The Sabbath: a day for mercy

Most people who are familiar with the New Testament are familiar with the story of the woman who was caught committing adultery, whom Jesus was asked to judge. It’s the source of one of his most profound teachings, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He shows that it’s true that “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world.”

But this story also teaches us something important about the Sabbath day.

As part of my scripture study this weekend, I decided to spend a few minutes studying what Jesus himself did while observing the Sabbath. I noticed a connection between John chapter 8 (where the Pharisees bring the woman take in adultery) and John chapter 9 (when Jesus heals a man born blind on the Sabbath day)  that indicates a close timeline between those two events. I Googled it and confirmed that other people have noticed (including actual scholar-sounding folks) that this story happened on the Sabbath.

Because this well known exchange took place on the Sabbath, it reveals a powerful contrast between the attitudes that Jesus and his opponents had for the Sabbath day.

men bring woman taken in adultery to Jesus for him to judge her.The Pharisees were strict about their Sabbath observance. They had a litany of rules that governed everything from egg cooking to how many steps a person was allowed to take on that day. Every time Jesus or his disciples did anything on the Sabbath, whether it was plucking some corn for a snack or healing someone, they spoke out against him.

But these same people were more than willing to drag a woman through the streets and stone her on the Sabbath day.

Jesus pricked their conscience, and they left, one by one. When they all were gone, he encouraged the woman with the words, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.”

Raise your hand if you’ve heard gossip or judgmental statements uttered at church, and maybe even taken part. (*This is me raising my hand.*) Sometimes in our attempts to “hate the sin and love the sinner,” we forget that love was the first commandment, and our contempt for one action or another gets in the way of us loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s easy on a Sunday to look at the people around us and find fault, and maybe even gossip about the fault: Is that girl’s skirt too tight? Is that missionary’s tie conservative enough? There’s a person who I know voted differently from me last election, and that guy over there posted something to Facebook last week that I think was totally inappropriate. So-and-so smells like cigarette smoke today, he must have relapsed. Look at that family coming in late again! And then there’s….


It can go on and on. Because everyone is imperfect, a congregation full of people will give you a lot to cast stones at. But if that’s what we focus on in the pews or hallways at church, we’re taking sides with the guys who thought stoning someone was a good Sabbath activity, but who condemned a miraculous Sabbath healing later the same day.

But what would Jesus do on the Sabbath?

Jesus offers his hand to woman and lifts her up.

Jesus taught, healed, and showed mercy on the Sabbath day.

Isaiah records these thoughts about the twin commandments of fasting and Sabbath observance: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”

What if instead of judging, gossiping about, or condemning people whose differences, sins, or mistakes stand out, we sat with them, helped them with something, shook their hands, invited them over for dinner, or just said a kind, uplifting word? I know such actions are not rare, but perhaps they are not common enough.

If we can extend that kind of love and mercy to the people around us, Jesus extends that same mercy to ourselves. This applies to any day, but especially on the Sabbath day, when we focus on him and ask for his atoning grace.

As we give and receive that kind of mercy, we will call the Sabbath a delight.

Jesus walking beside woman and comforting her

(Note: In case you’re wondering about the connection between John 8 and 9 that establishes their sequential nature, chapter 8 ends with “he passed by” and chapter 9 begins with “and as he passed by.” I often find that reading across a chapter break brings additional context to my attention that I would have missed otherwise. I highly recommend it.)