“What Is Sabbath For?”
2nd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 4B)
23 One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Author's Note: Below are some rough sermon notes. Apologies for the incomplete nature of this post.
This gospel story asks one big question: What is Sabbath for?
Explain what Sabbath is in biblical (OT) and Jewish traditions:
Day of rest instituted by God in creation and giving of Law to Moses;
Jews practice on the seventh Day (Saturday) from sundown to sundown;
Christians varyingly practice sabbath on Saturday or Sunday (though even the BCP is a little unclear about which day is for rest). Most American Christians blend sabbath with day of worship on Sunday (rightly or wrongly). Until the last few decades, almost all commerce stopped on Sundays; stores, restaurants, and businesses were not open.
Now that Sabbath is broadly practiced by American society, Jesus’ teaching is more relevant than ever. Americans (even American Christians) don’t have shared assumptions about what Sabbath is, how to observe it, or even whether we should observe it. In earlier times, you could just go with the flow of the nominally Christian culture and there would be some degree of work stoppage for almost everyone on Sundays, and that would be your “sabbath.”
Maybe it’s best that that isn’t the case anymore because it forces the Church to be more intentional about defining the Sabbath clearly and working to practice it, even if people around us can’t or won’t.
What is the Sabbath for? Jesus gives his answer in Mark 2.27-28: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath, so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
On one side of the debate, stand the Pharisees and perhaps many or most Christians: “humankind was made for the Sabbath”; on the other stands Jesus, saying, “the Sabbath was made for humankind”.
Let’s start with the wrong side: “Humankind was made for the Sabbath”
If people are made for the Sabbath, then it’s just about following rules. Pastor Mark Davis writes, “The idea that ‘humanity was made for the Sabbath’ continues to be a wildly popular theology that God created the law and humanity needs to live up to it or else we are lost. In that theology, God is chiefly known as holy, and humans have to achieve a certain level of holiness – through following laws or practicing purity rituals - to be acceptable to God.”
In this view, we emphasize the commandment of Sabbath. God said to do it so we better do it or else. It’s not hard to see where this theology comes from. It’s scattered throughout the Old Testament. The prophets say that many of the bad things that happen to Israel happen because the people don’t practice Sabbath for themselves or for others.
So if we just need to figure out how to follow God’s rules, lawyers and scholars will spend lots of time debating the meaning of “rest” and “work”. Like in any area, if there are rules, we want to know all the limits and all the loopholes. So over time different communities of faith gave different definitions of rest and work. Rabbinic Judaism provided extra rules to prevent people from even accidentally working on the Sabbath. People built fences around God’s fence.
So in Jesus’ time, you weren’t allowed to cook or clean on the Sabbath. You couldn’t walk more than a short distance on the Sabbath. You couldn’t harvest any grain, which sparks the debate with the Pharisees in Mark, chapter 2. And I guess if you were a miraculous healer, you couldn’t heal on the Sabbath, as in Mark, chapter 3. (I don’t think there were any written rules about that one; the Pharisees were improvising.)
Here the Law begets more laws. Rules make for more rules. And we people will criticize and judge each other harshly for any violation of them.
Jesus’ way is different. He says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind.”
Again, Pastor Davis says, “The alternative theology, which Jesus poses here, is that ‘the Sabbath was made for humanity.’ In that sense, God is chiefly known as love and the laws and purity rituals are for humanity’s own good. Or, even better, they offer ways that humanity can respond to God’s grace with gratitude.”
The rules aren’t there for the sake of rules. The Sabbath is God’s gift to us. Everyone is commanded to rest because everyone needs it. The Sabbath is about living a healthy, balanced life. We are creatures and we have limits. Only God can work all the time because only God is infinite.
Sabbath is God’s way of re-centering us on what is good and important: prayer, family, friends. It is about re-learning to love God, love neighbor, love yourself, and do good. It’s a reset button on our lives so that we can repent and return to God’s good rest.
According to Jesus, the sabbath serves our needs and must be flexible. It can’t be contained in a long rulebook. Instead it is about compassion and mercy for those in need.
That begs the question: How do we Sabbath? What does it look like for Christians in the 21st century to practice this ancient day of Sabbath?
We can overcomplicate it with a law or rulebook mentality. The two key words for practicing sabbath are stop and fun. Don’t be busy. Barring a real emergency, don’t do anything you feel like you should do. That means doing chores a little earlier and maybe cooking ahead of time.
Sabbath is also a time for prayer. Take time to spend with God in silent or active prayer.
Sabbath is a time for relationships with family and friends to take priority.
Sabbath is not about distraction and entertainment, but true rest: slowing down, stopping, becoming aware again of your own limits and the beauty of the world God has made around you (Sleeth)
Have fun. Be active if you want to. Just don’t work.
There is something lost when Sabbath stops being a communal practice and becomes an individual or even family practice. Sabbath is for the people of God, not just for “me and Jesus.” But nevertheless, the Church is called to be an alternative community, a witness to God’s Kingdom on earth.