Tom Long, writing in The Christian Century, shared the following reflection on sabbath keeping in his youth.
My fore-bearers were Scots Presbyterians and fierce sabbath rule keepers. My grandmother cooked her lavish sabbath feasts on Saturdays, so the stove would not be lit and no work done on the holy day. No sports, no games, no frivolities were allowed on Sunday-only worship, rest, and Bible study. (Although there’s a nice family story of a strictly observant relative who spent his sabbath resting in his backyard, where he could easily overhear the radio broadcast of the Cubs baseball game coming through the window of a non-observant neighbor.)
Mark 2:23-28 presents a famous dispute about the sabbath between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees have caught Jesus’ disciples plucking grain out on the holy day, and they confront Jesus about this alleged infraction of the law. As is often the case with pronouncement stories, the point is the pronouncement, and the tale itself has a bit of a contrived feel-I find it hard to imagine even Jesus’ stoutest opponents lurking superstitiously in the wheat field, spying on the disciples between the stalks. But it hardly matters; what’s of interest is Jesus’ statement: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
As a teenager I welcomed this saying, which I heard as the meaning that all the blue-nose Presbyterian rules were off. The sabbath was made for me, and that meant I was free to indulge the day with all the movies, football, dances, and whatever else my heart desired.
I have since learned that Jesus had something deeper in mind. His goal was not to annihilate the sabbath, but to restore it to its true purposes. The sabbath is about participating in and anticipating God’s rest and God’s justice for all. These are the gifts from God that make life human and full, wand it is in this sense that “the sabbath was made for humankind.”
So my fore-bearers were a little shortsighted in their rules and strict sabbath codes-they got the notes but not the music-but they were in their own way on the right track. The sabbath is a way of life, a way of training one’s attention, that leads to the life that really is life. Deep in its disciplines is the goal of clearing away life’s clutter and focusing on what truly matters.
In our exploration of these texts about sabbath keeping, I want to explore several levels of meaning. Tom Long suggests that part of the meaning of Sabbath is justice. The sabbath commandment from Exodus 20 reads like this:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-you,your son, or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Did you catch it? Everybody gets a day off from the rat race-from having to work for a living, to make ends meet, to tend the bottom line, to achieve and to succeed. Not just the householder or the males or the adults-but everybody: women, children, servants, aliens, even the livestock. On the sabbath, for this one day out of every seven, there is equality. God’s rest is for everyone.
To say that the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath is to also highlight the humanitarian intent of the law. The argument wasn’t foreign to Judaism. Emergencies should always take precedence over rules. The rabbis were very clear about this. In fact, Jewish New Testament scholar from Vanderbilt University, Amy Jill Levine, says that many Christian scholars misinterpret the Good Samaritan story when they suggest that the reason the religious people-the priest and the scribe-passed by the touch blood or death and, therefore, render themselves impure. No…human need always took precedence over the purity code and the sabbath practices.
The final line in the first story about eating the grain on the sabbath is often missed. Verse 2:28, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath.” Son of Man is used in scripture in both Old and New Testaments to refer to the Messiah, the Anointed one, the one sent form God for the redemption of the world. Jesus is claiming that his authority cannot be anything other than the authority of God. Therefore, he cannot violate the sabbath rules. In fact, he gets to set the rules.
The second story in today’s gospel reading says that Jesus went into the synagogue on the sabbath, and there was a man there with a withered hand. There were also some Pharisees in the crowded synagogue who were lying in wait in order to catch Jesus doing something wrong-something illegal. “They watched him,” the text says, “to see whether he would cure the man on the sabbath so that they might accuse him.”
“Jesus forced the issue by calling the man out from the crowd and challenged his opponents to state the truth about the sabbath law.”
(Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.”)
“Silence in this instance is evidence of a plot. Jesus frames the question in a way that reveals the ulterior motives at work: to do harm, to kill. Anyone who truly cares about the Law will agree with Jesus. The strong emotional reaction on Jesus’ part-anger and sadness at the people’s hardheartedness-highlights the extent to which Jesus’ opponents have cut themselves off from any possibility of accepting Jesus’ word. (New Interpreters Bible, Vol 8, p. 559)
So who were these Pharisees?
They were wealthy aristocrats who were friends and retainers of Herod Antipas. Most observant Pharisees would have had nothing to do with the lax and undisciplined Herodians, but the Pharisees in this story were apparently more opposed to Jesus than they were to King Herod Antipas, for we’re told that they “immediately conspired with the Herodians against them, how to destroy him.”
But to get back to the point, within Judaism, even within the most strict and conservative groups, there was nothing wrong with doing good and healing on the sabbath. What is going on here is a prior intent to kill Jesus, ignore his teaching, destroy his movement of love. Motivated by their fear and hatred, they were willing to let suffering continue and even conspire to murder. That’s why Mark says that “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” In their self-righteousness, they became cruel.
Sabbath is a weekly reminder that we are God’s children and agents of his kingdom of love. Sabbath is meant to refresh the heart,to keep our hearts warm and soft, to widen our horizons.
So make love your goal. Nurture it, feed it by weekly worship, prayer, fellowship, hearing and sharing stories of faith, connecting to the world beyond. To use Tom Lang’s analogy, play the notes and hear the music, “The sabbath is a way of life, a way of training one’s attention, that leads to the life that really is life.”