Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work...
Of all the 613 commandments in the bible, most of us know only ten of them. And out of those Ten Commandments we tend to remember the ones that mimic our civil laws – do not kill, steal, or lie under oath.
Given our human nature, it doesn’t surprise me that we have trouble with the ones that hit a little closer to home: like idolatry, coveting, or remembering the Sabbath day.
In our consumer-driven, overworked, and overscheduled lives Sabbath is often pushed aside to make room for: a more important work project, or a kid’s soccer game, doing yard work, housework, or some other kind of busy work. God must have had a purpose for Sabbath rest otherwise it wouldn’t be a law.
Of course, leave it up to Jesus to turn this commandment into a full-blown controversy – a familiar scene whenever Jesus confronts the Pharisees. When I read stories like this I can’t help but wonder if not just I, but we the people of God’s church, have gotten it all wrong. Are we doing what had God intended when he gave Moses the laws for us to abide by?
I’m sure each time Jesus confronts the religious leaders, they think they’re doing a pretty good job. They believe they know what God wants and they faithfully check off the little boxes ever so rigidly.
Sabbath is a gift from God that allows the contemplative side of our humanity to be nourished so that we can flourish.
They’ve been doing this for nearly 200 years, when Jesus shows up on the scene to tell them they got it wrong. He does not do this to be combative, but instead to remind them of their true calling, to make sure that God’s children understand and learn how to live in the Spirit the law written on their hearts, and not be enslaved to it– be it on the Sabbath or in the ordinariness of life.
As Trish Warren writes in her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, “God is always forming us into new people. And the place of that formation is in the small moments of life.”
Jesus knew this and practiced this well. Even though he was the Son of God, Warren argues, Jesus lived a pretty ordinary human life. He got hungry. He smelled after a long day at work on the construction site. He had to clip his toenails, wash behind his ears, and eat his vegetables even if he didn’t like them. Jesus was just like us. And as his followers, we are called to be just like him, even in ordinariness of our lives. We can make excuses about how busy we are, but I’m sure Jesus had a pretty busy calendar, you know with all the healing and preaching, and turning water into wine.
Even on the most ordinary of days, Jesus remained a child of God, obedient and holy, loving and kind. Not only did he uphold the Torah law, but he also lived it out perfectly in every aspect of his life. Because of this, whenever the religious leaders confronted Jesus he could stand in their judgment and rightfully hold up a mirror up to their faces. What might we see if Jesus did that to us?
Today’s reading is one of those encounters. The Pharisees judge Jesus because of what his disciples are doing – picking wheat. Who cares if you’re hungry, right? The Sabbath when the law strictly prohibited people from working on this special day. Rules are rules, and God’s rules can’t be broken.
But Jesus’ disagreement with the Pharisees is not over something trivial- like plucking grain. It’s about the action of Sabbath rest itself, and its relationship to our everyday, busy lives. So what is it about Sabbath that is so special?
You might know Sabbath law has a long history in Judaism, dating back to creation itself when God rested after making all this stuff.
But as we read in Deuteronomy, it also spoke to the liberation of God’s people from over 400 years of slavery in Egypt where they were literally being worked to death. It’s hard to enjoy this magnificent playground if you’re dead.
God handed Moses a law that required a day off from work to celebrate all God has done for us, his children. For six days you can work as long as you want on your budget report, but on the seventh close your Excel spreadsheet and take some time for sheer inactivity.
Rest your body, recharge the batteries, and relax your mind so that you can find new solutions to old problems. Or spend time catching up with family and friends…in other words, Don’t Work Yourself To Death!
More than a day off, Sabbath is also a time to be in God’s shalom, to dwell in God’s presence and find your spiritual peace. Sabbath is a gift from God that allows the contemplative side of our humanity to be nourished so that we can flourish. And grow closer to God.
The Pharisees must have forgotten this as they criticized the disciples for feeding themselves. Again, this was a simple, mundane task, no different than brushing your teeth or making your bed. And only the hardest of hearts would see it as breaking an ancient, time-honored law.
Jesus reminds the Pharisees that God gave us the laws, not to condemn us or enslave us, but to free us so that we can live in accordance to God’s righteousness. To get them to listen, Jesus tells the story of the mighty King David who fed his troops the sacred and holy bread of the Presence that only priest could eat.
By claiming “the Sabbath was made for humankind,” and not the other way around, Jesus continues to reminds us that God gave us a day of rest so we would never forget the holiness of our own liberation and the sacredness of our restoration. We honor the day, not with busyness but with blessedness.
Whenever we see Jesus and the Pharisees clash, we get a contrast between traditions and intentions. Jesus always draws a line between a religion that hardens hearts…and a gospel that opens hearts to the unbounded love and presence of God.
This is our Sabbath. And this is how we celebrate it with each other. It’s not very traditional by church standards, but whenever we gather to worship or be with each other in Christ’s name we are taking rest from our busyness. It’s here, in these ordinary holy moments that we remember we are God’s children – not slaves to our labor, our paychecks, or the things we buy with the money from our toil.
The Bible gives us a ton of examples of Jesus using small, ordinary moments – like walking and plucking grain – to reclaim and redeem God’s Kingdom. It’s in these small moments Jesus reclaims and redeems us.
In a culture that applauds and idolizes busyness, we ought not overlook or forget that Jesus identifies himself as the Lord of the Sabbath —the Lord of Rest! In Matthew’s gospel Jesus says, “Come to me, all of you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
One of the great blessings of the gospel is that Jesus invites you into God’s shalom, where you find the peace and rest from the busyness of life. More than a recharge of your battery, it’s a way to nourish your spirit so you can flourish in God’s love and grace.
Tim Keller writes, “The purpose of Sabbath is not simply to rejuvenate yourself in order to do more production, nor is it the pursuit of pleasure. The purpose of Sabbath is to enjoy your God, life in general, what you have accomplished in the world through his help, and the freedom you have in the gospel—the freedom from slavery to any material object or human expectation. The Sabbath is a sign of the hope that we have in the world to come."
For it’s in these moments we find Jesus standing in our midst, holding up a mirror for us to look in, and reminding us how to fulfill the will of God with a joyful heart, and not merely observe it or check it off our to-do list.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 4. (Westminster John Knox: 2007).
Keller, Tim. http://qideas.org/articles/wisdom-and-sabbath-rest. (2015) June 1, 2018.