The man had been crippled for thirty-eight years and what is the first thing he hears from the religious people when he picks up his disgusting, dirty mat and starts to walk? “Put it down.” He was healed on the Sabbath. Carrying a mat was considered work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. (John 5) For thirty-eight years they did nothing for him and when someone finally did, their hands were so full of their own religion they were not able to grasp the beauty of the miracle before them. They demanded that he put down the mat so he could carry the weight of their condemnation.
“It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath“ because God honors “doing good over religious adherence” – mercy over sacrifice. (Matthew 12:7,12) Showing mercy is greater than religious adherence and it requires more of us. Religious adherence without mercy is lip service ritual and finger pointing blame. With mercy, it is authentic expression of faith and grace giving.
Mercy keeps us from condemning the innocent. (Matthew 12:7)
Too often, Christians stack the deck to make sure the sin cards are passed out to everyone else at the table, but when the game is over we have a hand full of mercy that we never played. When we simply “stick to our religious guns”, too often the innocent are unmercifully mowed done with the guilty. His obedience to Jesus meant disobedience to their religious convictions. There was not room for both.
Mercy can create space in our tightly packed box of conviction for our conclusions to be rearranged.
When they finally caught up to Jesus, his response to their harassment embittered them even more. In a sense he said, “Not only was the healed man carrying his mat on the Sabbath, but God himself and I helped him carry it. God is always at work.”(John 5:17) They should have gotten up and helped him carry his mat to the dump, but they did not lift a finger to help him. Too often we do the same. Just when someone has finally taken off the scratchy winter coat of sin and put on the lightweight way of Jesus, we strap a few extra packs to their back to make us feel like their repentance is public and acceptable. (Matthew 23:4)
Can we be too merciful? Can we supply more grace than what is in demand? Would we rather be found with clean hands lacking the blood of the guilty or with hands covered in the blood of the innocent? Since it is mercy that we received in the face of our undeniable guilt, mercy is what we are compelled to give. Any other response throws the grace we have been afforded back into the face of God. If you have any level of authority, real or perceived, especially within your faith community, go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In that moment, the formerly crippled man had to decide whether he should keep carrying the mat or put it down. Putting it down gained him only the approval of the opinionated oppressors. Carrying it was a testimony to the power of God. The roads of men are paved with condemnation and lined with legalistic power. Mercy and healing are the road signs of the path of God. Pick up your mat and head that way.