Text for Today
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Breaking the Sabbath
To the modern reader, this Scripture passage may seem unremarkable or, perhaps, a bit perplexing. What's the big deal? Why does it matter that Jesus' disciples picked a few heads of grain while walking on a Saturday afternoon or that Jesus healed a person's hand after sundown on a Friday? Other than the miraculous healing, these acts of rebellion seem mundane. How in the world does this text end, "Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus"?
Violating the Sabbath law was scandalous-- for both religious and political reasons. In the Hebrew Bible, the command to keep the Sabbath day holy contains the longest explanation of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but God rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)
Keep the Sabbath holy because it is intricately connected to understanding and honoring who God is and how God created. Even those who are not Hebrews must keep the Sabbath if they are residing among Hebrews. In Deuteronomy, the author gives a different explanation for this commandment:
"Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (Deuteronomy 5:15)
The Sabbath is a practice rooted in the defining, relational act between God and God's people-- God freed you from slavery, so you must honor God by resting.
There is such beauty to this command. A decree to rest. A command to be freed from work. A demand to order our creativity in the image of our God.
In 2014, Walter Brueggemann published a book called, Sabbath as Resistance, urging the practice of Sabbath as a prophetic act to a workaholic, consumerist, performance-driven culture. Sabbath as a life giving force that can reshape a person, community, or even society to be freer and more like our loving, creative God.
But, as we read in Mark today, somewhere around 30AD, the Sabbath was clearly not for the sake of more freedom or remembering the God who brought God's people out of slavery or imaging the Creator, who rested. Sabbath was not about honoring the creative life giving God, rather, it was about making sure you followed the code-- or else. This legalism had a long legacy. In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Numbers records a man, who was ordered by Moses to be stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15).
In Mark's Gospel we see Jesus, the "exact imprint of God's nature," as the author of Hebrews writes, challenging a law given to Moses ostensibly by God,
Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to kill?
From the perspective of the religious and Jewish political leaders, this rabbi questioned God's law, from which their authority is derived. This is a threat to their power, to their beliefs, to their religious and political norms, to their laws, and, even to their God.
Yet, from the perspective of the Christian Scriptures, Jesus is not some rabbi challenging God. Jesus is God. So what does it mean for God, who commanded the Sabbath to advocate breaking it?
The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.
Laws, codes, practices-- the way we live in community with God and others-- are not the end, but the means. The means matter, but the end dictates them. The end-- love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus summarizes all the commands of God-- must always dictate the means.
In practicing piety, are we loving God and our neighbors? In following the laws of our land, are we loving God and our neighbors? In the way we live among our communities, are we loving God and our neighbors? In the moral codes and norms of our cultures, are we loving God and our neighbors?
Sabbath was always meant to be a prophetic, life-giving, creative practice to love God and neighbor. As soon as it was not that, as soon as the answer to Jesus' question, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath?" defaulted from doing good and saving a life, it was time to let the practice go. It was time to be prophetic, life-giving, and creative through resisting the Sabbath.
In our time, there are laws, moral codes, and religious practices that do not do good and do not save lives. There are laws, moral codes, and religious practices that-- even if commanded in Scripture-- break the ultimate command to love God and neighbor.
What practices might you need to let go for the sake of love, goodness, and life? What laws and codes might you be called to resist, or even break, for the sake of love, goodness, and life?
May you be freed to follow Jesus. May you be freed to love God and your neighbor. May you be freed to live by the grace of love, goodness, and life over any law.