allow the suffering to continue, as it might lead to death. Jesus steps beyond this, though to say that whoever is able to do good for a neighbor, or even to perform health for herself (eating healthy food that is close at hand) ought to do so because the alternative is choosing death instead of life.
Jesus’ expansive understanding of “saving a life” leaves us with little wiggle room. If we are able to help others or ourselves in meeting basic needs for food or health, we do not have the luxury of claiming a higher obligation to another of God’s laws and certainly not to some ideology that argues that a particular type of suffering is not worth our actions to rectify it. Jesus, like Moses before him (Deut 30:19), puts the life and death, blessings and curses before us and urges us to choose life – not just “not death,” but full, abundant, healthy life.
[Because I already wrote extensively on the 1 Samuel 3 passage back in January, especially how Eli was punished for his non-intervention into his sons’ evil, I will not re-hash it here. Suffice it to say that even in not sinning himself, Eli still “chose death” because he did not get actively involved in discharging his righteous responsibility to all those who came to the shrine.]