Pick grain on the sabbath. Heal a man on the sabbath. SOP Jesus-style – irritate or get irritated by the Pharisees, remind them that he is always right and move on.
Or so it would appear. In this text, Jesus is taking ancient scriptures and interpreting them in time and place – what we call context – for a deeper understanding. This is not unlike what preachers today are called to do: we interpret the texts for our time and our place.
Jesus is talking about the purpose of the law and what it means for their lives, how it is applied and then gets lived out. And with that, of course, comes controversy and push back from the authorities and then finally death.
By extension, as readers two thousand years later, we listen to these scriptures and interpret them for this time and place, what it means for our lives, how it is applied and then gets lived out. And as preachers of the word, we expect controversy and push back, which sometimes leads to venue changes, for the pastor.
The conversation of the day is focusing on the commandment: “observe the sabbath and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” Even though the questions haven’t been asked, Jesus is answering two:
What is lawful when someone is hungry on the sabbath?
What is lawful when someone is suffering on the sabbath?
And now we have social justice issues – hunger and suffering and how does the Sabbath commandment apply.
Jesus points out to the assembled Pharisees something that they should have known all along: if you remember our ancestor David, who was on the run from Saul who wanted to kill him, walked into the temple, ate consecrated bread because he and his friends were hungry, and the priest was the one that gave it to them. And no one has ever had a problem with that.
God made sabbath for man, and not the other way around. The Deuteronomy passage reminds us that this day was given, not just because God rested on the sixth day, but because the Israelites had been slaves, working seven days and long hours without an opportunity to rest and rejuvenate. God makes sure that they get one day. What you have is the very first labor law.
Everyone knew that the proper function of the sabbath is to promote life and extol God as a liberator. It was OK to “profane” one sabbath so that the person may have many more sabbaths to keep. Save the life. Preserve the life. Just as the temple leader preserved David’s life.
And because the sabbath is for humankind, it is clear that God gives this law to help us get the most out of life and to help us get more out of life by helping others.
This gets played out in the next scene in the synagogue. Jesus helps a man with a withered hand.
Couple of interesting notes here: the word for heal come from the Greek word, thera-pa-us-say, sounds like therapy. Exactly.
Translators use “stand in front.” Literally it is “arise in their midst” – which was a bold move on Jesus’ part and of the man who obeyed.
And finally, in vs. 4, “to save a life” is literally “to save a soul” with the Greek word for soul is psyche. Not just the hand but the whole being is being saved.
And not just saved but the whole being restored as well. And liberated. This nameless man can now return to the life he had, supporting a family, and he has a chance to flourish once more.
What are the implications for us? In a time when very few states have blue laws – how many remember blue laws? Work happens on Sunday. Sports events happen on Sundays. Other really fun things happen on Sundays.
Remember that Sabbath is God’s gift. The religious leaders of the day had turned it into a set of hard to follow rules about what was work and what was not and what broke the law and what did not. Jesus reminded them and reminded us – Sabbath at its heart is about social justice – it’s OK to do good, to save a life.
God gives us sabbath for our well being but God is also quite clear in Deuteronomy 5 that it extends to everyone and everything. The list is long and inclusive – not only you but your children, slaves, beasts of burden, livestock OR the resident alien.
How do we deal with the reality of life ilnesses don’t take a sabbath. Emergencies don’t take a sabbath. Volcanos erupts. Babies get born. People die. Life happens.
We need to ask ourselves the hard question: are we celebrating our sabbath at the expense of others? If sabbath is made for life-giving activities – both our own and that of others – then perhaps the conversation needs to be around creative ways to stop, encounter God in meaningful ways even if they are non-traditional. Gets back to those rules. Sabbath can be on a day other than Sunday. Sabbath is so much more than just looking at the walls for a day.
What could be some life-giving activities – a social media day off – and that it might extend to emails and texts?
We are part of God’s salvation history. We are reminded that we were slaves, too. Slaves to sin and cannot free ourselves. But Jesus, through our baptisms, makes us new and frees us. And we are free – not to do what we want – but to love and serve neighbor.
Perhaps we can best serve our neighbor and extend sabbath rest to them as we are called to do in our baptismal covenant – to work for justice and peace. That means we use our voices, our hands and maybe even our votes. Social justice sometimes sounds very political.
And that was the position that Jesus found himself – three chapters into Mark and the Pharisees and Herodians – two very different groups — join forces to figure out a way of destroying him. The social justice issues of the day began to sound very political. Jesus would die the death of a political prisoner.
But that’s not the end of the story! Jesus is resurrected! Love triumphs over fear, hate and death. At the heart of the law is love. And love always wins.