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Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. It is right up there with theft, murder and adultery. It was as though I was confronted with this for the first time in my life. I knew that we didn’t plant or harvest on Sunday but we still fed the cattle, went to restaurants and played hockey. And so what was my response to this moral crisis? I needed to find out what I should NOT be doing on Sunday. And this seems to have been our dilemma for centuries now. In the book of Numbers a poor guy is struck dead for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. In Jeremiah and Nehemiah the prophets warn the people not to do business on the Sabbath. The Jewish communities before and after Jesus continued to wrestle with the question. In the Dead Sea Scrolls we find various parameters on keeping the Sabbath. They talked of banning any foolish talk on the Sabbath, not opening any closed jars and standing too close to Gentile. Then in later Jewish literature Sabbath commands abound. The Mishnah is just a small sample of early Jewish regulations with pages and pages of seemingly obscure practices such as making sure you do not leave an egg close to hot water or buried in the sand on a hot day so that it will not cook and break the Sabbath command against preparing food.
The point of all these traditions is that Sabbath is both extremely important and also, apparently, difficult to fully understand and follow. When we reach the story of Jesus healing on the Sabbath and the Pharisees reaction it is easy for us to write off the Pharisee as fanatical. Give the guys a break they just picked a few heads of grain for a snack. And I mean come on, you can’t fault a guy for healing on the Sabbath. But do we have 1
anything better to replace this type of legalism? We would do well to follow the words of Jeremiah and Nehemiah who closed the gates of Jerusalem on Sabbath so that no business would occur. Not only do we shop on Sundays but we live in a global economy that does not even rest at night. Business occurs 24 hours a day. What are we to do if we desire to honour the Sabbath, keep it holy but also avoid excessive legalism?
First let’s clear up our notion of what the Law regarding the Sabbath and the Law in general was intended to achieve. We continue to view the biblical Law as this moral high bar that is impossible to achieve. I think most of us can agree that we cannot live out the law (or even the Ten Commandments) perfectly. However, this does not mean that the Law itself is what we should aspire to as our moral goal. The law actually was never the ideal for God. As hard as it may be to believe, the biblical law functioned normally as the lowest common denominator of behaviour. Look for instance at the most famous Old Testament law in Exodus 21 where it says that if there is serious injury in a conflict then the repayment must be in kind, an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth and a life for a life. This is often our image of the harshness of the Old Testament. This passage however, was not to be understood as the ideal way to resolve conflict. Rather, it was to be the limit of actions. If someone took the life of your son you were not able to demand the life of the murderer’s entire family. This was the minimum requirement that a society should function at. And as the prophets, wisdom writers and later Jesus remind us the laws and rituals themselves were never the goal of God’s plan. It is like the command in Leviticus that farmers not to go over their field a second time at harvest so that the poor can survive on what is left behind. This is a good law and a good social service to have in place. However, compare this to the banquet feast in the Gospels that Jesus talks about where all
those lingering in the streets are invited. This image is slightly different than what Leviticus calls us to. The law attempts to maintain the minimum health of the community while God’s intention is a gracious and abundant communion with God and with our neighbour. So when it comes to the Sabbath we are not called to create and maintain an exhaustive list of laws stating what we can and cannot do on Sunday. To do this is to believe that practicing the law can actually fulfill God’s intention.
So what is it that Jesus adds to the discussion on Sabbath? Was it simply that his disciples picked some grain and Jesus said that was okay because they were hungry? Then he healed a man just so that the Pharisees would look really bad if they condemned him? How does that help us? It is our tendency to try and extract principles so that we can create new laws. So the lesson is that if we are hungry or in need we can work on the Sabbath or if we can help someone else it is okay to work. In the end reading passages this way often results in lowered view of Sabbath. Sabbath is something we apply as we feel needed. I imagine this is where many of us are at today. We know that Sabbath is good but we try to fit it in when it is convenient. As long as we are not doing something to bad or too strenuous we are okay. And I am sure most of us also suspect that we are doing the Sabbath as disservice by reading Jesus this way. Our passage today is not about the necessity of certain things to be performed on the Sabbath. I am certain the disciples could have waited to find some acceptable food and Jesus could have waited until the Sabbath was over to heal the man. Rather Jesus performed these two specific actions deliberately on the Sabbath.
First we have the disciples who picked grain on the Sabbath. The Pharisees complain to Jesus that they are breaking the Sabbath. Jesus responds with two examples from the Old Testament, from the Law. First is the story from 1 Samuel 21 where David and his followers are fleeing from Saul. They stop at the Tabernacle for provisions and the priest only has the bread that is set before God in the Tabernacle. In Leviticus we find out that this bread is designated only for the priests to eat inside the sanctuary. There are two things emphasized in this example. First, we have a biblical precedent for the breaking of one of God’s laws without being judged. Second, referring to it twice, Jesus emphasizes that both David and his companions were involved in this act. We will come back to the importance of this in a little bit. So this is the first story Jesus offers in response to the Pharisees criticism of the disciples breaking Sabbath.
Jesus follows this up quickly with the following question, “Haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?” This is like the classic Sunday School question where it finally dawns on some kid to ask how there could be light and plants in creation before the sun was created? Heck, how can you tell what a day was without the sun? So, the kid asks, “How come its okay for the priest to work on Sabbath and nobody else? The guy in Numbers gets killed but the priests are okay? What’s going on?” Before the Pharisees have time to respond Jesus follows his question with a bold statement, “I tell you that one greater than the Temple is here.” Jesus did not assume that God made an oversight in making priests do their work on the Sabbath. Rather, the common element in these two examples is the role of the Temple and the Tabernacle.
Just as a refresher, the Temple or before that the Tabernacle was created to house the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark represented the space that God had in the community of God’s people. Above the Ark was the Mercy Seat where God would speak instruction in the Holy of Holies. What tends to be forgotten is that both the Tabernacle and later the Temple are filled with imagery from creation. Like creation the instructions around the Tabernacle are created by seven words or speeches of God and like the seventh day of creation the seventh instruction from God for the Tabernacle is to observe the Sabbath. The Tabernacle was decorated with similar images as we find in the creation account. We also know that the Tabernacle was made from a type of heavenly design, a holy blueprint that the author of Hebrews calls a shadow of the true reality of God’s community as it must have been in the Garden. There is firm ground for connecting intimately the relationship between the space in the Tabernacle and the Garden of Eden. Life in the Tabernacle was to be at least spiritually like life in the Garden, and life in the Garden was intimate communion with God and with neighbour.
And in the creation account when does this communion begin? It begins when God’s work of creation is complete. It is on Sabbath that communion with God and humanity occurs. There is also something special about the seventh day in the Genesis account. On all the other six days we read the words of morning and evening completing each day. However, the sun never sets on the Sabbath day in creation. God’s presence is perpetual Sabbath it is eternal rest. The priests in the Temple were innocent in their work on Sabbath because they were already functioning in a Sabbath role, maintaining the space of communion with God and humanity. Jesus’ disciples remained innocent not because
they were hungry or because the Sabbath laws needed to be relaxed but because they were with the one who is even greater than the Temple. With Jesus they were in communion with God. This is why Jesus emphasized how David’s followers were also innocent because it was their relationship not their action that kept them innocent.
Is there a picture starting to emerge in your mind of how Jesus approached the issue of Sabbath? The disciples were innocent because of who they were with and who they were with is greater than the Temple and the Temple is the place of Sabbath communion with God. Like us, many of the Jewish religious leaders fell into the trap of thinking that if they could make the right laws to account for all the possible scenarios around keeping Sabbath then they would fulfill God’s will. This is still our approach to ethical living. If we can confirm the specific things that we should and should not do then we will be fulfilling our duty. Jesus refocuses our attention and says that it is relationship with God and with our neighbour that is the centre of our faith and identity. And that place of relationship and communion is represented in the image of the Temple and of Sabbath. Relationship and not law becomes our guiding image for understanding Sabbath. The question is not whether we should do a particular activity or not, the question is whether we are setting aside space for communion with God.
In a class I took on spiritual formation we discovered that many of the church’s spiritual fathers and mothers believed that Sabbath was the foundation for real spiritual growth and transformation. The believed this because they understood that keeping Sabbath meant creating space. No matter how good and ethical our work may be it remains
caught up in the brokenness of the world. We know that physically our bodies cannot go on indefinitely and so we need to create space away from work so that we can rest. However, perhaps more significantly our mind and spirit are also caught up in the brokenness of the world.
What is it about this brokenness that draws us in? Why do we have a hard time keeping Sabbath? Many in the contemplative, and I imagine also in the psychological, tradition believe that most of our choices and actions are driven by some sense of compulsion or addiction. Our daily waking hours are often caught up in our search for productivity, efficiency and achievement. In themselves these strike us as healthy goals. But what is driving these goals? What is the underbelly of what is normally viewed as a good work ethic? Our spiritual fathers and mothers had opinions on this too.
Before the development of the Seven Deadly Sins there was what was a similar list called the Eight Deadly Thoughts recorded by Evagrius in the 4th century. These eight thoughts or emotions were believed to reflect our brokenness and our lack of communion with God. Many of the thoughts on this list relate directly to how and why we work. In our work life Lust and Gluttony represents our greed and our desire to be satisfied by food, money and objects. Thoughts of Sadness and Sloth are often medicated by keeping busy in our work. We try to stay busy during the day so that we can avoid lingering feelings of sadness or despair. My professor also made an interesting comment by stating that busyness can actually be a form of laziness [pause or repeat] because it often takes the place of the hard work of nurturing relationships with other humans and with God.
Vanity and Pride often emerge in our attempts to achieve status, worth and value through our work.
Our spiritual ancestors saw the danger in these thoughts and so recognized Sabbath as necessary. By observing Sabbath they confronted and denied their compulsion for achievement, efficiency and productivity. We cannot address and heal the brokenness in our life if we continue to live and act from this brokenness in our compulsive and addictive tendencies. And so we must rest. We must create space apart from our compulsive life and recognize that our deepest needs and desires will not be fulfilled in our achievements or acceptance from others. Rather, that deep wound of desire that we often medicate with out daily actions will healed and satisfied in our relationship with God, knowing our place as a child in God’s creation. This is what is represented in the first part of our passage in Matthew. The followers are innocent and ARE observing Sabbath because they are a community in communion with Jesus. This is the inward movement of Sabbath, the fleeing from our addictions to achieve wealth, status, love and acceptance.
This movement inward is the rest that is essential for our body and soul. This is the movement not to achieve but to receive. Keeping Sabbath in this way is foundational and most of us will likely spend our lives trying to accept this kind of space in our lives.
Jesus, however, also recognizes the movement outward in Sabbath keeping. After Jesus heals the man’s hand on the Sabbath he says that “it is lawful to do good on Sabbath.” This is the movement outward in relationship to our communion with God. Notice that
even in the Ten Commandments we get a hint of this movement. You can have a look in Exodus 20 or Deuteronomy 5. The command to keep Sabbath is in the middle of the commandments. The first commands are to have no other God, to make no false idols and to not misuse God’s name. This is inward movement of creating space for relationship with God. And then after the command to keep Sabbath we find the commands to honour you parents, not to murder, steal, commit adultery, lie and covet. This is the movement outward that emerges as we are resting in God.
And we can only know the good we should do when we have fled from our compulsiveness and rested in God’s presence. When, as a community of believers, we rest in God then we carry that rest and restoration with us into the lives of others. Sabbath then begins pour into our work lives as we offer space for other people to find restoration in their bodies and in their souls. As Sabbath originally pointed back to life in the Garden a life marked by Sabbath also points forward to the new heaven and earth.
Listen to these words from Revelation 21:22-23, I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.
We are reminded here of Jesus’ words of one present who is greater than the Temple and also of the creation account where the Sun does not set on the Sabbath. It is God’s glory the lights the City of Eternal Peace.
Withdraw now. Flee in your body and in your mind to places where you are not driven by compulsion and addiction.
Be still. Know that perhaps your greatest achievement will be to learn to sit still in active silence, Listen, watch and rest in the presence of God. Don’t be concerned with what you should or should not do on the Sabbath. You cannot legislate it. Rather, prepare a place in your life, in your heart and in your relationships, to commune with God and your neighbour. Rest and create space for the One preparing the City of Eternal Peace.
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