Commentary on Luke 6:1-16
O. Wesley Allen, Jr.’s commentary on Luke 6:1-16 highlights some important issues around Christian engagement with the Sabbath that are worth revisiting.
With this interpretative context in mind, this commentary will engage different but related issues of change and adaptation.
The final verses of this passage lean forward, rather than backward, and engage the next story. But they also are related to the previous week’s text about receiving call in the context of miracle and teaching. This text, and those preceding it, establish Jesus as powerful and authoritative through his actions and speech. This assertion has begun to prompt resistance and challenge from existing authorities. Our text focuses on that theme of questioning and asserting authority, this time centered on the sabbath.
There are two examples here of “breaking” the sabbath that involve Jesus. The sabbath itself is not dismissed or devalued, rather exceptions to this very important practice are weighed and evaluated. Who gets to deviate and why? The answers in the text have to do with 1) authority and 2) purpose.
First, calling himself Son of Man and Lord, Jesus claims authority over the sabbath. This not only asserts Jesus’s authority, but reminds the hearer of God’s authority; humans are merely stewards of the practices and institutions given by God. And those human institutions that resist Jesus’s ministry—including healing on the sabbath—act contrary to God’s purposes in the world.
Further, Jesus uses his power in the second story to heal a man’s hand. This command over physical health, done in full view of his critics, puts his power on full display. This is done in the context of teaching, itself a sign of authority, and the healing is accompanied by a pointed question that is not answered by his audience. All of these elements underscore the authority of Jesus.
These references to authority are helpful as a reminder of who is Lord, what true power looks like, and where it rests. Placing himself in the company of David, and using powerful mechanisms of healing and teaching, Jesus reminds the hearers that changing or breaking with tradition is done by those who value the tradition. Departing from the sabbath is not inherently bad. Instead, the question becomes how, when, and why departures are made.
The question of purpose is addressed differently in each episode. In the first part of the text, the exception is made for the sake of hunger. As in the previous week’s text, the foregrounding of food and hunger identifies the importance of daily bread in Jesus’s world, and the presence of food insecurity. Here, Jesus doesn’t provide the food in a miracle catch of fish, but his authority over the acquisition of food is established, nonetheless. The hungry need to be fed, even on the sabbath.
In the second story, which takes place at another time, Jesus restores a man’s hand to health on the sabbath in full view of his critics. Previously, Jesus was defending the actions of his disciples. Here it is his actions that are the focus. The text relates that he does this in full view of others, and they are watching him to catch him in a violation. Jesus calls the man forward and asks him the key question of purpose. What kind of actions should be done on the sabbath?
The choice Jesus offers is not between doing something and doing nothing. The choice is between doing good or doing harm. The implication of Jesus’s question is that acting is not the only way to dishonor the sabbath. Choosing not to act, when that choice results in harm or danger for another, also dishonors the sabbath.
The text records no response to Jesus’s question, so those hearing the story are invited to imagine one. And then Jesus provides a response in action, bringing healing and wholeness.
Jesus is attempting to state his commitment to the tradition while advocating—embodying—change. This speaks to the tension experienced by many individuals and communities as they seek to be faithful in the midst of great upheaval. We have a sense that our practices are set in stone. But even the good ones are subject to revision, and the reality is that our lives and traditions are more fragile than we want to allow or admit.
Very often, the questions in this text rise up in the midst of what may seem to be intractable, stubborn, tradition, where the suggestion of change is seen as disruptive. In early 2021, we hear this differently, in a different time when change has been thrust upon communities. The preacher is well aware that change has not been optional; it has come uninvited to each household and faith community. There are many sectors of society that have felt disruption because of the pandemic, and religious communities have experienced profound disruption, fundamentally altering our most basic ways of being.
An initial response to this upheaval was simply figuring out how to survive in this new reality of “pandemic.” These adjustments kept worship and ministry going in the short-term. Since that time, congregations have diverged widely in their next steps, some having returned to in-person worship, others remaining online. The next months will see even more change as congregations and ministry sites discern what changes brought by the pandemic are permanent, what rhythms have been altered forever.
The question now becomes what the future holds. In the middle of great uncertainty, it is just difficult to know. Communities that engage these questions actively will process the changes in a way that promotes vitality, even as it acknowledges the grief and loss. This is important even in those communities where the virus seemingly has not been a dominant reality, as the world into which God calls us has certainly changed. The clamor to return to some sort of normal is understandable, and the resumption of certain traditions will certainly be healthy. But if the process is rushed, or if the goal is simply to reclaim the familiar, then the opportunity of the moment to serve God’s purpose may be lost. The hunger and pain of the world remain. Defaulting to ritual should equip us to respond to that pain, not hide from it or deny it.
This text provides an opportunity to reflect on our interrupted traditions, some cherished and some ready to be left behind. The themes of risk, resistance, disruption, health, stress, and meeting basic needs may resonate with those leaders in communities who are weary from making really hard decisions and facing disagreement, conflict, and questions with no easy answers. Despite these realities, the text firmly aligns the process of change with Jesus and his authority for the purpose of providing for one’s neighbor. The sabbath is a gift meant for renewal and rest. If there are those who are not able to reap this benefit, then the community suffers. And the whole community is then called to respond. Like justice, sabbath is personal, but also communal.
A good and helpful counselor once told me that success can be defined as “living by one’s values.” Identifying a community’s values helps make decisions when the implications aren’t obvious and then to deal with the ramifications confident in the criteria that led to the outcome.
This text names the needs of others—to do good and to preserve life—as the criteria for choosing to act differently than before. In our current moment, after a forced break, communities are facing a myriad of choices about suspending, restarting, continuing, or changing practices that our communities have had for generations. Asking which approaches preserve the lives of our neighbors can help guide us forward. If there is to be action on the sabbath, it is not for harm or destruction, but for the feeding and healing of the world.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of the Sabbath,
Your followers were told not to work on the Sabbath, and yet they boldly plucked grain to show that you are Lord of all. The world tells us not to rest on the Sabbath. Show us how to rest boldly, rejecting conventions that go against your will, and instead praying and resting as you did up on the mountain, for the glory of your word and work, Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Now the silence now the peace, Gerald Near