Back in the day ... you know someone is reminiscing about good times past when they start that way. Back in the day, the only organization open on Sunday that would accept your money was the Church. Almost all businesses were closed. “Open 7 days a week” or “24/7” wasn’t part of our vocabulary back then. Sunday lunch was always at home. Of course, Mom or Grandma had to work on the Sabbath to prepare a meal, but this was a labor of love. I spent summers on my Grandfather’s farm in North Carolina, Mom’s dad. Paw Paw was a subsistence farmer with only a third grade education, and he grew and raised almost everything we ate. It was hard work, six days a week. Only six days a week, because Paw Paw read well enough to understand the laws in Exodus and Deuteronomy against working on the Sabbath. Only minimal work was permitted. The hardest work he did on Sunday was to struggle with the text of scripture to grow closer to God. The rest of the day was meant for family and friends to enjoy one another and grow closer together. Paw paw understood the purpose of the Sabbath.
Today, keeping Sunday Sabbath is on the endangered species list. Sundays face great competition, such as travel soccer, brunch buffets, golf, yard work, catching up on house keeping, or just sleeping late. There is no longer a recognizable, shared culture of rest and relaxation on Sunday ... no protected time for families to sit down together, with intention and without distraction, to talk to each other and remind themselves what is really important in life. Of course, I speak to you as a hypocrite. I work almost every Sunday. But perhaps Sunday morning, not even the whole day long, is still sacred and allows us to gather at table to share in what is most important in our lives. In eating, talking, listening, remembering and sharing, it is more than a family or community that is built up, it is all of humanity. This is where we remember what we value, and what we are made for. Yet it is easy to get caught up in what Sabbath has become, rather than striving for what is intended. It is easy to get literal about the Law, and miss the movement of the Spirit.
Observing Sabbath comes directly from the Ten Commandments, first presented in Exodus. It is one of the “Big 10!” In Deuteronomy today, the Ten Commandments are repeated, with a full four verses on keeping Sabbath. Most of the other commandments only get one verse each. The Pharisees, as interpreters and keepers of the Law were serious about this one. According to Exodus, whoever profanes the sabbath shall be put to death, and whoever works on the sabbath shall be cut off from the people. The religious leaders were literal and absolute.
One Sabbath, Jesus’ disciples are wandering through a field and begin plucking the edible heads off standing grain. It is not clear that Jesus commanded them to do this. Perhaps they were simply hungry. Either way, Jesus’ disciples are viewed as under Jesus’ command, and thus Jesus is questioned. There is no debate over the fact that they are stealing some farmer’s grain. In fact, the Law allows for care of the hungry, allowing anyone to enter their neighbor’s field and pluck standing grain. The debate rises because Exodus is clear, “even in plowing time and in harvest time, you shall rest” on the seventh day. This debate was not new. Rabbis were extensively debating the Sabbath laws in the Second Temple period, but had not reached an authoritative resolution to the questions. For example, it was lawful to do work to save a life, but not to collect food because of hunger. Exactly what work is permissible and what is not?
Jesus is about to reveal his power and authority to reinterpret Sabbath in both word and miraculous, healing action. He begins with a simple but profound premise, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The primacy of humanity over the sabbath reflects how the Law recognized serious human need as grounds for setting aside the Sabbath laws. Sabbath recognizes God’s creative and saving action for humanity. Alleviating hunger might be an example, as will be healing and making people whole, and bringing them into community.
Sabbath is explained as more than a union negotiated day off from work. Sabbath reflects God’s rest after Creation on the seventh day. It is also a holy remembering of the Lord’s intervention to release Israel from slavery in Egypt. These origins and connections are important. Sabbath is meant for restoring and gathering humanity into God’s will and presence. Sabbath is a time for us to stop talking, put our busy schedules on pause, and listen to God. If we could only shut out the noise of the world, and of our own making, what might we hear God say? Perhaps God is calling us, wanting to release us from the captivity of the world, and invite us into the freedom of living for God and others.
Jesus puts an exclamation point on Sabbath reinterpreted. “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He walks into the synagogue and finds a man with a withered hand. This man does not ask for a miracle, but he is in need of healing. Because of his deformity, he would be considered unclean, and outside of acceptable society. But healing was defined as work. The Pharisees are observing Jesus to see if he might break Sabbath law, thus bringing legal charges against him. Violation of sabbath work restriction to save life would have qualified for an exemption, but not in this case. The man with a withered hand could have waited a day, even until after sundown, the start of the next Jewish day. But God heals when God heals, and is not subject to such laws. The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.
Jesus invites us into a new faith, where time-honored rituals and practices are replaced with healing power, compassion, and joy. Jesus has the man stand so that all might see. Make no mistake ... Jesus knows what he is doing, even provoking this conflict in order to teach. Jesus is reconfiguring our relationship to God and others, not just as individuals but as a society basking in God’s creative work and recreative joy. Jesus asks his critics, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” This is trick question. It is always lawful to do good, and never lawful to do evil. Saving life is lawful, and the disfigured man is an outcast, marginalized, and not included in the life of the people. Jesus heals his withered hand, thus arguing that compassion and love, and in this case healing, ought to take priority over the Sabbath.
The Pharisees are stubborn and obtuse. They begin immediately, even on the Sabbath, to conspire to destroy Jesus. Ironically, all this conspiring seems like hard work. Thus Jesus violates traditional Sabbath Law to heal and save life, while the Pharisees and Herodians violate Sabbath to kill and destroy.
Friends of a mother with three young children received the following thank you note: “Many thanks for the play pen. It is being used every day. From 2 to 3pm I get in it to read and the children can’t get near me.” We all need some time off, but Sabbath is more than a day of rest. Sabbath is a time for us to intentionally approach God and invite God to be close to us. A psychiatrist received a postcard from one of his patients who was on vacation. It read, “I am having a great time. I wish you could be here to tell me why.” Sabbath is our time to recognize and reconnect with God and each other, and revel in God’s joy for Creation.
The Sabbath recreates us as more than a people who live to work. It recreates us as images of God, the creative God who delights in what he has made, and wants that delight to have time to flourish in others. If the hungry and sick are to be able to share in God’s joy, they must be fed and healed. But the bored and overworked and over fed need to rediscover the Sabbath. We are challenged to seek, find, and keep our Sabbath moments to refresh our relationship with God and each other.
Jesus is reasserting the claim of God on our lives in practicing Sabbath time. The Pharisees are saying, “See God, we have kept our end of the agreement, now come and behave properly towards us.” Jesus is saying, “Come and live in God’s world and God’s life, come and be recreated in God’s image and delight in God’s world.
Paul argues that real life, the life that flows from God, returns to God, and knows how to live in the world God has made. Jesus offers us the model of a human being fully alive, a life so fully alive and vital with God’s own life that death could not extinguish. A life that is impelled to live God’s resurrection life and serve the force of life for the world. This life brings others into the life of God. It is life because it is life giving for others.
Perhaps we should face our inner Pharisee in this story. What field is Jesus walking through in our lives, plucking our grain, and challenging the sacred rituals we have established? Who is Jesus healing that we believe should remain sick? How is Jesus breaking through the establishment in which we have become comfortable, even dependent? What is Jesus doing in our time that makes us believe he is foolish at best, dangerous at worst? This passage asks us to assess the categories of our lives that Jesus threatens. We are called into Sabbath to examine what in our lives has become an oppressive ogre, that denies food to the hungry or healing to the suffering. We are called into Sabbath to remember that we belong to God, and not to our labor, or distractions, or obsessions. In calling us into the original intent of Sabbath, Jesus reminds us that our lives are meant for God, and not for getting and spending and consuming. In remembering Sabbath and keeping it holy, we open ourselves to the life God intends, a life greater and more abundant than we could ever imagine. Let us observe Sabbath and keep it holy. Amen.