Lord of the Sabbath
The three episodes in today’s passage continue the theme from last week’s sermon: the escalating tension between Jesus and the Pharisees. And as we look at how this theme develops in Mark’s gospel, we need to keep in mind the value of patterns in helping us to understand Scripture. When we preached through Acts a few years ago, we highlighted the escalating conflict between the apostles and the Jewish leaders. Between Acts 3 and Acts 8, there is an escalating conflict as the apostles and the Jewish leaders repeatedly collide over the gospel ministry of the apostles in Jerusalem. We see the building tension as it moves from theological annoyance to envy and jealousy to hatred and slander. It escalates from a warning to a beating to murder by mob. The point is that we must attend to the shape and patterns of Scripture in order to understand what God has done in the past so that we can better read our own stories in light of his.
From Contrast to Conspiracy
In Mark’s gospel, these first three chapters show a movement from contrast to conspiracy. To see it, we need to pay attention to the recurring features in each episode: the Pharisees’ questions, Jesus’s response, and the key aspect that unites the stories. Let’s begin with the contrast. In 1:22, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and all we’re told is that the way he teaches is different than the scribal way of teaching in terms of its authority. The scribes don’t speak; we’re introduced to them by the contrast that the people make between how Jesus teaches and how they teach. Jesus proclaims the good news of God’s reign, and it sounds distinctly different from the disputation and debate and discussion of the scribes. And, as I noted in that sermon, that’s as it should be. There’s a place for disputation and discussion and comparing authorities. But Jesus is different.
In the next episode, the scribes are present and they speak. Jesus overturns expectations and surprises everyone by forgiving the paralytic’s sins. The scribes question in their hearts and murmur among themselves, and significantly, they ask questions: “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” So there’s a question and an accusation. “Who does he think he is?” and “That’s blasphemy.” And, as we noted last week, their skepticism is warranted. Only God can forgive sins. And Jesus responds with a question of his own. “Which is easier, to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or to say ‘rise, take up your mat, and walk’? The question highlights the key issue: is Jesus a fraud, a blasphemer? And the episode ends with an ambiguous statement and a clear action. “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…Get up, take your mat, and go home.” Jesus’s authority to heal testifies to his authority to forgive. He is the forgiver of sins. Jesus is different.
In the next episode, Jesus is dining with some undesirables, some compromised, fraudulent tax collectors and other outcasts and sinners. And again, the scribes have a question. This time they ask the disciples. “Why does he eat with them?” And Jesus answers them with a proverb: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” This was a common-place; it’s common sense. It’s probably not original to Jesus. Doctors spend time with sick people, because sick people need doctors. Which means, not only is Jesus the forgiver, he’s also the Great Physician, come to call sinners to repentance and heal them of their soul sickness. Again, Jesus is different.
In the present passage, we have another question, this time from “people” (we’re not told who exactly), but it’s about the contrast between the followers of Jesus and the followers of the Pharisees and John the Baptist. They fast, but Jesus’s followers don’t. Why? And Jesus answers with his own question. “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?” In other words, Jesus is the bridegroom. And that claim hearkens back to an important theme in the Old Testament: that God is a bridegroom who marries his people. “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so shall the Lord rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). And here is Jesus, implicitly claiming to be the bridegroom. Jesus is different.
In the next episode, Jesus and his followers are walking by a field on the Sabbath, and the disciples begin to pick a few heads of grain to eat. And the Pharisees are watching him now, and they have another accusatory question. “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Now God established the Sabbath for Israel in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Profaning the Sabbath warrants the death penalty (Exodus 20:14). Working on the Sabbath can result in exile (20:15) and even death (In Numbers 15:32-36 a man is executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath in high-handed defiance of God’s commands). So of course the key question is, what do we mean by “work” and what do we mean by “rest”? And by the 1st century, there were lengthy lists of prohibited and permitted actions, with the goal being to leave nothing to chance. Cover every circumstance. This reached its apex in the 39 prohibited activities in the Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic reflections on the Jewish law. These prohibitions included actions related to baking bread (including reaping grain), making clothes, and constructing buildings, with the last prohibition forbidding moving objects from one place to another. So that’s where the question comes from.
But notice Jesus’s response. He doesn’t dispute about the existence of the law or even whether gathering food on the Sabbath is generally unlawful. Instead, he makes a parallel. “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” I’ll come back to the issue of Sabbath-keeping and exceptions in a moment. But notice the subtle implication of Jesus’s question: Who is he comparing himself and his disciples to? David and his followers. Remember that terms like “Son of God” and “Messiah” were loaded, politically charged terms with religious and social implications? “Son of David” is another term like that. And Jesus doesn’t call himself the Son of David directly. But he implicitly asserts that he is David’s son. Jesus is different.
And then, lest we miss the implication, he gives another pithy proverb. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” And again, notice the subtlety and ambiguity of the term “Son of Man.” Last week, I noted that the Old Testament background could simply refer to a man or humanity (as in Psalm 8: “what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him”?) or it could refer to this exalted, almost divine figure who represents the people of God and receives authority and dominion over all the peoples of the earth (Daniel 7). Here we see the same ambiguity. “The Sabbath was made for man” (generic humanity). “The Son of Man is lord, even of the Sabbath.” Is Son of Man coming from Psalm 8 or Daniel 7? Or, is Jesus highlighting the ambiguity and bringing the two meanings together in himself? He is the true man, and he is the Lord, the sovereign and king over all things, including the Sabbath. Let’s finish the final episode in the movement from contrast to conspiracy.
First, remember the pattern in these stories. A question from the scribes and Pharisees (and in one case, from the people): “Why does he speak like that? Why does he eat with them? Why don’t his disciples fast? Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” And Jesus answers these questions with his own question or a pithy proverb or both. “Which is easier to say? Sick people need doctors. Do the guests fast when the bridegroom is with them? Do you remember the time that David, out of need, did what was unlawful?” Each of those encounters builds to 3:1-6.
Climax and Conspiracy
Jesus enters the synagogue. There’s a man with the withered hand. And “they” were watching Jesus. Presumably “they” refers to the Pharisees who are mentioned in 3:6. And notice that they aren’t asking questions; they’re waiting with accusations. They’ve planned this. They know that he takes license with the Sabbath (because of his disciples and the grain), and they know that he heals on the Sabbath (because he once cast out a demon in a synagogue on the Sabbath). And here’s a man with a withered hand, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees are waiting for Jesus to heal him so that they can accuse him of flagrantly violating God’s law so that they can put him to death.
And Jesus walks right into the trap. Or rather, they walk right into his. He sees them in their silent waiting. He sees the man with the withered hand. And he says to him, “Come here.” And the Pharisees are ready. “We’ve got him.” And then Jesus springs his trap. He asks them a question first. “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” This is a great question. If they say, “It’s lawful to do good on the Sabbath,” then Jesus says, “Exactly. Be healed.” But if they say, “Sabbath law demands that we do harm to people,” then Jesus will say, “Show me the verse. Prove it.” Now by framing it around “killing,” Jesus is using an extreme case in order to identify a principle. “Can you kill someone on the Sabbath?” Obvious answer: no. “Should you let someone die on the Sabbath?” Like, if the guy in Numbers who picked up the sticks was picking them up because a tree fell on his child—can he pick up the sticks on the Sabbath? Of course he can. We can do good on the Sabbath. We can remove harm on the Sabbath. And the shocking thing is, that the Pharisees see where that line of reasoning is going, and they stay silent. “Is it lawful to kill on the Sabbath?” We’re not going to answer your question, because to do so is to undermine our entire approach to the question.
Where does their silence come from? What does it mean? Silence can mean a lot. Silence can speak loudly. There are times when silence says more than a thousand words. Silence can reveal our hearts. There are times when silence is wise and prudent and good. And there are times when silence is not. So what did their silence on this Sabbath in this synagogue to that question mean? What did it reveal? It reveals that they are so committed to their power, to their prestige in the community, to their authority in interpreting the Scriptures, that they have elevated it above the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, love, doing good, saving life. They have erected a system of traditions and rules and implications of God’s good and holy law, but they have lost sight of the entire purpose of that good and holy law. God’s law is good. It’s a law of love. It’s aim is to promote and secure human flourishing by protecting life, and family, and marriage, and property, and the poor, and the integrity of courts, and fair treatment among neighbors, and at the center, to guard the worship and reverence of God, which is essential for the thriving of any human community. That’s the purpose of the law. But they have so twisted it, that they remain silent when asked if their understanding of the law makes it lawful to do harm and kill on the Sabbath. They have boiled a kid in its mother’s milk. That’s an odd Old Testament law (Exodus 23:19). They have turned an instrument of life (a mother’s milk) into an instrument of death (boiling the baby goat)? And they’ve done so because of the hardness of their hearts.
And Jesus is not indifferent to their hardness. He’s angered by it. He’s grieved by it. And this is important for at least two reasons. One is that it shows that Jesus is fully man. Earlier we saw Jesus “moved with compassion.” Now we see him moved with grief and anger. Jesus experienced the full range of human life, including some of the strongest emotions in our experience. And that’s the second reason that this is significant. What makes Jesus angry and grieved? What makes us angry and grieved? There is a place for anger in the godly life. But it matters very much what sparks our anger.
And Jesus’s anger is fruitful. He channels it in a deliberate, careful act of mercy. He heals the man. He does good on the Sabbath. And then the conspiracy. The Pharisees leave the synagogue and immediately plot with the Herodians how to destroy Jesus. And this is ironic for two reasons. One is that the Pharisees and the Herodians typically do not get along. The Pharisees were hard-liners who chafed and resented Roman rule. The Herodians were compromisers who made the most of Roman rule. But opposition to Jesus brings these two opposites together. And the second reason that it’s ironic is that they were so angry that Jesus healed, that he worked, on the Sabbath that they immediately went to work. One wonders whether the list of 39 prohibited plotting to destroy a man on the Sabbath. And it brings Jesus’s question into even sharper relief. “Is it lawful to kill on the Sabbath? What about “conspire to kill”? Is that lawful, on your view?” Apparently even the Pharisaical understanding of the Sabbath has exceptions. That’s the escalating tension in this section of the gospel as Jesus subtly and strikingly reveals who he is and forces everyone to make a choice.
Application: Making the Sabbath a Delight
There are a number of directions we could go by way of application. We could talk about the value of fasting as a way of increasing our hunger for God, our longing for the bridegroom’s return. But I want to spend a few minutes talking about the Sabbath and how we should or should not observe it today. First a few general principles.
1) Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath. God designed the Sabbath for our flourishing. It exists to serve our joy and life. It’s design was to grant relief, rest, refreshment, recreation. It’s a day of rest and gladness, a day of joy and light. In Israel, it’s immediate purpose was to prevent the head of the household from working his family, his servants, and his animals to death (which might be relevant for employers and employees today). It was meant to be a time of celebration of completed labor, of work done, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that work is life, the labor is the only thing and the ultimate thing. Thus, all of the “don’ts” that ever existed were designed to serve that ultimate aim of human joy, flourishing, and life.
2) The main rest and relief that we receive as Christians is in Christ. The Sabbath rest that remains for us today is found in Jesus. Justification by faith alone means that we rest from dead works; we cast them aside and daily find relief in the free gift of salvation in Jesus. The Sabbath finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus and his work.
3) Jesus transforms the Sabbath by rising on the first day of the week so that in the New Testament, Sunday becomes the Lord’s Day, the center of Christian life and worship. And there’s nothing magical about Sunday. We worship on Sunday because it’s a fitting and appropriate way to acknowledge that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, the new creation began on a Sunday, and the Spirit was poured out on Pentecost on Sunday.
In light of that all too brief sketch (the design of Sabbath as rest, joy, and delight; the main fulfillment of that rest in trusting in Jesus; and the movement of the day of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday because of Jesus), what should we do? How should we observe it?
Here’s a list of general recommendations (not requirements or mandates; I think there is so much confusion about the Sabbath that we must start with general principles of wisdom, not strict lists of do’s and don’ts).
1) Receive the gift and blessing of rest. Take one day in seven to really rest from your labor. And given the fittingness of Sunday because of Jesus’s work and the long tradition of the church, if it’s possible, you should try to make Sunday your day of rest and gladness.
2) Some families I know celebrate Sabbath from Saturday evening to Sunday evening, kicking it off with a good meal, and ending late afternoon Sunday, so they can begin to reorient for the week (by gathering the laundry, or finishing homework for Monday, or planning out the week’s labor). That might be a way to begin to take steps to wisely apply the rest of Jesus in your life.
3) What does rest mean? Think in these terms: whatever you do all week for work and vocation, don’t do those things on Sunday. If you’ve got an office job, don’t answer work emails; rest. If you’re a student, don’t do your homework on Sunday. If you’re a homemaker, leave as much as the housework aside and receive God’s gift of rest. Pursue life, joy, good fellowship, good food. Take a nap. Play a game. Connect with your family and friends. Treat it as a day of rest and gladness. And don’t think of it in terms of “You must not _____”; think of it as “You get to not _______.” And I know that rest is surprisingly hard for many of us. We feel the pressure to get things done, to be efficient, to get on top of it all. But receiving God’s gift of rest (“You get to not,” not “You must not”) is a way that we can express our faith that God is good, that God is God, that we’re not, and that he will strengthen us for our labor through the life and rest of Sabbath.
4) Remember the lessons of Mark 1-3. As you seek to rest from your labor, remember some of the “work” that Jesus did on the Sabbath. Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath (1:21). Jesus and his disciples picked food when they were hungry on the Sabbath (2:23-28). Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath (3:5). In the Protestant tradition, these have been called works of piety, works of necessity, and works of mercy, and they were the “exceptions” among strict Sabbatarians to not working on the Lord’s Day. Now, I’m not a strict Sabbatarian, especially of the variety that has given Sabbath-keeping a bad name. Even one of my heroes, Jonathan Edwards, included in his list of life resolutions: “Resolved: never to speak anything that is ridiculous, sportive, or matter of laughter on the Lord’s day.” I think that’s crazy. I think the Lord’s Day should be filled with laughter and jokes and celebration. That’s why it exists. But even strict Sabbath-keepers acknowledged three exceptions: works of piety (attending worship, giving sermons, singing songs to Jesus, and all of the activity necessary to serve that worship); works of necessity (things necessary to preserve life, like eating, or saving a life, or shoveling the sidewalk and digging out your car so you can get to church); and works of mercy (like shoveling your neighbors sidewalk while your at it, or loving others in concrete ways).
But again, the main thing is to avoid falling into the trap of elevating the day above human life and flourishing. The Sabbath was made for man. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, and he came to earth to give us the ultimate rest in himself and then from that ultimate spiritual rest to restore us to good and healthy earthly patterns of life and labor and rest for our joy.
This brings us to the Table. This is a Table of life and rest and joy. And at this Table we see the same Jesus who reveals himself in the patterns of tension and conflict in Mark 1-3. When the Pharisees looked at Jesus, they saw a blasphemer, a companion of sinners, a neglector of religious customs and habits, a Sabbath-breaker, and finally a threat to their power who must be destroyed. But at this table, by faith, we see Jesus the Authoritative Forgiver of Sins. We see Jesus, the great Physician of the Soul, the Doctor who eats with the sick and calls sinners to repentance. We see Jesus the Bridegroom who was taken away so that the wedding guests might be brought home. We see Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath, who gives us rest and joy and life. And we see Jesus the Restorer of Health and Wholeness in the face of accusations, conspiracies, and hardness of heart. Come, and welcome to Jesus Christ.