On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. Luke 6:1-11

Doesn’t this seem like a ridiculous story? At first read, the Pharisees are almost set up as “straw men” to be summarily torn down as those who are just too rigid about life. To think that someone would honestly believe that it is more important to God to observe rest than to heal someone when the power to heal was available is absurd. To think that someone could be so set in their ways that seeing someone eat grain that they had husked in their hands when they were hungry would seem incredible. Yet, here it is. As the saying goes, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

The moral laws to which the Pharisees appeal were identifying marks. They were symbols of outward religiosity. The Pharisees prided themselves on their ability to follow God’s law perfectly. As the picture comes into view, their position is easier to understand and less absurd. Jesus words and actions challenged the very core of who the Pharisees understood themselves to be. In short, Jesus was telling them that they had an incomplete understanding of God. He was telling them that though they understood and ad even added to the law of God, their hearts were far from him.

Jesus picked the fight. He was deliberately antagonistic. He didn’t just heal the man with the withered hand; he did it in front of them. This front and center exhibition displayed the heart of God. Jesus would say at another time, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’” It was on display here. Jesus is not soft on the law of God, he is the fulfillment of it. The law is fulfilled in love.

The story is not absurd. It is liberating. It sets us free to follow the heart of God, set free from an obligation to a legalism that always desires checklists and rules. Instead, God calls us to follow him and to seek his heart, with forgiveness and his love, rather than rules and laws, as our identifying marks.