Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-6
2:23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
3:1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
What were the first chores you were responsible for?
Taking care of pets?
Mowing the lawn?
Unloading the dish washer?
I remember when my dad brought a brand new push mower home … from that moment on, my brother, and my’s relationship with the yard changed. Now we had responsibility for taking care of the lawn. We couldn’t just enjoy the grass, playing catch on it, having crazy, throw-down, wrestling matches on the grass, the yard wasn’t just about playing … it was something we needed to help take care of.
Can you think of your first experiences with work?
My first real, get a paycheck that has taxes and social security deducted from it, job was working as a custodian at the church my brother and I grew up a part of. It was a really big church with a really big staff. Before that, I never really realized how much work went into getting ready for Sunday mornings.
I remember how satisfying it was to spend Saturdays getting the church ready for everything that would happen on Sunday mornings … our boss had us vacuum the red carpet that stretched down the aisles of the church so that there weren’t any footprints on it … we had to get out a tape measure to make sure that the edges of the paraments on the communion table hung perfectly even off of each end … we set up chairs and sound systems for Sunday School classes … cleaned restrooms. Danny, my brother, and I were moving constantly. We rarely took breaks as we moved from task to task, checking things off the “To-Do List” our boss gave us.
I remember lying in bed on Saturday nights thinking about my day, thinking about all the stuff we had accomplished, and wondering if I had done enough work to justify the church paying me five dollars an hour. We worked long days … we worked really hard … but even back then I had this nagging feeling that there was more I could be doing.
The first Christmas Sarah and I lived in Arkansas, a family from the church invited us to join them for Christmas dinner. They were farmers. They had grown up working on their dad’s farm and now that their dad was retired, they ran the farm. As we ate, the two grown brothers talked about all the farm work their dad had made them do when they were teenagers. Their dad worked them so hard – 90 degree days, 90 percent humidity, no breaks, digging deep irrigation ditches, moving heavy things, the work never really ended. To me, it seemed like a miracle they wanted to have anything to do with farms after that.
Their dad, who was eating with us, looked at me and said, “Well, I’m sure your dad made you work hard too.” I thought about the chores my dad gave me. When I was little, I thought mowing the lawn with a push mower, clipping grass with hand clippers, pulling weeds in the garden and flower beds; back then, I thought it was a lot of hard work, but after listening to those guys share their miserable experiences of hard labor on the farm, I wasn’t sure my chores were very hard.
I answered their dad, “I thought it was hard work, but now I’m not so sure.”
Work is so much a part of our lives.
Work is something we were designed to do. We all have something we can contribute to our community. Whatever our abilities, I think that deep down, we were built to do some sort of work. When I was a chaplain in a long term care facility, there was this guy who had been in an accident and became a paraplegic. Everything seemed so hard for him. He drove his wheelchair with this special mouth piece. He had to have help eating and getting dressed, but he had a job that benefited his community. He recorded movies from the tv so that people could watch them later in the day, when they weren’t at appointments or doing physical therapy. He shared his movies with everyone on his floor.
Work is important, but it isn’t the whole story of our lives. Often our work has a lot to do with defining who we are. Good or bad, it contributes to our identity; our understanding of what makes us worthwhile. When our work defines us, what happens when we lose our job, or when we retire? Sabbath reminds us that we are God’s beloved children. Yes, God gives us meaningful stuff to do, but we are more than job titles, resumes, or completed projects.
Hopefully we have noticed these past few weeks as we have learned about Sabbath, that yes, we are creatures who are built to work, but we are also creatures God loves, and who God has given the gift of rest.
God calls us to embrace this work / rest rhythm. This six days of work / one day of rest pattern that, from what we see in Genesis, seems to be built into creation. (Six days God created. One day God rested.)
Sabbath is about rhythm. This rhythm of working and resting helps us set boundaries. It could be so easy to work all day every day and never feel like we are checking anything close to enough off our “To-Do” lists. For ancient Israelites, they didn’t decide that it was time to keep the Sabbath because, they finished all of their work. Sabbath came at sundown on Friday every week. Whether or not their work was finished, the Sabbath didn’t really care. For ancient Israelites, when the sun started to set on Friday nights, it didn’t matter if you were finished, if you were in a good place to stop. It didn’t matter if you needed just a few more minutes to wrap things up, when the Sabbath came, it was time to stop.
Sabbath has to do with the day, night, week, month, calendar, year to year rhythms and patterns of life, but we see in scripture, especially in those passages we looked at in Leviticus and Isaiah, that it also has to do with other rhythms and cycles of life — cycles of debt; patterns of poverty that trap people and communities; it has to do with people and communities getting stuck. Sabbath is a rhythm that can stop those cycles.
But even that’s not the whole story of Sabbath. There is still more to it. Sabbath is also about what it means to be human. It is about the value and dignity of all people. It is about being more valuable than what we can do, produce, or consume. It is about all people, rich or poor, boss or employee, servant or the one served, all created in the image of God, being equal, being together, shoulder to shoulder, on a level playing field. Together on that one day, people are not working or consuming. We are not defined by our accomplishments, what we own, or what we produce. On the Sabbath, as we rest together, we are defined first and foremost, by the identity we share as God’s children — dearly beloved, incredibly valuable, recipients of God’s grace.
When we look closely at what the Bible has to say about Sabbath, it is hard to ignore and it is so big and deep that it can be hard to get our heads around.
We see it in the Gospels.
We see in these arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees about the Sabbath.
Jesus and the Pharisees believed that the Sabbath was important … they didn’t argue about the legitimacy of the Sabbath. Jesus never questioned the Sabbath’s value or significance. Jesus and the Pharisees argued about how to faithfully keep the Sabbath holy. The Pharisees and other religious power holders, constantly criticized Jesus for the ways he and his disciples kept the Sabbath (and religious traditions, for that matter). Plucking grain. Maybe traveling too far. Healing a man’s hand. It seems like there was always something that set the Pharisees off about how Jesus was keeping the Sabbath. But Jesus insisted the Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath. They were putting the cart before the horse. Jesus wasn’t so much concerned about the letter of the law. He was concerned about the heart; the intentions of the law. Sabbath keeping came to be an identifying mark of God’s people. As I read these interactions Jesus had with religious leaders, as I see what troubles Jesus. It looks to me like Jesus insists that open, compassionate hearts, are the number one identifying mark of God’s people. For Jesus the Sabbath was just as good a day as any to show compassion … to help … to love, to point toward God’s kingdom purposes of life, wholeness, and thriving, to be a part of God’s work.
Jesus teaches that human need and compassion shape how we apply and understand God’s Sabbath gift. For Jesus, doing things that offer life and healing (even if they aren’t emergencies) are appropriate actions for the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is intended to be a good and life giving gift from God that benefits all of God’s creation.