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
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. — Exodus 20:8-11
Christians do not keep the Sabbath, not generally anyway. It is one of the commandments we have decided we can do without, like not making graven images. We have just completely thrown out these two. You see graven images all over our churches, in Christian’s homes, even on our mobile phones. Oh, mine too! And the Sabbath is just the start of the weekend for us. It doesn’t require any special preparation, there are no prayers for it, no candles, we pretty well do what we like on Saturday. It’s not a thing for us.
It is this gift — or commandment, if you prefer — that the Pharisees in today’s reading are trying to preserve. Don’t be too hard on them. They know what they are doing.
The Pharisees were in place to help keep the system on track, to point people to the things that would help them know God and love God, to help them be the people of God. But, always looking for the better way can sometimes become an exercise in finding fault and being overly-regulated. Maybe they weren’t even too happy with themselves about it. But, it’s part of the job.
Thus, we enter the synagogue with Jesus and his friends. They had already been forging a path through some grain fields which was against the rules for a Sabbath, and they had been eating grain which was not really against the rules but drew criticism anyway. But, Jesus parried those complaints with a story about King David. That would have been well enough, he could have left it at that. But, not our Jesus. As we’ve seen him do so many times before, he took it a step further and said:
The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.
Jesus was talking to Pharisees. These were not people out on the street or down at the coffee house, these were the teachers, the insiders. They were the faithful ones, the ones who showed up and did the work. They knew all the regulations. They also knew that Jesus had not come to preserve the status quo, and so they watched him. It was their job.
Keeping the law, the bits and bobs of regulatory detritus that populate any regulated system, was supposed to help people love God. The other side of that coin, though, is that the more you do love God the more closely you follow the law, even the smaller bits and bobs of it. The tension of this story is which comes first: Love of God, or keeping the law?
Jesus made his choice because love was already well-established in his heart, and he already kept the law perfectly. The Pharisees made a different choice because they were trying to lay the groundwork for love to take hold. Who was right? Well, we want to say that Jesus was right. And he was. But, it’s possible that the Pharisees were right too. Think about it.
There are 613 commandments in the Mishna Torah. Each one cultivates the love of God and love of neighbor. They are all good and wise commands. If one were to follow all 613 — well, that would be a pretty remarkable thing — But, if one did, surely love would grow. Correspondingly, if we can allow love to grow in our hearts then following the commandments will be a natural desire. These are two sides of the same coin. Jesus and the Pharisees are on the same page, but they are approaching the situation of the man with a withered hand from different directions.
Jesus knew that the Sabbath was made for joy, made for healing, and that there was no real commandment against doing good on the Sabbath. The Pharisees knew it too, but they were practical men, and it is to the writer’s advantage to make them appear to be against Jesus’ way… Remember that Jesus and his friends had been out in the grain fields making a way, forging a path. That is what Jesus and his friends do, we make a way!
By reminding them that the Sabbath really was a gift to them for them to enter into and enjoy Jesus made a way for healing to take place. The Pharisees were still not convinced, and they took the healing pretty hard. Though one can imagine that the man healed was more wrapped up in thanksgiving and love of God than in any broken laws. By breaking the law — what had become (falsely) a law — Jesus did the very thing that the Pharisees had tried to do. He cultivated the love of God.
I couldn’t figure out what this all had to do with any of us today, though, until I met a man who explained the differences in Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia and as practiced in Jordan. “In Saudi,” he said, “Only the law matter. In Jordan, only the God matter.” In Saudi, you love God like a Pharisee: Cover the face, count your fast days, stop everything and pray… It’s the law. In Jordan, love one another and keep the law as you are able. You will surely recognize these as two familiar Christian paths. We have those who are rule-based above all else. They know the “Biblical” position on all kinds of things from abortion and homosexuality to whatever else they can think to regulate. They may be making an way for new legislation, but they are not making an way for love. And there are others who love as best they can and allow themselves to be led into the joy of the law as it reveals itself. It takes longer that way. It is not as cut and dry. There is uncertainty, and sometimes we get it wrong. But, there it is.
Jesus chose the second way. He never broke a law, but it was love, not mere compliance, that led his practice and it should lead ours too.
It’s a dicey area because, let’s face it, we are not Jesus. And so we have to think very carefully about this dance of love and law. Can you think of some ways that just following the rules is easier, even if not the most loving path? How do tradition, doctrine, and habit keep us from allowing the law to show us its gift? Is it possible that following love could lead to lawlessness? New laws? Is that all bad? Just some questions to consider as we think about this great gift of Sabbath that we seem to have thrown away.
Linda McMillan is currently in Ammon, Jordan teaching a class on best classroom practices, taking a class in Arabic, and tending to some other things related to saving the world, mainly the Rohingya who are almost beyond help now. She is not a member of any Episcopal parish and is not an Episcopalian in good standing, but does attend Anglican services when she can, and other services when she can’t, and no services when there aren’t any, and very often there aren’t. Like the rest of you, she is doing the best she can. These essays are totally free and you are free to say anything you want to about them.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
I know people who have said that they are going to take some “Sabbath Time.” What they generally mean by that is that they are going to take some time off to do what they feel like doing for a while. Maybe they will go to the movies, or have a nap, or just enjoy being by themselves for an while. That is not observing the Sabbath. Oh, sure, it’s nice, but just taking time off is not the same as entering into the cathedral of time that is the gift of Shabbat.
It’s OK to eat grain on the Sabbath, just not OK to actually harvest it. Deuteronomy 23:24… If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket. 25 If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.
On being a Pharisee: I used to work with schools which were seeking accreditation. Anybody who works in schools knows about accreditation. It is an evaluation that you go through every couple of years to make sure you are following the rules. One of the first accreditation standards in almost all sets of standards is that the school is in compliance with all federal, state, and local regulations. That’s a lot of regulations! Plus, the accreditation agency throws in a few of its own. I’ve worked on both sides of that equation: for the schools and for the accrediting agency too. I did it for a long time, probably for as long as some of the guys in this reading had been Pharisees. One of the things about that kind of work is that you get to help out a lot of schools and make the whole system better for everybody. But, another thing is that you start to see things that are wrong. I used to find violations everywhere I went: Restaurants, hotels, even churches which had fire code or safety violations abounded. I could find something wrong with just about every place I went, not just schools. Finding the problem areas became something I was good at. Too good! And, eventually, I didn’t really like the kind of person that I was turning into. I suspect that being a Pharisee had the same sort of career dynamic as that.
Obviously, the Mishna Torah came after the time of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees, but the point still holds.