When “do nothing” isn’t an option

Synagogue in Capernaum

“Which is lawful? To save life or to destroy it?”

This was the choice Jesus gave his opponents during a debate over Sabbath-keeping. It started with a few handfuls of grain, harvested and eaten by Jesus’ disciples while they traversed a field during the Jewish holy day.

For some, this action constituted “work,” a grave violation of Sabbath law. Others, including Jesus, felt that honoring the Sabbath shouldn’t mean you had to starve.

In the same passage, Luke recalls yet another Sabbath day. Jesus and his adversaries were worshiping in the synagogue together. There just so happened to be a man with a disfigured hand there, too. Luke seems to hint that his presence was perhaps a little too coincidental. (“The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…”)

What would the itinerant preacher, reputed to be a healer, do? Purity or people — which would he choose?

It’s not like the man’s ailment was a minor inconvenience. A disfigured hand could inhibit his ability to work, farm, feed himself, survive. If he were a descendant of Aaron, a member of the priestly clan, a disfigured hand would disqualify him from serving in the temple.

Jesus, fully aware of the trap being set, walked into it anyway. He called for the man to stand up. Then he asked his rivals:

“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil? To save life or to destroy it?”

It was an absurd question, designed to highlight the absurdity of his opponents’ thinking. Of course doing good is better than doing evil. Of course saving life is better than destroying it. Of course “love your neighbor” is more important than “keep the Sabbath.”

What I find even more startling than Jesus’ preference for love over law-keeping is the way he took this man and his predicament and made it a choice between saving life and destroying it. There was no third option. To send the man back to his seat just as he was — as far as Jesus was concerned, that would have been the moral equivalent of destroying his life.

Faced with crippling need and his own ability to help, Jesus refused to sit on the sidelines. He won’t let any of us sit on them, either. When our neighbors are in need and we have the capacity to help, the options are not “save life,” “destroy life,” or “do nothing.” There are only two options, and “do nothing” isn’t one of them.

To do nothing, it seems, is to destroy life.

I find this deeply unsettling.


Speaking of times when “do nothing” isn’t an option, at least 4 million people have been displaced and 10,000 killed by the typhoon in the Philippines. Consider donating to World Vision’s disaster relief fund to help…

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