Click here – Breaking the Sabbath to Honor the Sabbath to listen to the sermon audio recording.
I grew up in a family that observed the Sabbath. By that I mean that we went to church even if the streets were covered with ice and we had to crawl out the bedroom window because the door was blocked by snow. Then we came home to a pot roast lunch that had cooked in the oven while we were gone. My mother had made most of the preparations for our Sunday dinner the night before. After we had eaten we went to our bedrooms to nap. This was mandatory. No housework, homework or activities with friends. The Sabbath was for rest. For the evening meal we had popcorn and apples and watched Bonanza and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The practice of Sabbath was religiously followed by my family.
At the time I thought it was a terrible thing. Sure, I liked the no housework rule but the mandatory rest and the time with family felt restrictive at the time. Now it sounds like pure bliss and I am deeply grateful that my parents believed in rest and family and Sabbath. It is amazing how our perspectives change over time.
Keeping the Sabbath, as you know, was and is an important Jewish practice. It is a joy, not a burden. The Sabbath was God’s gift to the children of God. It wasn’t a day for fasting. It was a day for eating and drinking and resting. Plus, it had a direct social justice element to it. Yes, you heard me right. This is the way the commandment for the Sabbath is recorded in Deuteronomy: “You shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female servant…or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your town, so that they may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord you God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” This wasn’t just a day for those in power. The wealthy and the poor, the servants, animals and immigrants all received a much-needed day of rest. God reminds them that they know what it felt like to be captives in Egypt, treated without respect and never given a day of rest. The Sabbath was and is a gift.
But like all good directives, we have to figure out how to live that out in our daily lives. What constitutes rest? Can you cook a meal? Can you wash the dishes? Can you play outside with your friends? Some traditions observe the Sabbath on Saturday, some of Sunday. Does the day of the week matter? We ask these questions to understand practice but we always have to be careful of it turning into legalism.
For example, if you slog through the minutes of the Church of the Brethren Annual Meeting from a couple centuries ago, you will come upon a question that was brought to the conference from a church. It seems that a young woman was being baptized in the river when the elder that was baptizing her died of a heart attack. The question that was brought to the Annual Meeting wasn’t, “What shall we do to help with this young woman navigate her trauma?” No. The question was, “The elder had baptized the young woman in the name of the Father and the Son but died before he dunked her the third time. Do we need to take her back into the river and dunk her one more time in the name of the Holy Spirit?” The answer was a simple, “Yes.”
It is easy for us to look back on the stories of Jesus interacting with the Pharisees and think, “What a bunch of jerks they were.” But we all deal with our own legalism. The Pharisees were actually the reform group of the time. Their focus was on learning and piety. They focused on Jewish belief and practice. It makes sense that Jesus bumped up against them over and over again because Jesus was calling people to fully enact their love for God and neighbor. Jesus was calling people to faithful living. It was the Pharisees who spent time having the debates about the very thing Jesus found most pertinent…but Jesus didn’t come at them from a standpoint of the love of law but the law of love…and that is where he ended up in friction with the Pharisees.
The two scriptures you heard today are both about the practice of Sabbath. In the first one, Pharisees confront a hungry Jesus and his hungry disciples who were plucking heads of grain to eat on the Sabbath. The Mishnah, which is the oral law of the Jewish tradition, has 39 kinds of work that are forbidden on the Sabbath. Reaping or harvesting is on the list. During the time of Jesus, the rabbis disagreed about whether plucking grain was considered reaping. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of unlawful practice on the Sabbath, he didn’t point out that there was differing opinion on the topic. Jesus pointed back to David who ate the bread of presence in the tabernacle when he and his men were on the run from King Saul. Jesus is like a well-trained lawyer. He walks into this debate armed with precedence. He uses scripture to make his point and that point is that sometimes the rules need to be broken for the good…even scripture gives examples of that truth.
In the second story regarding controversy around the Sabbath, we meet an unnamed man with a withered hand. We have been paying attention this summer to the unnamed people of the Bible…the marginalized and unnoticed. The man with the withered hand is that hidden figure in this story. The Pharisees don’t really care about this man. They don’t really see him. They want to catch Jesus doing something questionable. So they bring the man with the crippled hand to Jesus to use as a pawn. The unnamed man is invisible to them. They ask, “Jesus, is it lawful to cure this man on the Sabbath?” Now rabbinic law said that you could heal someone who was in threat of death but this man wasn’t dying.
So Jesus calls on the pragmatism and economic wellbeing of his listeners and answers a question with a question…a typical Jesus move. “What if you had only one sheep and that sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath? Would you leave it there?” Then Jesus turns his full attention to the man, “Look at this man. Truly look at him. Isn’t he more valuable than a sheep? It is always lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” And then he heals the man…on the Sabbath…in the synagogue…in front of his detractors.
It is important to note that the Pharisees understood that it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Exceptions to Sabbath law were recognized when they would produce a greater social justice or humanitarian benefit. They understood that the real intent of the Sabbath was God’s mercy for the oppressed, overworked, the poor and the hungry.
But the truth is that these Pharisees didn’t really care about the Sabbath conversation they were having with Jesus because the problem the Pharisees had with Jesus wasn’t really about the Sabbath. It was about what Jesus was demanding out of them as religious leaders. Jesus wanted more from them then sitting around in the synagogue all day and debating about whether plucking was the same thing as harvesting…whether healing a withered hand was something worthy of doing on the Sabbath or whether it was a matter that could wait 24 hours. So often, that which we argue about is only the excuse to cover up what we are really upset about. Think about that truth. How often do your argue with a loved one over something trivial when the thing that is truly bothering you goes unspoken?
The Sabbath is an important practice, filled with goodness. It calls us to rest, wholeness, community, family and respect for all people and animals. Jesus wasn’t trying to eliminate the Sabbath. But Jesus needed these religious folks to honor the real intent of Sabbath. He was calling them to pivot from the rule of the law to the heart of the law….holding up the marginalized, the victim, the impoverished, the ignored. Over and over again, Jesus demanded justice from the religious leaders and the truth is that justice costs us. Jesus is like the persistent widow of last week’s scripture. But instead of granting justice, the Pharisees begin to plot Jesus’ death. After all it is the only way they know how to silence this persistent voice for justice… how to keep Jesus from upsetting the apple cart…how to stop this renegade from disturbing the status quo.
These two scriptures aren’t really about the Sabbath. They are about what we use as our excuses for not doing good…for not doing the right thing. What is your Sabbath excuse…your “good” excuse for not doing the right thing? Maybe it is safety. Maybe you know that you risk familial connection if you speak up. Maybe it’s decorum. Maybe you have been taught to follow rules first. Maybe you are afraid you will be labeled as peculiar, strident, unwanted. Maybe you are afraid you will be ostracized.
Jesus looked at the Pharisees who stood before him and at the man who was not even important enough to have a name and he chose the unnamed…the marginalized…the hidden figure. He knew the consequences of his action and he did the right thing anyway. Sometimes to honor the true intent of the Sabbath you have to break the Sabbath. Sometimes to truly love you have to go against the rules. Sometimes your persistent pursuit of justice will put you in danger. Jesus says, “Do it anyway. Do it anyway.” Amen.