Context is everything. A few days ago I felt impressed to write something on Luke 6:1-11. Those verses contain two similar stories. In the first story, Jesus and some disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath. Some Pharisees saw them picking grain by hand, rubbing it to remove the husk, and eating it because they were hungry. Threshing grain, even in a small amount, was considered unlawful Sabbath day work. On another Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. In the congregation sat a man with a withered and useless hand. Also present were some watchful and critical Pharisees observing Jesus’ every move. Would Jesus heal on the Sabbath or not? Well, He did. And that violated the pharisee’s sense of what it meant to “observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.” But what was the point? What was I suppose to write about? Was it the critical watchers and their flawed version of the law? Was it Jesus’ seemingly rebellious streak as he challenged their understanding, declaring that the “Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath?” While both of those have merit, I think the real lesson is in the context Luke provided.
It’s important to understand that Bible chapters do not necessarily mean a division of thought. Chapters, verses, section headers, and even punctuation were added later to help our understanding and use of the Bible. It is always a good idea to read around them. In the verses leading up to chapter 6 Luke records, “Then Jesus gave them this illustration: “No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t even match the old garment. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. ‘The old is just fine,’ they say.” (Luke 5:36–39, NLT) How many times have I read the sabbath stories in Luke 6 without considering Luke 5?
In the Sabbath stories, we see the collision of new and old. There is little doubt that Jesus taught and demonstrated power. The religious leaders of the day would have loved to put that new wine into their old skins or used it to patch their old clothes. But it wouldn’t have worked, and Jesus knew it. Without denigrating the old, Jesus showed them something new.
It is important to remember that what the Pharisees were mad about was Jesus’ violation of man-made “clarifications” to the Law. Scrolls upon scrolls were written to determine what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath. For instance, there’s no mention of Sabbath Day travel limitations in the Law of Moses. Yet, by the time of Jesus’ a Sabbath’s day journey was restricted to a couple of miles. In these instances, Jesus demonstrated that the new wine of His kingdom would not fit into these man-made limitations. But even that wasn’t Jesus’ major point.
What Jesus demonstrated in the two Sabbath day instances were glimmers of His grace which elevated meeting the real needs of people. His point was not to correct the pharisee’s understanding of the Law, that was a side benefit. In these instances, Jesus elevated touching the real needs of people above the Law, tradition, or group expectations. This thought is also on display in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, in Jesus’ mission statement (Luke 4:18-19), and His declaration of purpose to “save those who are lost.” (Luke 19:10) If we’re not careful, we can lose the ability to stretch with God’s grace and in the process lose our joy. We can become like old wineskins; creating “laws” concerning what it means to follow Christ by creating extra-biblical expectations and determining what sins must be avoided and which ones can be ignored. In other words, we can become just like the Pharisees. We can avoid that stiff and stale condition by holding fast to Jesus’ attitude and purpose of touching people where they are at even if it seems to break a rule, tradition, or group expectations.