“The Peril of Rightness”

Kurt Jacobson
6 min readJun 2, 2024

June 2, 2024

Mark 2:23–3:6

One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. ***

In the summer of 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The first, “Little Boy” was dropped August 6 on Hiroshima, and three days later, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. What few people know is that 12 American POWs were on the ground in Hiroshima, 1,300 feet from ground zero. Two of the twelve Americans were Normand Brissette of Massachusetts, and Ralph Neal, of Kentucky.

On that first morning of bombing, an 8 year old Japanese boy, Shigeaki Mori, would witness the explosion. He would survive that day, but his life would be changed forever.

Mori would go on to document the events of that day and the thousands that were lost. Through his research, he would find evidence of the 12 American POWs, and would spend over 35 years tracking down their families.

“Paper Lanterns” is the documentary that tells this story of war and loss and one man’s effort to give families of the victims the gift of closure and solace. It is about the humanity and compassion shown by those who were in the heart of the destruction. The generation that lived through these events are passing away. They do not want anyone to forget their loved ones and the sacrifices they made. They want to strive for peace, compassion and a world free of nuclear weapons. They want us to never forget their story.

I thought about Mori’s story, and about this week’s Gospel reading from Mark, which raises questions similar to those posed by Paper Lanterns. What makes compassion possible? What makes it impossible? What truly counts as sacred, and how do we honor the sacred in the midst of desecration? When callousness, apathy, and fear threaten our hearts, how do we return to love?

Mark describes a two-part confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. In part one, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, when by Jewish teaching no work was to be done. When they get hungry, the disciples pluck a few heads of grain to munch on, Jesus does not stop them, and the Pharisees pounce, asking Jesus why he is allowing his followers to break the Sabbath. Jesus answers, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

In part two, Jesus enters the synagogue, and meets a man with a withered hand. Knowing that he is being watched, Jesus asks the Pharisees whether it is lawful to “do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill.” But the Pharisees refuse to answer. Angered and grieved by their hardness of heart, Jesus heals the man with the withered hand. The story ends, predictably, with the Pharisees leaving the synagogue to plot against Jesus’s life.

Often interpretations of these events pit a rigid, legalistic Judaism against Jesus. But such a reading is inaccurate and disturbingly antisemitic and harmful. We must dodge knee-jerk censure of Pharisees who for too long have been caricatured by Christian preachers as self-righteous hypocrites.

Pharisaism was a lay reform movement within first-century Judaism, dedicated to unparalleled adherence to Torah in all walks of life. Pharisees were celebrated by their Jewish contemporaries for “practicing the highest ideals both in their way of living and in their discourse.”[i] They were regarded as upstanding, devout, Bible-believing pillars of the community. To paraphrase the familiar saying of Pogo comic strip, “We have met the Pharisees, and they are us.”

The Pharisees in this story are a stand-in for all traditions or teachings, values or understandings that stand between us and compassion — no matter how cherished, noble, or well-intentioned. In other words, the question this story asks is not, “What was wrong with 1st century Judaism?” but rather, “What have we made rigid in our belief system that cannot budge in order to be truly Christ-like?” What viewpoint or personal belief do we hold tight at the expense of loving? Who have we stopped seeing because our eyes have been blinded by our own best intentions?

What are we clinging to that is not God?

We do an injustice to the Pharisees if we write them off as bad people. They were good people trying to preserve and protect things like traditions, laws, rituals — habits that mediated faith for them. Aren’t we inclined at times to do the same? There are plenty of topics and issues in contemporary society that divide churches and faithful people. Rigid interpretations of Scripture and low levels of tolerance get in the way of respectfully considering other views and understandings of Jesus’ teaching that can open the way for broader love for neighbor, especially people who are different from us.

The Pharisees were not wrong to uphold the Sabbath. They were absolutely right. But rightness is not love. Rightness is not compassion. Rightness will never open us to Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. Only compassion will do that.

This is an unnerving story. It is a story about Jesus walking through the sacred fields in our lives, and plucking away what we hold dear. It is a story about Jesus seeing people we are too holy to notice, and healing people we would just as well leave sick. It is a story about a category-busting God who will not allow us to cling to anything less bold, daring, scary, exhilarating, or world-altering than love.

I imagine there are many people in Shigeaki Mori’s life who consider his work a waste of time at best, and a disloyal scandal at worst. Why would a man give up four decades of his life to honor twelve dead boys from 194? Why would a Japanese survivor of the A-bomb care about providing closure to American families?

Why would anyone bring the business of a synagogue to a grinding halt on a Sabbath morning? Why would a man risk his own life to heal a stranger’s withered hand?

Apparently, nothing is more sacred than compassion. The true spirit of the Sabbath — the spirit of God is love. Love that feeds the hungry. Love that heals the sick. Love that sees and attends to the invisible. If we want to honor the Lord of the Sabbath, then we have to relativize all practices, loyalties, rituals, and traditions we hold dear — even the ones that feel the most “Christian.” There is only one absolute, and it is love.

[i] (Antiquities 12.15 [circa A.D. 105]).

Image: Amy’s Biblical Art — Watercolors and Children’s Books, Springfield, Missouri

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.