Ok, so today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark (yes we are back on track for our year with Mark) is all about how to celebrate the Sabbath, not Sunday. The Jewish day of rest, the day Moses was commanded to keep holy, was Saturday, not Sunday. The early Christian church continued to observe the Sabbath as they had been brought up to do and in accordance with the law, but also kept Sunday as ‘The Lord’s Day’, as this was the day of resurrection and upon which the Christian faith is founded.
However, here we find that Jesus is accused of breaking the law, of not keeping the Sabbath. His crime? firstly, he and his disciples were found guilty of the toil of harvesting and threshing, and then he follows up this infraction with the work of a doctor.
Jesus and the 12 are observed to be walking through a field of corn, and as they do so, pick a handful of grain. Picking a handful of grain was not unlawful – this was not counted as theft, a handful was not enough to ruin a farmer or to be sold for profit, it could however stave off hunger. It is likely that the disciples had picked a handful of grain each, rubbed it between their fingers to remove the husks and so that they could chew on it on the way the the synagogue to worship: this was breakfast, and nothing more. However, Mishnaic Tractate Shabbat 7:2 made reaping and threshing (and 37 other classes of ‘work’) unlawful on the Sabbath. These rules were loosely based upon Deuteronomy 5: 12-15 and Exodus 34:21 which states,
Six days shall you work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in ploughing time and in harvest time you shall rest.
At the time that Mark is recording his account of the gospel, observance of the Sabbath was a hot topic, as it had been one of the identifying factors of being Jewish, as it still is for observant Jews. For Jesus, as he walked through that field and made his way to the Synagogue it was also a hot topic, and for the Pharisees it was an opportunity for them to gather ‘evidence’ against Jesus.
As Jesus is challenged by the Pharisees (which must surely have also been a violation of he no-working policy?), he uses the moment to correctly identify the Sabbath as a gift from God for the well-being of humanity,
Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. Mark 2:27
Sabbath was intended to be a day of restoration and recreation, to bring humanity back into the presence of God as we had been in the Garden of Eden, before there was any need to toil or our relationship with God had become fractured. To share food is an integral part of Sabbath even today, beginning with a large family meal to mark the end of the working week, to gather everyone together, to remember the stories of faith and to have so many leftovers that there was no need to cook again for another 24 hours. The body would be nourished and rested and relationships with family, friends and of course God would be restored.
Jesus and his friends may have broken one of the distorted rules regarding what counted as work, but were fulfilling the Sabbath in the sense of eating together, talking with each other and joining fellow Jews in worship; and as Jesus points out, they are not the first to break such holy laws when it came to restoring the body. Indeed King David didn’t simply take a handful of grain, but ‘raided’ the Bread of the Presence from the holy of holies – as is recorded in Scripture, and as the Pharisees would surely have known.
The next incident Mark records also takes place in the synagogue and on the Sabbath. If Jesus’ calling upon the actions of David previously silenced the Pharisees, this next incident certainly fired them up again, although to be fair, the Pharisees were looking to be provoked, and it seems that Jesus willingly stirred their fire. This time, Jesus observes a man with a withered hand. Recalling that the purpose of Sabbath is to restore humanity, if only for a short period, to that perfect time at the beginning of creation, Jesus calls out to the man to come forward. He then tries to begin a theological debate with the Pharisees about the purpose of the Law – was it lawful to do good or to do harm? The Pharisees are not willing to engage – they have hardened their hearts and their stance, and care not for the man with the withered hand, the man unable to work or to provide for his family. They care only that their laws are seen to be adhered to; they see only that Jesus is their lawful nemesis. On this day of rest and restoration, of recreation and re-creation, Jesus heals the man’s hand, returns it to the strength it once had. Jesus has fulfilled his identity as Creator, the man is restored to a purposeful life, but the Pharisees seek to do harm to Jesus, to kill him.
Previously Jesus had grounded Sabbath Law ‘in the welfare of humankind’, here the Pharisees shame themselves more than they do Jesus:
They care more about their custom than they do about their brother…to place religious scrupulosity above concern is not pleasing to God. Williamson
The Sabbath is meant to be a pleasure. The Pharisees have made it an obstacle course of legal barriers and pitfalls. Knowles
In Mark’s recording of Jesus’ life and ministry, such arguments over the place of Sabbath were critical. It was obviously important for Jesus to keep the Sabbath, but also to restore the day itself to the blessing God had originally intended it to be.
It has been said that ‘It is not Jews who have kept the Sabbath, but the Sabbath that has kept the Jewish people’. There is even evidence to suggest that those Jews and Israelites throughout history who have continued to mark the day, have fared better than those who haven’t. In recent history, Jews who observed the Sabbath with the very limited means available to them in prison camps during the second world war, kept hope and a reason for living in the darkest of times.
So what does Sabbath mean for us? Very little it seems in this new millennium. Nothing ever stops or rests. Cities claim with great pride to be awake 24 hours and stores open for the same length of time. Sunday closing is now limited to a few hours at the beginning and end of the day, oh, and Easter Sunday. Even then online shopping is available, and online sales now begin Christmas day. Life is so busy that we cram our household chores into the one day that should be restful, or rush around trying to fulfil our desires. Little room is left for God or neighbour.
At times there have been attempts to return to a faithful following of a day of rest, but these have simply ended up as a return to the days of legalistic, Pharisaical, nothingness. In order to rest nothing can be done: no games, no socialising, no helping a neighbour. This is not the joyful rest which God commanded.
So how can we find a new way of keeping the Sabbath? Perhaps we simply need to put first things first. It may not be possible in our culture to keep Sundays clear (certainly not for clergy, ironically), but there must be one day a week which can become a time of reconnecting with God and with each other. Perhaps we need to readjust our sense of day too. The Jewish day begins and ends at Sunset. The day before Sabbath is the day of preparation – traditionally for Western Christians this would have been Saturday, when chores were completed, the house tidied and food prepared. And then the feast for all the family, and for neighbours too, because no-one is a pauper on the Sabbath and no-one eats alone. Throughout the course of the meal God’s goodness would be remembered, and God would be thanked in the blessing of bread at the beginning of the meal and a shared glass of wine at the end (now doesn’t that sound familiar?). Worship would take place in the nearest synagogue, not travelling to the one that most takes your fancy, and focus on the teaching would not be interrupted about concerns for the main meal of the week, because last night’s leftovers were already waiting.
If we wish to return to a more balanced way of living, a more Godly way of living, a way of living more in tune with the way we were created to be, we can. It will take a conscious decision to turn off our electronic devices and disengage from the world, and we may find ourselves going through cold turkey as we do so; but if we persevere, we may well find ourselves reconnected with our communities, with our families and even ourselves too.
Something to do:
Light a candle and rest your thoughts. Read out loud the gospel passage from Mark (read it here), or watch it here:
Something to think about:
- If you had 24 hours free to do what you wish with, how would you spend them?
- What stands out for you in each of these Sabbath moments?
- Why was it so wrong for Jesus and the 12 to pluck the grain – do you think the Pharisees may have had a point?
- Why was it so important for Jesus to heal the withered man’s hand on the Sabbath, what point was he trying to make?
- How can we find a Sabbath that fits our culture? Or do we need to be counter cultural?
- Our greatest communal ailments in Western Society are Depression and Anxiety – could these be considered to be a withering of the soul? Could a return to some form of Sabbath rest be restorative to our well-being?
- Are there occupations that make Sabbath rest impossible, or do we just need to plan better?
- How can we try to plan true Sabbath rest into our lives, families and communities?
Something to ponder:
Our society is suffering from an outbreak of anxiety and depression. Could our 24/7 lifestyle be a cause of this? If so, could the remedy be found in once more ‘Observing the Sabbath’?
Something to read:
Something to watch: