Lord of the Sabbath
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
9 Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10 and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
11 He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
When I meet people in a non-church context, and they find out that I’m a pastor, it’s not uncommon for them to say, “Oh, I’m not religious.” When people say that, they’re usually surprised when I say, “That’s OK, I’m not either.” They’re even more surprised when I tell them that I’m not sure Jesus would have considered himself ‘religious,’ but that most of his really unpleasant confrontations seemed to be with religious people.
You might have heard it said that the Christian faith isn’t really a religion. I think that’s true. My understanding is that a religion is a system of practices that you have to do to make a god like you. But the Christian faith is based on the idea that God already loves you – so much that he died on the cross for you. And there’s really nothing you can do to make God love you any more. Living in obedience to the word of God and the teachings of Jesus is a way of expressing thanks to God, not a way of getting him to like you or avoiding punishment.
It seems to me that there are two main problems with taking a ‘religious’ approach to relating to our God. One is that if you really think you’re ‘being good,’ so to speak – obeying God’s laws and teachings – you’re bound to start comparing yourself to others. You’re bound to think you’re holier than others and they should be more like you. Which is sort of the definition of self-righteousness.
The other problem with being religious is that you start to get too stuck to religious practices and rituals. Instead of thinking of those things as helpful ways to remind ourselves of God’s teaching and plans for us, religious people think of those practices and rituals as critically important for their own sake. Because, you know, God won’t like you unless you always do them. So the religious stick to their practices even when a moment’s thought says they don’t fit God’s larger purposes.
This reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a pretty good example. In this case, the Jewish establishment had become so committed to keeping the Sabbath – we might say so fanatically committed to keeping it – that they had lost sight of how it fit in God’s greater scheme of things.
A word of background is probably in order. In Jesus’ day, pious Jews kept the Sabbath very strictly. In fact, observing the Sabbath was a very important marker of “Jewishness.” The historians say it hadn’t always been that way. But during the Babylonian exile, six centuries before, when they were forced to live among gentile pagans, the Jews started keeping the Sabbath very strictly as a way of maintaining their distinct cultural and religious identity. Detailed rules were handed down by the rabbis on what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.
One of those rules said that you could heal people of life-threatening diseases or wounds on the Sabbath, but that chronic conditions were supposed to wait until the Sabbath was over. In today’s reading, the man with a shriveled hand would be regarded as having a chronic condition, so the rule would call for Jesus to wait until the following day to heal the man’s disability.
But in the story, Jesus applies those two simple commands to shine a light on how the Sabbath fits with God’s greater purposes. He points out that the scriptures describe situations where God has been honored when people have laid aside strict religious practices in order to help others. Having loaves of bread on display on an altar was less important than feeding people who were hungry. And having the priests provide leadership on the Sabbath was more important than having them rest on that day.
Jesus quotes a line from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Sacrifice is a religious ritual. Mercy expresses God’s greater will – it extends help to a person in need. Pretty simple, really.
And Jesus carries the thought even further. You’d rescue a sheep on the Sabbath, he says to the Pharisees – can you really believe God thinks it’s OK to rescue a sheep but wrong to help a person?
When Jesus arrived in the world, something “greater than the temple arrived” — an age of grace arrived, an age in which mercy replaced strict religious practices. The authority of Jesus trumped the authority of ancient rules and rituals.
It would be unrealistic to expect that applying this principle will just make everything simple and crystal clear. But when we’re faced with a question about what to do, asking what course of action best honors God’s overall teachings and demonstrates mercy to others is a pretty good place to start.
Let’s pray. Lord, we recognize that your teachings challenge us to reflect prayerfully on how we should live out our faith. And we thank you for the simple principle at the heart of those teachings: the commandments to love you and serve others in your name. By your Spirit, strengthen us to live by those commandments. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and worship God joyfully on Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 51 and 65; Proverbs 8:1-21; and II John 1-13.)