Lord of the Sabbath

In reading of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, it is easy to dismiss the Pharisees as legalistic and self-righteous, and to situate ourselves squarely on the side of Jesus.

January 27, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 6:1-16

In reading of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees, it is easy to dismiss the Pharisees as legalistic and self-righteous, and to situate ourselves squarely on the side of Jesus.

Perhaps this is especially easy for us to do with regard to conflicts about Sabbath observance, as we (in western cultures, at least) have all but lost any sense of sacred time.

Most scholars agree that the New Testament portrait of the Pharisees is something of a caricature reflecting tensions between the church and pharisaic Judaism at the time the gospels were written. This caricature tends to obscure the deeper concerns of the Pharisees, who established a reform movement at a time when foreign occupation and Hellenization threatened the Jewish faith and way of life. Taking seriously God’s calling to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), they advanced a form of Judaism that extended beyond the temple and sought to sanctify all aspects of daily life.

The Pharisees believed that along with the written Torah, an oral Torah had been given by God to Moses and passed down through the generations. The oral Torah (eventually recorded in the Mishnah and Talmud) served to interpret the written Torah and apply it to daily life through a process of debate among the rabbis. In the Mishnah and Talmud, multiple opinions on any given point of Torah are preserved.

Keeping Sabbath
The commandment to remember the Sabbath day, first given in Exodus 20:8-11, is grounded in the creation story in Genesis, where God rested on the seventh day and blessed it (2:2-3). Simply put, God’s people are to rest on this day because God did. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath commandment is also tied to the experience of a people released from slavery in Egypt (5:12-15). Pharaoh’s relentless demands were that the Hebrew slaves keep making more and more bricks, under harsher and harsher conditions. Slaves cannot take a day off; free people can. Thus, when they cease working every seventh day, God’s people remember that the Lord delivered them from slavery.

Of course, the teachers of the law debated about what exactly constituted “work,” and what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. This debate continued in Jesus’ day and beyond. That the Pharisees debate with Jesus about what it means to keep the Sabbath shows that they take him seriously as an interpreter of the law.

When the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath — an action generally agreed to constitute “work” — they ask, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus responds by citing a scriptural precedent — the story of David’s visit to the priest Ahimelech at Nob. “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?”

In 1 Samuel 21:1-7, David does not simply “take” the bread; he asks Ahimelech for some bread, and Ahimelech offers him the bread of the Presence because there is no ordinary bread available. Feeding those who are hungry, in this case, takes precedence over strict adherence to the law.

Jesus applies the same logic to plucking grain on the Sabbath. Quite simply, his disciples were hungry and needed something to eat. In Mark’s version, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Luke includes only the latter part, “the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath,” but the logic is the same. The Sabbath is meant to be life giving, not a slave master irresponsive to human needs.

This logic continues in the story that follows. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, and a man is present with a withered hand. Jesus knows that the Pharisees are looking for another reason to accuse him. Nevertheless, he asks the man with the withered hand to come forward, then says to the Pharisees and scribes: “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”

The answer to Jesus’ question is obvious. Of course it is lawful to do good and not harm on the Sabbath, to save life and not destroy it. The rabbis agreed that one must act to save a life on the Sabbath, even if it meant breaking a commandment. Some Pharisees may have argued that this man’s malady was not life-threatening, so the healing could have been done another day (see Luke 13:13-14). In Jesus’ view, however, there is no reason for the man to suffer one day longer.

A curious aspect of this healing story is that Jesus does not perform any action other than speaking. He asks the man to come forward and asks the man to stretch out his hand. Jesus heals the man without ever laying a finger on him. This makes it even more absurd for the Pharisees to say that Jesus is breaking the Sabbath, for there was no prohibition on speaking. Their furious reaction of discussing what they might do to Jesus seems to be a sign of their fear rather than legitimate concern for the law.

Why were the Pharisees so threatened by Jesus? Perhaps they saw in him someone who could undermine their whole enterprise of sanctifying the people of God. He was careless with regard to the boundaries meant to guard ritual purity. He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:27-32), and his disciples did not fast (5:33-35). He even claimed authority to forgive sins (5:17-26), which constituted a violation of the most important boundary of all — that between God and humans. Jesus was a threat to all that the Pharisees held sacred, and he was gaining a following among the people.

Lord of the Sabbath
Luke portrays the Pharisees as those who, in their attempt to protect the Sabbath, burdened it with restrictions. The historical accuracy of this portrait is a matter of debate, but perhaps the more important question for contemporary readers and hearers is this: Are we more like the Pharisees in Luke’s story than we care to admit? How have we managed to turn God’s gift of the Sabbath into a burden?

One could argue, for instance, that we have gone to the opposite extreme of the Pharisees. There are no restrictions on what we can do on our Sabbath day. Our kids have soccer and baseball and multiple other activities on Sunday. The stores are open, so we can shop until we drop. Or we can catch up on chores and projects around the house. And worship? That becomes one more thing to squeeze into a busy day. We may feel a tinge of guilt if we do not attend worship, or we may attend but find ourselves distracted by the many things we have to do. Instead of feeling rested and renewed, we begin another week exhausted.

Jesus says that the Sabbath was made for humankind. It is meant to be life-giving, not life-draining. It is meant to be a gift, a time apart from the relentless demands of daily life, a time to rest in God’s presence, a time to savor the goodness of God’s creation and celebrate God’s deliverance, a time to do what is good and what gives life.

The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. What might our Sabbaths look like under his gentle rule?