For those who love to talk about theology, a good head-scratching question can really be fun. It allows us to stay up late in deep conversations with our friends over the mysteries of God and his Word.
Indeed, Jesus was known for asking some pretty tough theological questions . Sometimes the answer seemed obvious when it was not. When Jesus asked the Pharisees, “Whose son is he [the Christ]?” they assumed the answer was simple: “The son of David,” they said (Matt 22:42).
Turns out, however, that it was not at all simple. Jesus proceeds to stump them: “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matt 22:45). The text then tells us: “No one was able to answer him a word.”
Lesson: we’re not the great theologians we often think we are. At any moment, Jesus can take us into the deep theological waters where the currents are swift and we struggle to keep our head above water.
Even so, sometimes Jesus asks easy theological questions where the answer is obvious. Often he does this to make a point about the hardness of men’s hearts. As an example, he asks the Pharisees what may be the world’s easiest theological question:
“Is it lawful . . . to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4)
No one hears this question and thinks, “Hmm. That’s a tough one. The Bible is pretty vague about good vs. evil. Not sure if God wants me to save a life today or murder someone . . . ”
No! Jesus is purposefully asking the Pharisees the world’s easiest theological question. One that any 3-year-old could get right. And how do they respond?
The text tells us, “And they were silent.”
So, let’s not miss how incredible this scene is. The Pharisees—Israel’s foremost scholars, teachers and theologians—won’t answer a question about whether they should perform a good act or an evil act. What in the world is happening here?
The larger context provides the answer. This remarkable exchange takes place in a series of passages about what one is allowed to do on the Sabbath. The Pharisees had a reputation for adding all sorts of man-made laws on top of God’s law, allowing them to be judge and jury over the people. As the enforcer of these rules, the Pharisees were in the position of power and control.
Indeed, the passage tells us that they had turned their sights on Jesus himself. A man with a withered hand had walked into the synagogue and we are told, “They watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him” (Mark 3:2).
But their whole plan is ruined by Jesus asking the “world’s easiest theological question.” That one question exposes their hypocrisy and abusive behavior.
If the Pharisees answered “to do good,” then they would be giving Jesus the green light to heal the man. Not only would this prove that their man-made laws are a farce, but it would rob them of their opportunity to “accuse” Jesus.
If the Pharisees answered, “to do harm,” then they would be directly admitting that they are advocates for bad behavior. And that is obviously not an option.
So, trapped between these two options, they choose to say nothing.
This incredible story has tremendous lessons for the modern church. First, people in positions of religious authority can sometimes be more concerned about protecting their power than about caring for the sheep.
The saddest part of this story is that there was a hurting sheep right in front of these Pharisees—the man with the withered hand—and they don’t really even seen him. They only pay attention to him when he becomes a possible pawn in their bid to destroy Jesus.
Jesus, on the other hand, is quite concerned about this poor man, and eventually heals him. In effect, he is rescuing him from abusive shepherds. What Ezekiel had said of the bad shepherds of Israel was still true in Jesus’ day: “The weak you have not strengthened , the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up . . . with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek 34:4).
Of course, these bad shepherds don’t take this lying down. Since their power as been challenged by Jesus, they will protect it at all costs. We are told that “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6).
Keep in mind, of course, that bad shepherds don’t think they are bad shepherds. No doubt, these Pharisees probably saw themselves as the defenders of theological orthodoxy. In their own minds, they might have thought they were defending the purity of the Sabbath against this upstart teacher from Nazareth.
And that is the second lesson for the modern church: sometimes bad shepherds hide behind the garb of theological truth. In their minds, they are keeping the church pure.
So, how should we respond to the bad shepherds in our modern day? The same as Jesus. The text tells us that he was “grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). We should mourn for those sheep who lack good shepherds.
But, I think we can also follow Jesus’ lead in another way. We can distinguish between good and bad shepherds by again asking the world’s easiest theological question: “Is it lawful . . . to do good or to do harm?”
In the end, good shepherds can readily be identified in one simple way. They, like Jesus, don’t hurt the sheep but do good to them.