One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 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?” 27 And 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 2:23-28
During my seminary education I was asked to be on a panel of students who were interviewed by representatives of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). The Commission on Accrediting of ATS accredits postbaccalaureate graduate and professional theological schools and approves the degree programs they offer. It was a big deal because our seminary was having its accreditation reviewed. Although there were no issues about which we were worried, we all wanted to make a good impression.
During the interview process one of the members of the ATS team asked some probing questions about some behavioral/moral issues, pointing out that one might be allowed to graduate who perhaps smoked cigarettes. One of our students posed his own question to the interviewer: “You could have someone graduate from your school who denied the doctrine of justification, couldn’t you?” The team member allowed as much. Point made: we all have our sacred cows. Some things are just too outside the pale of acceptable behavior or teaching.
In Jesus’ day the sacred cow was the Sabbath. In the Jewish tradition the Sabbath (Saturday) was strictly enforced. There are still those today who will enforce Sabbath rules, closing streets and neighborhoods on Saturday in Jerusalem for example. This was a mark of true dedication to God in the minds of the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. Several of Jesus’ miracles were deemed inappropriate because they took place on the Sabbath. The Sabbath ruled everything.
Jesus, however, challenged these traditions – some of which were so extreme as to make carrying more than five sticks of wood for a fire an offence against the Sabbath laws. On this occasion, however, Jesus’ disciples were violating these laws by plucking the heads of wheat and eating them. The issue wasn’t that of breaking the seventh commandment against stealing, it was breaking the Sabbath by working.
The Jewish leaders on this and most occasions of opposition to Jesus weren’t worried so much about the Sabbath as they were about appearances, control, and legalistic righteousness. Jesus knew that you could abstain from every one of the 39 categories of prohibited Sabbath activities and still not truly honor the Sabbath.
Sabbath is, nevertheless, important even to us today. Martin Luther connected honoring the Sabbath with gathering for public worship, reading the Scriptures and receiving the Sacraments. There are also at least three other important purposes for keeping the Sabbath:
- Rhythm: When our lives are out of rhythm, we are not as productive, effective, or fruitful in everyday life or in our walk of faith. A rhythm of rest and work allows us to work from a refreshed heart, mind, and body.
- Perspective: When we power down for a day, we are forced to rely on others, and ultimately on God to run the universe. By that we can get it through our minds that we don’t have to do it all, and that we are part of the body of Christ, where we support and help one another.
- Joy: “Walk slowly. Stay longer. Listen carefully. For the world is loud and God often whispers.” This is good advice for all of us, and by following it we will discover joy in places we would otherwise pass by.
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Let it serve you in your walk of faith as you follow Jesus. Never mistake outward compliance with true righteousness. Jesus delights in our hearts.