For the past three weeks, my lawn has been cut on a Sunday. Is that a problem? Should the elders come visit me and talk about this infringement of what should or should not be done on Sunday? Or is this an example of the ox in the well justification for doing work on Sunday as Jesus says in Luke 14:5? Now I should explain that a couple of months ago, some people from Claire’s work offered to pay for someone to cut my grass because they knew that I was swamped with taking care of Claire and all the other things that needed to be done. So I was not the one doing the cutting, but does that make it ok? Would it have been ok if I had been the one cutting my grass on a Sunday because of the demands of our schedule lately?
Sunday observance has always been a source of debate and concern among Christians. We have the clear biblical injunction in the 4th Commandment that we are not to do any work on the Sabbath. But what is work and what is not? Jesus brings not only clarity to the Sabbath but he gives it a completely new perspective in Mark 2:23-28.
I. The disciples are accused of working on the Sabbath.
There are some details to notice before we can fully understand what is going on here. First, the action itself of the disciples in plucking heads of grain as they passed through a field was wholly legitimate. When I read this I think of when I was about 12 years old, picking grapes from a neighbor’s grape vine that hung tantalizingly over the alley near my house. The woman who lived there would yell at us kids for picking them. And of course, that made the allure of picking them all the greater! Those were her grapes and we weren’t supposed to pick them! So there is a part of us that thinks that the disciples shouldn’t have done that. However, Deuteronomy 23:35 says very clearly, “When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the ears with your hands, but you shall not bring a sickle into your neighbor’s standing grain.” So it was perfectly legitimate for the disciples to pick a few kernels of grain for them to eat as they went through a field; picking the grain was not the problem.
The problem in the eyes of the Pharisees was that this action occurred on the Sabbath. This action of plucking grain was interpreted as harvesting and harvesting on the Sabbath was clearly prohibited by the Law of Moses. There were 39 main categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath in the Jewish commentary on the Law of Moses and third from the top was harvesting. Finally, among the Jewish Scribes it was assumed that a teacher was responsible for the behavior of his disciples. That is why the Pharisees address their protest directly to Jesus. In doing this they are following the letter of the law which required a warning before the persons would be prosecuted for violating the Sabbath law.
The Jewish leaders had many written rules about religious life but we too have many unwritten rules that govern our lives. Those are certainly true for Sunday observance for us. When growing up, Sunday was the day we heard the 4th Commandment read and it said very clearly, “On that day you are not to do any work.” And so in my tradition, Sabbath was gradually reduced to a legalistic code of what you can or cannot do. When growing up, I could play catch but not play a game of baseball. It was understood that no one would ever cut their grass on Sunday and the scandal that would ensue if laundry was seen drying on Sunday! Those Sunday laws made it easy for people to feel like they were doing things right. As long as you follow the stated or known rules, you must be doing things correctly and you must be living the Christian life. You can do some shady business dealings during the week but as long as you didn’t cut your grass on Sunday, you were a fine Christian person!
It’s easy to try to reduce the Christian life into a set of do’s and don’ts. But the Christian life is much more complex than that. And more to the point, the Christian life is far more powerful than just following a set of rules. And that is what Jesus brings home in his response to the Pharisees.
Jesus responded by giving an example from King David in the Old Testament. Now for the astute Bible student there appears to be a problem here in that Abiathar was not the high priest when David ate the consecrated bread. The incident occurred when Ahimilech was high priest and it was Ahimilech who gave the bread to David. One scholar believes that this is not a mistake on the part of Jesus but that Jesus is using a technique of reference to one of the Old Testament scrolls. The reference to Abiathar was a way of saying that this incident is recorded in the Samuel scroll that has the story of Abiathar in it.
For example, we have several photo albums from the days when our kids were little up until the time when we got a digital camera. If we are looking for a photo of a certain camping trip we took, we might say that those photos are in the album when Matt was little. The reference gives a time frame even though the specific photo may not have anything to do with Matt specifically. Jesus is making reference to a specific scroll from the time of Abiathar but the actual high priest in the story Jesus refers to is Ahimilech.
Another problem with Jesus using this incident is that it is not stated in the account in 1 Samuel 21 that David ate this consecrated bread specifically on a Sabbath day. Some say that since it wasn’t on a Sabbath day, it is not a valid example. Yet that misses the point that Jesus is making here. In both cases, the Old Testament incident and the disciples plucking the grain, pious men did something that was forbidden. God did not condemn David for his action and so Jesus is saying that the Scribes were too narrow in interpreting the law. Jesus’ argument is that the tradition of the Pharisees is unduly strict and goes beyond the intention of the Law.
Now technically, Jesus’ use of a story to argue his point would not work in a theological debate. In the eyes of the Scribes, the best way for Jesus to counter their accusation would be to cite a specific verse that said that it is ok for his disciples to do this. Instead Jesus gives them a story that applies but the point is not explicitly stated. However, Jesus including the reference to the priests really brings the argument home. David ate something that was explicitly forbidden unless you were a priest but God didn’t reprimand him. Jesus and his disciples are not doing anything more than what David did.
Then Jesus concludes by giving a sweeping statement. There appears to have been more conversation or debate before Jesus said this concluding statement and that is seen in the phrase, “Then he said to them...” Still it is a strong statement that is a powerful conclusion to the debate. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Now it must also be noted that what Jesus says here is not completely out of the mainstream of Jewish thought. Twice in a commentary on Exodus, a Jewish rabbi wrote, “The Sabbath is delivered over for your sake, but you are not delivered over to the Sabbath.” There is no ground in Scripture for this but the fact that it is there shows that there is nothing unusual about Jesus’ pronouncement on the Sabbath. In verse 27 Jesus is expressing God’s purpose in establishing the seventh day as a period of joy and refreshment. God’s will was in no way infringed by the plucking of heads of grain on the part of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus’ point is made: the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit and enjoyment.
However, what Jesus says next certainly shocked the Pharisees: Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath! The Pharisees knew that God, and God alone, is the one who ordained the Sabbath day! God alone can change it and he hasn’t changed the law – ever! And now Jesus decides that he can re-write the law to suit him and his disciples? This is more than arrogance; this would sound like complete blasphemy to the Pharisees for Jesus is claiming to do what only God can do! They must have thought, “Jesus, you don’t have the authority to do that!”
III. What about Sabbath enjoyment for us today?
The goal of the Sabbath is for us to reflect on God and to enjoy life with him and the life he has given us. The Sabbath is a most wonderful gift from God for our benefit when it comes to our use of time. The Sabbath was given by God to glorify him but also given for our practical benefit and enjoyment. The Sabbath was given originally by God to be a time of rest so that we can be at rest with God. In the examples of the Sabbath as found in the Old Testament, we are reminded that God does indeed take care of us and we don’t have to work each and every day. We should ask ourselves if we work on Sunday why are we working every day. Do I really trust that God will provide for me if I take a break and not work? Do we really trust that God will provide? Sunday is a day of rest to enjoy being in the relationship we have with our saving God.
So what do we do with our Sabbath? Let’s not forget that the Sabbath is a celebration of what God has done, is doing and will do to bring us complete salvation and eternal rest. And on the way, we have to trust that God has this plan fully in his hands and that he will bring us to that rest; he will care for us and accomplish our redemption with or without us. Our efforts are important and our work is important, but the Sabbath reminds us our life is God’s enterprise, not ours. We can literally rest because God has his plan for us fully in hand.
But the main motive in our Sabbaths is not just to take a break but to take the time to celebrate what God has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Keeping a Sabbath says that we trust that God will do it and that he doesn’t need our efforts. Eugene Peterson writes in Perspectives Journal:
“The most striking thing about keeping the Lord's Day is that it begins by not doing anything. The Hebrew word, shabbat, which we take over as is, untranslated, into our language, simply means, "Quit; stop; take a break.” As such it has no religious or spiritual content: Whatever you are doing, stop it. Whatever you are saying, shut up. Sit down and take a look around you. Don't do anything. Don't say anything. Fold your hands. Take a deep breath... I don't see any way out of it: If we are going to honor the Father, we must keep the Sabbath. We must stop running around long enough to see what he has done and is doing. We must shut up long enough to hear what he has said and is saying.”
We need to remind ourselves that God will provide and give us all that we need both now for our physical needs and for our eternal spiritual needs as well. Jesus has come to give us freedom to celebrate God’s amazing gift of grace and today and every Sabbath is day for us to celebrate that!