We often talk about the importance of observing the Sabbath but we don’t do such a great job when it comes to actually practicing it. Sabbath is not just a time to take it easy from the demands of ordinary life, although that is part of it. Sabbath rest is more than a nap. Sabbath rest is life-oriented and life-giving, according to the mandate for Sabbath in Genesis. God rests at the end of creation so that creation can continue, which indicates God’s desire for encouraging life, not just taking a break from it. The Sabbath is created for life, and so God rests for the sake of life. That kind of rest is essential because it anticipates action for the sake of life once again. When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen.
This was demonstrated by Jesus in our gospel lesson. The day begins with Jesus and his disciples walking through a field and helping themselves to some ripe grain for breakfast. They were not stealing, what concerns the Pharisees is the fact that they are traveling and gleaning on the sabbath. To the Pharisees, their behavior appears to deliberately neglect the mandate to observe the sabbath and keep it holy.
Jesus disagrees, not because he regards the sabbath commandments as trivial but because he sees a larger picture, one that regards the sabbath in a different light. He turns to a story about David in 1 Samuel and roughly paraphrases verses 1-6 from the 21st chapter. In this story David took consecrated bread that was supposed to be reserved for priests because he was a fugitive, seeking allies and fleeing King Saul, who had declared his intentions to kill him. Jesus implies that the priest (whom either Mark or Jesus misidentifies as Abiathar instead of Ahimelech) did nothing wrong in breaking the strict letter of the law concerning the bread. By satisfying David’s hunger, the priest sustained the life of a weary traveler and contributed to David’s commitment to live into his calling as the king anointed to replace Saul.
Jesus is offering a legal opinion that he finds in scripture itself. He believes that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate divine blessings. Jesus’ argument was not new, nor was it scandalous. The Pharisees understood the sabbath, but they probably did not appreciate that Jesus, this new and uppity rabbi, was dispensing legal opinions. And Jesus definitely would have caught their attention in his assumption that somehow, he and his calling were comparable to David and David’s calling. In addition, declaring himself the “lord” or “master” of the sabbath itself could imply that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve Jesus. The scandal resides not in the act of eating the grain, but in the way that he presents himself.
Then Jesus visits the synagogue in Capernaum and abruptly turns his attention to the man with the withered hand. In a previous visit to the same synagogue, there was a man with an unclean spirit shrieking in the middle of the service. Clearly there were people attending this synagogue who didn’t meet normal expectations. Often our churches appear to be filled with people who all seem to look alike and perhaps even think alike, but the Spirit has a way of disrupting things. Rev. Thomas Long tells how he once worshipped in a downtown Toronto church filled with demure Presbyterians, except for about 20 homeless people who danced around the communion table and shouted enthusiastic responses during the sermon. Their presence was disconcerting, yet at the same time seemed to be a profound gift of the Spirit.
The healing in the synagogue intensifies the conflict over Jesus’ authority and his values. For the Pharisees, the issue is not whether Jesus has the power to heal the man’s hand, it is whether doing so on the sabbath demonstrates a willful disregard for the law of God — a law that was believed to give good order to life and to facilitate encounters with God’s blessings and holiness. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees – “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” – indicates that he disagrees with the premise of their suspicions. By healing the man, he does not disparage or break the law – nothing he does is considered “work” that the sabbath prohibits. Jesus is honoring the purpose of the sabbath commandment in his belief that the chief objective of the law is to save and preserve life. Therefore, what better day is there than the sabbath, a day meant to promote God’s commitment to humanity’s well-being, for the restoration of a man’s malformed hand? That healing will restore his ability to work and provide for his family as a full member of the community.
According to ancient rabbinic tradition, “Saving life overrules the Sabbath,” so Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would not have found his basic perspective especially troublesome. Jesus and the Pharisees probably do not disagree about the protocols of the Sabbath. The Pharisees know full well that saving life and doing good are lawful on the Sabbath. The Orthodox respect that tradition today, when emergency responders and health care workers are given dispensation to work on the Sabbath if necessary. The issue was that Jesus’ opponents were out to collect evidence to use against him, and they left the synagogue and met with the Herodians, who they normally disagreed with, but who shared their antagonism towards Jesus and presented distorted evidence and alternative facts to plot against him. It was probably inevitable that the story in the synagogue would end badly.
Of course, the bad ending was only temporary, as so often happens with righteous people. On the show This American Life, a young father tells how he took his preschool daughter to lunch on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. On their table was a drawing of Rev. King. His daughter asked who it was, and he told her, explaining that she had off from school to honor him. He told her King was a preacher and that his message was that we should treat everyone equally no matter who they are. She thought about it and said, “That’s what Jesus said.”
The father goes on, “And I said, yeah, I guess it is. You know, I never thought of it that way, but yeah. And it is sort of like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And his daughter thought for a minute and said, ‘Did they kill him, too?”
Ultimately, the stories of Jesus ended badly in the short run, but in the long run we have Easter and the enduring promise of the resurrection, with an eternal Sabbath. For those who follow him, whose stories may also end up badly in the short run, we often find that their legacy endures and becomes a model for the rest of us. We need a re-commitment to a Sabbath life and a Sabbath perspective, so that life can be abundant and holy for all. Amen.