Mark 2: 23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Mark 3: 1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” 4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
So, whenever there’s a heavy snowstorm that shuts down the world and keeps us home, why do I have such mixed feelings? On the one hand, a snow day? A day to stay home with family, put on the popcorn, play Monopoly or watch a movie while the weather reminds us that there are limits to our power? What’s not to love about that? On the other hand, they always say on the radio, “All non-essential people are urged to stay home.” That’s what gets my goat, the phrase, “non-essential people.”
Which raises the question, what is a human being worth? Physically, the scientists say that we’re each worth a dollar or two of chemicals and elements. To businesses and employers, we have to be worth more in dollars that we bring in than what they must pay us in wages, taxes and benefits, or the business will go under. Sounds crass, but its simple math. In this day of high unemployment and under-employment, a lot of us are feeling “non-essential,” and that hurts. I think a lot of self-destructive behavior, from drugs, violence to promiscuity, is rooted in this feeling of being “non-essential.”
But in today’s two back-to-back Bible stories, Jesus issues a bold, provocative statement about our worth, and about himself. Both should make our jaws drop. They both have to do with two things these stories have in common: the sabbath, and hardness of heart.
Like all his fellow Jews, Jesus takes the Sabbath seriously. And from today’s stories I take it that he wants his disciples to do the same. Jesus was not challenging the Fourth Commandment when he plucked a handful of grain to eat, or healed the man with the withered hand. What he’s challenging instead is the Oral Law, that is, the later, developing body of Jewish rules, regulations, traditions and interpretations that grew up around the laws and commandments, to explain how to observe them as time and technology change. For example, the rabbis determined that writing books or letters on the sabbath constitutes work. So how about email, or texting today?
What a temple is to physical space, the sabbath is to time. The Sabbath is a reminder in time of who is God, and who is not. Work is good, but its not God; Productivity and efficiency are good, but they are not God; the Pharoah who worked the Hebrews to death was not God, though he claimed to be. The God who rested on the seventh day of creation, and who redeemed the Hebrews from slavery 24/7 is God. At least one day a week we can leave the world in his hands. If we don’t, we inevitably hit our limits and find that we accomplish less in eight days than we would in six.
The sabbath is also about us, our dignity, as the image bearers of God, apart from whatever we accomplish. Its a statement of our infinite and inestimable value just as human beings, and not human doings. And so Jesus could say, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” That’s Jesus’ bold statement about our worth to God, apart from the value of anything we might do for God. We’re worth at least one day a week to remind us that we are more valuable than however much we accomplish.
If that’s not bold and provocative enough, Jesus then goes on to say something even more striking about himself: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Did you hear the two bombs that went off in that simple sentence, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath?” First of all, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, the heavenly and human figure whom the prophet Daniel foresaw inheriting the world and ruling it for God and the saints. But on top of that, Jesus claims to be the supreme and final interpretor of Sabbath laws and regulations. He is saying that his interpretation of what the Sabbath is for shall now stand: case closed. As C.S. Lewis put it, at this point, Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Discipleship means that we choose the third option—that he’s right– and that we do our best to abide by it.
By calling himself “Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus is also describing himself and his ministry in terms of the Sabbath—his rule is a sabbath lordship, his kingdom a sabbath realm. As he says: “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I shall give you rest (Mt. 11:28).” And on that day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, when his rule is from one end of the earth to the other, and he shall judge the nations with equity and rule them with peace, then all of time, and all of creation will be eternal sabbath rest. As John’s Revelation puts it, a timeless, endless day when “They shall rest from their labors, for their works shall follow them.” As Charles Wesley said it in a hymn he composed, “This is the day which God has blessed, the brightest of the seven, Type of that everlasting rest the saints enjoy in heaven.”
But Jesus’ actions are also bold and provocative, and not just his words. He did not restrain himself, nor his disciples from plucking heads of grain from the fields, rubbing them in their hands, blowing away the chaff, and eating the raw kernels. Not as tasty as bread, but adequate to stilling hunger pains, for a while. They were obviously doing that at such a time and place where they could be seen. As long as they only ate what they needed as they passed by the field, to still their hunger, it was not theft. The farmer would actually consider it an honor, the honor of hospitality.
The other bold and provocative thing Jesus did was to heal the man with the withered hand on the sabbath in full view of his enemies whom he knew were just waiting for him to do that. Now the man with a withered hand is not only disabled, he is an outcast, unclean. In his culture, as in much of the world today, you reserve one hand, usually the left hand, for matters of personal hygiene, while the other hand, usually the right, is reserved for eating, touching and shaking other hands. Stick the wrong hand into the rice bowl, and immediately you are dining alone. This poor man, having only one functioning hand, must ever eat by himself, from his own plate, at his own table most likely, and has long lacked contact with other hands and bodies.
And this is what got Jesus most angry and upset: not whether anyone had walked too far on the sabbath to get to the synagogue, not whether anyone’s bread or soup took too long to cook and had to be finished after sunset, but the hardness of heart in that synagogue. Telling the poor man with one good hand, “Come tomorrow to have your hand restored, because today is the Sabbath” is hardness of heart. Its even contrary to the meaning of the Sabbath, for Sabbath is about release, renewal and the restoration of creation. And its about the worship and glory of God.
So here’s a bold, provocative thing that I would like to place before us, that I see in today’s passage: the opposite of sabbath is not just work. Sabbath requires release from work, yes. But the real opposite of the true meaning of sabbath is hardness of heart. A true sabbath contributes to tender-heartedness. And that’s the second thing I mentioned that these two back-to-back stories have in common: hardness of heart. There is hardness of heart in the lack of compassion for hungry disciples and a disabled man. There is also hardness of heart in the unwillingness of those scribes and Pharisees to even reconsider their actions and their attitudes, hardness of heart in their resistance to learning, challenge and changing if it means having to say, “I am sorry; I was wrong.” Both of those kinds of resistance entail hard, endless work. And if those two things aren’t hard enough, they can’t let themselves celebrate and glorify God when the man does get healed. Instead, they gather to plot murder, more very hard work. Stopping up the well springs of compassion, and holding both the comforts and the correction of God at arms length is tough, soul-killing work.
So, here are three lessons from these stories for Jesus’ disciples: 1) The sabbath is still important for Jesus’ disciples because it was important to Jesus. He did not come to abolish the commandments but to fulfill them. The early church did not abandon the sabbath, as much as they transformed it. Not long into church history our Gentile Christian ancestors were gathering for worship on Sundays, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection, while Jewish Christians continued to meet on Friday nights. From that I take it that which day is the sabbath is not as important as that we take a sabbath. Especially in an age when productivity is king, when more work seems to be loaded on to fewer workers, when ever-increasing demands and distractions come at us from ever-increasing directions, when the chief justification for our existence is efficiency, we need the spiritual and relational reset button that is the Sabbath more, not less.
I know that many of us must work some Sundays. Like me. But I try throughout the week to make sure that there is at least a 24 hour period when I am not working, when I don’t answer the church phone in most circumstances, nor check the email, tweak my sermons, do visits, prepare my lessons or attend to committee work. Usually that is Friday. If there is a real emergency, I’ll gladly make an exception. In such cases, you can call me on the home phone. Then I might take another day off. Not only is that refreshing to me, its a weekly reminder of who really is indispensable, who is Lord of this church, the “Lord of the Sabbath.” So I encourage us all to do likewise, or keep doing it, to consecrate one day to rest, renewal, relationships and worship. Think of it as our weekly spiritual reset button.
The second lesson for disciples of Jesus is that we, like our Lord, are citizens of a Sabbath kingdom, engaged in Sabbath ministries, as was “The Lord of the Sabbath.” What we have been given, what we are called to, and what we are to share with the world, are hints and foretastes ands previews of the coming great cosmic rest and renewal of Creation. These hints and foretastes I see in ministries like the upcoming Twin Cities MCC Relief Sale, whose fruits release people from the non-stop work of hunger and poverty. Or the work some of us have done with refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers, helping them find rest from the non-stop labors of persecution and statelessness. Or the simple sharing of our faith, that invites people into rest and renewal from bondage to sin. And the work and advocacy that would release our world from the terror and bondage of war and weapons. Those are all ways that our coming Sabbath destiny work back into the present. In short, our destiny becomes our ministry.
And here’s the third discipleship lesson, the heaviest of the three: the thing we have most to fear, the worst that could happen to us, what ticks Jesus off the most, is hardness of heart. God forbid that we should ever stop up the wellsprings of compassion in our hearts, resist the comforts and corrections of God, and hold both God and our fellows at arm’s length. Because we cannot turn our backs to one without doing the same to the other.
The story is told, from the time of legal segregation, of an African-American man who was traveling through the American South, and who decided on a Sunday morning to visit the church nearest to where he was staying. Finding a church, he walked up the steps and into the sanctuary, just when worship was beginning. Immediately, everything went silent, cold and flat. A hundred hostile faces turned toward him and glared. They were all white. This was a racially segregated church! So the man, fearing for his safety, turned around and left, while he still had time. Then he prayed, “O Lord, forgive me for disrupting a worship service.” To which God is said to have replied, “That’s okay, son; you did better than me. I’ve been trying to get into that church for years!”
A scary thing about hard-heartedness is that it can masquerade as virtue and righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees who went ballistic at Jesus’ sabbath day healings thought they were being holy and holding the line against profaning the sabbath. Yes, we often have to say No and turn our backs to all sorts of choices and ideas. But never can we do that to fellow human beings. Yes, sometimes we may even have to limit contact with some people, such as when there must be a restraining order against an abuser or a molester. But those are extreme cases. Never must we write off the persons themselves, hold onto grudges against them, nor prolong their suffering and estrangement beyond the point and possibility of redemption and restoration. That’s what the scribes and Pharisees were doing.
So, fellow Sabbath people of a Sabbath God, heirs to a Sabbath destiny of eternal and timeless Sabbath rest and renewal: Jesus invites us to experience the rest and renewal of his sabbath ministry, in his sabbath kingdom, one day a week, for sure, but actually, forever. He challenges us to share the rest and renewal of his sabbath ministry, in his sabbath kingdom with a world laboring non-stop under the burdens of fear, sin, war and death. Our sabbath destiny sets the stage for our sabbath ministries. And lest that sound like work, remember that the one thing harder, infinitely harder, than sharing the yoke of discipleship with Jesus, is hardness of heart.