One Sabbath Jesus 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.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. 2 And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” 4 And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 2:23-3:6
What if you’re on your way to a church meeting and you see someone in urgent need? What if you’re supposed to sing in the choir and your neighbor needs you to sit with her husband at home while she makes an emergency run to the drug store? What if you’re hungry and you’re walking through someone’s field, is it OK to “harvest” some grain on the Sabbath?
A friend of mine was a Shabbos Goy for his across-the-street neighbor. He would go over to his neighbor’s house and turn off the lights at night, and return the next morning to turn them on. Thus his neighbor observed the Sabbath which starts at sundown on Friday and lasts all day Saturday till sundown. Perhaps he did other things his Jewish neighbor wished not to do on the Sabbath.
The Jewish rabbis built a fence around the law. Don’t cross the fence, you certainly won’t break the law. No more than five sticks of wood. No more than 1500 paces. One could imagine all kinds of reasons behind these laws. But none of them served the spirit of the Law of God. God wanted his people to be different, but not self-righteous. He wants his followers to obey his law in such a manner that they expressed love for God and their neighbor; not to show everyone how religiously rigorous they were.
A key insight to this is the preaching of John the Baptist. When he called people to repentance he was asked by those who came out to him, “What shall we do?” He talked about everyday things: being satisfied with your wages. Share your extra cloak. Don’t extort money. Don’t make false accusations. Sounds very much like the “do-this” side of the second table of the 10 Commandments. Perhaps if John were to come today, he would speak to the world around us and call us all to seek more to honor God.
We can prove we are religiously rigorous in many ways. We can pray long prayers. We can attend every Sunday worship, Bible Class, church meeting, and evangelistic event. We can walk around with our hands folded just right (I actually saw this on the part of some fellow seminary students!). We can hold our heads in a certain manner if we wish to show we are not joining in their heterodox prayers. We can wear certain garb, or join a convent or monastery.
That may impress some people. But I’m afraid it will turn more people away. What’s more, Jesus never taught that as an example or command. His commands were to love your neighbor, love your brother, and pray for your enemy! The world needs religious people to give witness to the spiritual dimension of life. But it needs even more for religious people to express their faith in acts of kindness, grace, and mercy.