I made a real effort to Sabbath well this past Sunday. (If you’re wondering why I say that, click back to last month’s part 1 and/or part 2 on Sabbathing.) It was better. I didn’t get the sit-down-and-meditate opportunity I had anticipated, but I chose not to do some things on my list and instead, spent time with my oldest child, doing something she wanted to do. Small victories, right?
I’ve backed into the topic of Sabbath, and I didn’t realize where the Holy Spirit would take me when I first typed “Sabbathing” on my computer last month. So this week, let’s go back to where we should have started—in the Word of God. Let’s dig into the first of two consecutive scenes where Jesus intentionally and publicly contradicted Jewish tradition.
We’ll call this part 3 on Sabbathing.
Remember Jesus’ message here:
The Sabbath is not designed to restrict but to restore.
Jesus had been teaching/preaching through the towns of Galilee (Matthew 11:1), healing people and doing other miracles as he went. He now reached a point in His ministry where he was rather frustrated. The people hadn’t accepted John the Baptist, with his strict Nazarene vows and weird apparel choices, nor had they accepted Jesus, with his casual, inclusive lifestyle (Matthew 11:18-19). They liked Jesus for what He could do for them—the healings and free meals—but they weren’t willing to repent and truly change their lifestyles.
People just didn’t get it.
Jesus provided a contrast
between the Pharisees’ way
of life and His.
One of the things they didn’t “get” was how different Jesus intended life to be. I imagine Him watching the people labor under the burden of Pharisaical law, loaded down with “do this,” “don’t do that” details that were virtually impossible to follow. Later, He blatantly roasts the Pharisees for making life so hard (Matthew 23), but for now He simply provided a contrast between their way and His.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. –Matthew 11:28-30
Maybe it wasn’t right away, but the next thing in Matthew’s gospel demonstrates Jesus’ meaning, using the Sabbath restrictions for comparison. (Imagine a big “For example:” in the text between Matthew 11:30 and 12:1.) Or maybe it was immediately and Jesus looked around for an object lesson. Then, with a “C’mon guys,” he strolled off toward that grain field.
The disciples knew the Law as well as most people in Galilee. They knew you don’t harvest grain on the Sabbath, even if you’re hungry. Clearly, Jesus instigated this little rebellion, one way or another.
Picking a few grains off a stalk of wheat (or barley or millet or whatever) could hardly be considered work, but the Pharisees thought it counted. Fingers pointing (in tone if not literally), they “told on” the disciples. We can safely assume, however, that Jesus not only knew about his disciples’ actions but told them to do it! See the insurgency?
Jesus had his answers ready–one from the Writings and one from the Prophets (two of the three sections of Hebrew Scripture). They couldn’t argue with their own texts.
The bread existed to serve the
people of God rather than the
people existing to serve the bread.
The Pharisees very own King David, before he was king, had entered the temple and eaten bread reserved for priests (1 Samuel 21:1-9, His first Old Testament connection). That was a far bigger “no-no” than the disciples’ actions. Under normal circumstances, some random warrior would not wander into the temple and break off a hunk of bread. But David’s were no ordinary circumstances. The specialness/sacredness of the temple bread had its limits. The bread existed to serve the people of God rather than the people existing to serve the bread.
Like us, the Pharisees and their predecessors in Old Testament times tended toward rule-keeping over relationship-building. It wasn’t always Sabbath or sacred bread (although we’ve established Jesus was simply using Sabbath regulations as an example of burdensome extra-legal obligation), but as far back as the Divided Kingdom (before 722bc) and perhaps even King Saul (1 Samuel 15:22), the Israelites realized sacrifices and scheduling were easier than service. They would have prioritized the bread over David’s hunger. Later, but for the same reason, God declared through Hosea,
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. –Hosea 6:6
Jesus quoted this verse (Matthew 12:7, his second Old Testament connection) from Hosea because the Pharisees had inverted their priorities in the same way. They worried more about keeping the rules (sacrifice) than meeting the needs of others (mercy/compassion). You and I both know, as did the Pharisees and the Israelites of old, it’s easier to obey the rules than to show real, get-your-hands-dirty compassion. The sacredness of the Sabbath couldn’t then—and can’t now—supersede the importance of those for whom it was created, just like the special bread couldn’t be valued above David’s hunger.
A Modern-Day Comparison
This is tricky, and I’m struggling with how to say it correctly. We shouldn’t devalue the Sabbath. We need it. God gave it to us as a gift. But we also shouldn’t idolize it.
We need the Sabbath, but it can
never be more important than
those of us who observe it.
Let’s try this example: Parents sometimes give useful gifts to their kids…such as underwear. The gift is not as important as the receiver, and if the underwear doesn’t fit—even though the child needs it—the parent takes it back without offense. They don’t expect their child to suffer in too-tight Underoos (“the underwear that’s fun to wear”—no endorsement intended). In the same way, we need the Sabbath, but it can never be more important than those of us who observe it.
This underwear gift analogy should help us understand Jesus’ next statement. (I’m switching to Mark’s version here because his expanded quote helps us understand.)
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” –Mark 2:27-28
God instituted Sabbath rest as a gift to us, for our good. In Matthew 12, Jesus makes it clear that the Sabbath serves us, not the other way around. Let’s adjust our perspective on observing the Sabbath, knowing it’s designed to help us take care of ourselves, to restore our hearts and minds, not restrict our actions.
Jesus’ Sabbath Insurgency: The #Sabbath is God’s gift to us, like underwear on Christmas morning. It helps us take care of ourselves, but we don’t serve it. via @Carole_Sparks #NotAboutMe (click to tweet)
How does viewing the Sabbath as a gift for your good affect your observation of it? Is God leading you toward some changes in your Sabbath practices? I’d love to hear from you (in the comments below) regarding these questions or anything else about healthy Sabbathing. I’m still learning here!