The synoptic gospels place this episode (Matthew 12: 9-14; Mark 3: 1-6 and Luke 6: 6-11) right after the story of the wheat picked on the Sabbath (Matthew 12: 1-8; Mark 2: 23-28 and Luke 6: 1-5). It is thus obvious that the Sabbath is central to the teaching of Jesus in that section. He wanted to balance people’s understanding of the Sabbath with the law of Charity.
In Exodus and in Deuteronomy, one sees a clear picture of the requirements of the Sabbath. Many activities were forbidden on the Sabbath and many sanctions were set for those who would transgress that law. It was taken so seriously that Moses once chose to condemn a man to death by stoning only because he had been found transgressing the Sabbath by fetching wood (Numbers 15: 32 – 36). Another passage that portrays well the seriousness placed on respect for the Sabbath is Deuteronomy 5: 14 where it said that even slaves and animals should not work.
One of the understandings of the meaning of the Sabbath is that it is a day on which God rested after having created the world. The Sabbath is a day dedicated to God. Not resting would thus mean not respecting God and undoubtedly also pretending that one can do more than God.
When Jesus chose to heal the man with a withered hand, he obviously wanted to challenge that law which had been respected for centuries. His new law of love, which should have been the spirit of the old law, comes to explain that no law is above it (the law of love). For African theologians, one of the most stressed attributes of Jesus is the one of healer. The Pharisees, they who loved to stress the law of Moses and impose it on people, had their respect challenged when Jesus healed that man on the Sabbath. It was so bad that they chose to join forces with their adversaries, the Herodians, those who supported King Herod, in order to conspire against Jesus.