by Ellen Sims
text: Mark 2:23-3:6
On this Sabbath day we’ve heard a Sabbath story that is set on a Sabbath day long ago. The word sabbath is used seven times in a story all about the seventh day of the week. This story emphasizes the meaning of sabbath as well as the meaning of Jesus’s ministry and our ministry together. As we return to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is at a very early phase of his ministry, but already his association with notorious sinners and his healings on the sabbath are drawing criticism. His detractors have already accused this new rabbi of disobeying the fourth commandment they interpret to mean one must refrain from any work on the sabbath. And now he’s at it again, violating the sabbath in two separate events.
I’ve outlined today’s Gospel reading in your bulletin so you can see more clearly how today’s pericope consists of two stories, each having three parts. This basic narrative structure is organized in this way in both stories: 1) the first verse establishes the setting, 2) then the conflict is introduced with an accusation (stated or implied) against Jesus, 3) and finally an explanation or demonstration of the real meaning of sabbath is given by Jesus. The pericope ends as Jesus’s enemies start plotting his demise.
Have our Gospel text in front of you as we walk through this pair of stories:
1. First note how the setting is established in the first verse of the first story (grainfield), then when it occurs (on the sabbath), and finally who are the characters in this event (Jesus and the disciples). The precipitating action here is that the disciples start to pluck grain from the field and eat as they walk.
2. Next, note that conflict emerges when the Pharisees, who’ve observed this behavior, accuse Jesus and his disciples of violating the Sabbath.
3. Finally, Jesus defends his followers while offering an alternate understanding of Sabbath. He cites scripture to counter the Pharisee’s scripture-based argument, reminding them of a story in 1 Samuel in which David, while fleeing an enemy, ate consecrated bread reserved for the priests. Even in Jesus’s day some would use the scriptures to condemn a particular action while others could find elsewhere in scriptures support for those actions. That happens today. Although I think science and simple compassion are the best arguments against anti- LGBTQ bigotry, I often reference scriptures to counter the scriptures used against LGBTQ folks because in our culture the Bible is the main club used to bludgeon LGBTQ folks, so it’s the only authority some find persuasive. *
Next Jesus interprets that scripture to mean that the whole purpose of the Sabbath observance is to support humanity, not the reverse. In this situation Jesus is not undermining the sabbath but acknowledging there are times when it is appropriate to violate a sacred prohibition if by doing so you can save lives, for instance. He insists humans were not made to serve the Sabbath. The Sabbath was intended to serve human needs. God’s laws promote the good of humanity and all creation. Rules that don’t support human flourishing are not good rules and are not of God.
Let’s pause now to consider some laws and policies in our culture, proposed or on the books, that might not measure up to Jesus’s standard that a law should help creation and humanity flourish?
Examples given: (taking children from their parents who have illegally crossed our borders, creating a budget that fuels a war economy, etc.)
The fourth commandment to “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” led to a whole set of subcommandments about how to do that. Sabbath meant resting, which meant, for instance, letting fields lie fallow one year out of seven to keep from depleting the land. Sabbath meant letting animals rest from work one day a week. And letting people rest from their work. Now consider the original recipients of this fourth commandment and ask yourself if the former slaves, who’d toiled endlessly for Pharoah, experienced this commandment as onerous. No! The sabbath was a gift that undermined economic oppression and cared for the poor. God’s law was, as the Psalmist said, a “delight” (Psalm 1:2). The former slaves understood observing sabbath as reversing the killing economy of Pharaoh who kept demanding more and more work from the slaves in Egypt while giving them fewer and fewer resources. Jesus was right. The Sabbath commandment was given for humanity’s benefit.
But that’s not to say that Sabbath is an easy commandment to follow. Walter Brueggemann believes “the fourth commandment on sabbath is the most difficult and most urgent of the commandments in our society, because it summons us to intent and conduct that defies the most elemental requirements of a commodity-propelled society that specializes in control and entertainment, bread and circuses … along with anxiety and violence” (Sabbath as Resistance).
Jesus was neither the first nor last to emphasize that Sabbath is both gift to humanity and a challenging requirement for our flourishing. Scholar Amy Jill Levine notes that other Jewish rabbis somewhat contemporaneous with Jesus interpreted the command similarly. To quote one: “The Sabbath is handed over to you, not you to it.” Let’s give the Jewish people credit for being able to read their sacred texts with sensitivity and in the context of their history. It’s not as if Jesus was the only person to appreciate that Sabbath is a gift that should not be turned into an onerous duty. The Pharisees and Herodians accusing Jesus knew this tradition, too, but this story depicts them trying to “catch” him in some technicality because he threatened the status quo.
Let’s move on to the second sabbath story that parallels the previous one.
The setting? Jesus is in the synagogue. Now he’s in the right place to observe the sabbath, and there he notes someone is suffering. Friends, it has always been part of Sabbath observance to pay attention to those who suffer. You and I also come together each Sunday and note in prayers and sermons and songs the suffering of the world.
The accusation? Jesus then turned to the man with a withered hand. And the Pharisees got ready to pounce, anticipating that Jesus would heal the man, preparing to accuse him. But Jesus saw their intention. And it angered him. Which makes me grateful to know that maybe it’s okay for us to be angry at cruelty.
The explanation of Sabbath? Jesus acted in defiance of an oppressive understanding of the sabbath by DOING sabbath work, by healing the man, the conclusion to this second three-part story about Sabbath.
What a paradox is the sabbath:
It is a time of rest. And a time for action.
It is pure gift. But it requires great self-discipline.
It brings healing and wholeness. Even as it opens us to risk.
It notices the pain of individuals. But its purpose for creation’s flourishing is not just about individual restoration.
It’s about system-wide societal change because human flourishing concerns itself beyond the individual’s situation.
Sabbath rest, therefore, is not just about catching up on sleep. Sabbath rest is not just about individuals taking time for self-care. Yes, we need time to recover from the stress and strain of being a cog in the economic machine. It’s healthy for us and the systems in which we participate to refrain, at least one day a week, from consumerism, to the extent that is possible.
But observing the sabbath heals us and the systems in which we participate (ecological systems, economic systems, political systems) by reorienting us to God’s ways of compassion and justice and peace.
You and I can convince ourselves that we can more authentically observe sabbath if we get an extra hour of sleep on Sundays. And we DO need to unplug, de-stress, and sleep more. But sleeping till noon on Sunday is not the equivalent of this bold and God-affirming/Pharaoh denying action YOU have taken today to resist not just American anxiety in our rat race society–but the soul crushing system God decried by resting on the seventh day of creation. Resting is Holy. Needful. Restorative. But resistance is also necessary because “our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods” nor by entertainment and escapism (Brueggemann). Sabbath that promotes the flourishing of humans and all creation is not a charge to individuals. Sabbath requires you and me to come together in commitment to the larger human family, the earth itself.
Be kind to yourselves, dear friends. Some of you tell me from time to time that you hate to miss church but that you need to take time for rest. And always I respond, “Of course. Rest.” But I will tell you a hard truth: drinking a latte on Sunday morning in your bathrobe or enjoying brunch with friends is not sabbath observance; it is not an act of resistance. So much is at stake right now. So much. And here is a community that can help YOU live out a countercultural, God affirming, Pharaoh denying life.
We are not a social club. We are part of the resistance.
PRAYER: Lord of the Sabbath, we need rest for our bodies and agitated minds and spirits, but use us, even us, to love the lonely and imagine your kin*dom and resist, resist, resist injustice, meanness, and greed. In the name of Jesus. Amen
* It’s important to bear in mind that the Gospel of Mark likely reflects an in-house conflict between the early Christians and the Jewish community from which they are beginning to break away around 70 CE. Some scholars posit that Jesus was likely a Pharisee himself because he, like they (and unlike the Sadducees) believed in the resurrection and a life after death. There’s no conflict more hurtful than an in-house conflict. Further, the Pharisees’ condemnation of healing on the Sabbath might have even been a literary creation by Mark’s author since no one has yet discovered a rabbinical rule that supports the Pharisees’ position as depicted in this story. Jesus’s argument about the Sabbath would not be invalidated if his later biographers used poetic license to dramatize through a story Jesus’s teachings about Sabbath. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees