and to the people he said, “Is it allowable to do good at the Sabbath – or harm? To save a life, or destroy it?”
don’t you just hate it
when your own petard
jumps out from behind
your own best laid plain
just when it appeared
our blame mechanism
was about to kick in
we were called to account
everyone knows rules
can be bent and parsed
until they’re barely recognizable
but that’s our back-room game
taking advantage of self-censorship
is not so easy out in the open
our self-contradictions leave us
unable to contradict behavioral details
Constructing a legal structure to deal with the big dualities of morality (do right; do wrong) or community relations (do good; do harm) is always problematic as Law as Law is always several cases behind. The combinations and permutations of life continually throw new challenges to static thinking. Interpretation and application are critical for ethical decisions.
The theme of wilderness exemplifies the difficulties. Here practicalities take precedence over precedents and protocols established through the years. There is no time to lose if we are to survive the latest outbreak of famine or other dis-ease. In wilderness settings law is made up as it goes.
Given an occupation by Empire, Law is the easiest way to placate the powers that be—both extending their power and putting off a show-down testing that power. Both overseer and subjugated have a stake in law-keeping.
Jesus’ question carries echoes of the Great Question of Deuteronomy 30:15-18: Having life and death set before you, which will you choose? This question is originally followed by an urging to choose that which brings life. What will bring life back to a hand, to all of Israel? This relationship between the individual and community is a more dynamic question than what is currently on the books and how closely it can be hewn to.
This is a question that must be responded to in every generation and context. It is still a question within and between religious communities of every faith.