Lesson 4: Jesus and Sabbath

Jesus heals a lame man on the SabbathI think the comment John posted last week captures the gist of Jesus’ words concerning the Sabbath. He wrote, “The wealth we experience is embarrassing. Yet we always want more and find excuses not to give it away or find some reason why our less fortunate are not worthy. We must pray for strength and wisdom that we do not (as individuals) fall into this trap. Understanding this, I think it is wrong to also fall into the trap of letting government do this job for us as a society.”

As I read his words, I thought of a good friend who declared he was going to start giving his money away. When I asked how he was doing several months later, he responded he was going to start when everyone else decided to do the same. That is the problem with making spiritual into political and economic wisdom. You end up doing little or nothing.

I might go further than John in believing that God calls on the church as well as individuals to practice a Sabbath lifestyle. The church should be providing a witness that inspires society, even though it does not expect political or economic law ever to go far enough.

Let’s look at how this works out in Jesus’ teachings. First, it is obviously a major concern as the Sabbath appears prominently in all four gospels. The conflict is not between Jesus and Judaism, but rather between two forms of Judaism. A biblical scholar just this morning said that the Talmud says virtually the same thing about Sabbath that Jesus utters in the Gospels. Relative to John’s insight, Jesus is warning against making teachings into laws and then using these legal pronouncements to your own advantage. The epitome of this manipulation is when the synagogue (or church) promises if you give your money to it, you do not have to give it to your aged patents (Mark 7:11). This kind of legalism leads to demonizing those who do not agree with you, as we see happening when the authorities attack Jesus.

But the worse abuse is making the provisions of the law more important than God’s will. You readily see this, if you examine Jesus’ punch lines. When he declares the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath, he maintains those people close to God have a better understanding of his will than can be perceived in a written law. The Son of Man is above the law just as God is.

He then goes on to make clear humans are also above the law, in the sense that the spirit of the Sabbath is to help people rather than to create a test of purity. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” It offers a healthy lifestyle, a rhythm that includes rest. Rest makes time for remembering who we are and what we should be doing. As John suggests, it should ask the question, “How much is enough?” (Mark 2: 23-28 is a good summary of Jesus Sabbath teachings.)

Often the attacks take place when Jesus heals, prompting statements about using the Sabbath for doing good, not harm; for saving life, not killing it; for mercy, not sacrifice. He makes clear that if legal pronouncements prevent you from doing good, they negate God’s intent. And he brings that home by suggesting God just wants us to treat other people as well as we treat our own children and animals. “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, you pull it out.”

Certainly one of our predicaments is thinking we solve a moral or spiritual problem when we get the government to make a law. Inevitably (at least I would say “inevitably” after a long life of observation and participation), modern politicians manipulate these laws to their own advantage, just as the authorities around Jesus did. Everything else except the human poor takes priority.

The spiritual wisdom Jesus proclaims in these Sabbath sayings addresses the heart not the law. They give priority to human beings rather than legal provisions. The Sabbath is meant to proclaim God’s love in the hope that when we perceive we are lovable, we shall love others. That does not mean we give up pushing for wise and compassionate law, but rather that we realize “living love” rather than “dead law” saves.

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