C.S. Lewis once said that there’s nothing that gives you a more deceptively good conscience than keeping rules, even if there’s been a total absence of all real love and faith in your life.
I think this is absolutely true. A few years ago, Marci and I were attending a course at Regent College in Vancouver with one of the world’s great New Testament scholars, Gordon Fee. Gordon is a Pentecostal, but he was scathing about the rules-based religion he was raised in. “We knew the rules”, he said; “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t dance, don’t play cards”. And then he paused, and said forcefully, “A fence-post could be a good Christian by that standard!” As Lewis says, merely obeying rules about what you’re not supposed to do is not enough – it needs to be based on real love and faith.
Nevertheless, questions about the rules continue to pop up all the time in the world of religious faith. In the time of Jesus some of those rules clustered around the question of what it meant to keep the Sabbath Day holy, and I think that’s still a vital issue for us to consider.
Let me give you a bit of background. In the Hebrew scriptures the Sabbath was originally meant by God as a gift for his people. When the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, there was no sabbath rest for them. They were building Pharaoh’s cities, and the job needed to get done. When Moses came and challenged Pharaoh to let his people go, Pharaoh’s response was to get even more strict with the slaves. Now they wouldn’t be given any more straw to make the bricks they used; they had to go find their own, but they were still required to produce the same number of bricks per day. So they had to work longer and longer hours, seven days a week, and we can imagine that many of them died under the harsh treatment of their taskmasters.
In that context, the sabbath commandment comes as a gift to the newly-freed slaves:
‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy as the LORD your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave…or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-15).
‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt’. In other words, you Israelites can remember what it was like to be treated as an economic machine, with never a moment to call your own. Now you’re going to be delivered from that, because it wasn’t God’s creation intention for human beings to work like that. We need rest, and sleep. We need to form community and share love. We need to worship the one who made us. And so the Israelites weren’t just given permission to take a day off: they were commanded to do so. One day in seven they were to refrain from economic activity, so that they could rest and worship God.
But human beings being what we are, people wanted more guidance about exactly how to do that. So we’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath Day; well, what exactly is work? If we cook a meal, is that work? If we light a fire? If we clean the house? Are we allowed to go for a walk, and if so, how far? How many miles from home can we go, and by the way, what is ‘home’? If I go two miles the day before the Sabbath and dump a pile of my clothes at the crossroads, does that constitute an extension of ‘home’, and can I start counting the miles from there?
And so Jewish teachers, with the best of intentions, started addressing these questions. They knew people needed help with the practicalities, and so they gave it. By the time of Jesus, there were thirty-seven different categories of work that were specifically forbidden on the Sabbath Day, and many people took these human traditions as if they were themselves the commands of God – which they weren’t. By the time of Jesus many Jewish people had exchanged the tyranny of the Pharaoh for the tyranny of the Pharisee. Keeping the Sabbath had been intended to ease their burdens, but their traditions had had the opposite effect.
Jesus was aware of this, and he was constantly criticized by religious leaders for being too lax about keeping the Sabbath. We see this in our gospel reading for today, where Mark has brought together two stories about Sabbath observance.
In the first story Jesus and his disciples are wandering through some grain fields on the Sabbath day. The disciples start breaking off some heads of grain, rolling them in their hands to soften them up, and then eating them. All pretty harmless, but the Pharisees interpret this as ‘harvesting’ – ‘Look, they’re breaking the Law, harvesting grain on the Sabbath!’ So they confront Jesus with this: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (2:24).
In response Jesus reminds them of an Old Testament story. David is on the run from King Saul, and he comes to the sanctuary. He’s desperately hungry, and so he asks the high priest if he has any food. The priest replies that the only food he’s got is the sacred bread, which is baked fresh every day, placed in the presence of the Lord before the altar, and then taken away at the end of the day. Only the priests are allowed to eat it, but the high priest makes an exception in David’s case. And so the precedent is set, by no less a person that King David himself: the law can be broken in cases of human need. And then Jesus goes on to establish a principle about keeping the Sabbath: he says, “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (vv.27-28).
The second story is a sabbath healing story. Jesus goes into a synagogue and a man is there with a withered hand. The man doesn’t ask for a healing and Jesus could have ignored him, but obviously Jesus wanted to make a point. So he pointedly calls the man to stand out in front of everyone, and then he asks the people a question: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (v.4). They don’t reply, and Mark says ‘He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart…’ (v.5). So he heals the man then and there. The last thing we read is that the Pharisees, who have been criticizing Jesus for using the sabbath wrongly, then proceed to use the sabbath to plot with the followers of King Herod to murder Jesus!
How do we apply this teaching to our lives today in 2018? In the time of Jesus it was the tyranny of the Pharisees that was burdening the people. There were so many laws to remember about what you could and couldn’t do on the sabbath, and someone was always at your elbow watching you, ready to criticize if you broke one of them! There have been times in Christian history – in Puritan England or Calvinist Scotland, for instance – when that strict Sabbatarian spirit has been strong, and people have felt the Sabbath Day to be a burden and not a blessing.
But that’s not our story in Canada today. We’ve largely cast off any restrictions on what we do on the Lord’s Day. We’ve cast off the tyranny of the Pharisees and run right back into the tender arms of Pharaoh and his slave-drivers! Nowadays it’s the pressure of work, work, work – produce, produce, produce – that so many of us feel. According to statistics, our bosses are richer than they’ve ever been, but they still kick up a big fuss at any demand to raise wages. People have to work longer and longer hours just to keep their heads above water. We’ve all got our computers and cell phones, and more and more employers are expecting their workers to be available round the clock. Take the sabbath off? We have a hard enough time taking an evening off! That little electronic device in our pockets is keeping us securely tethered to Pharaoh and his demands.
So how do we recover the blessing of the Sabbath command – that was given to us for our benefit – without going so far that we fall into the opposite extreme of the tyranny of the Pharisees? Let me suggest three things from the words of Jesus in this passage.
First, let’s recover the sense of the Sabbath as a gift from God. Jesus says, ‘the sabbath was made for humankind’ (v.27). God did not design us to spend our entire lives in economic activity. He gave us bodies that need a cycle of work and rest. We need sleep. We’re social creatures, with families and friendships that need nurture. We’re created beings, designed to live in relationship with our Creator. The sabbath is meant to carve out a space for us to do that.
Let’s recognize a difficulty, though. The sabbath commandment was given in the context of an entire society of God’s people. All Israel acknowledged God and the Law God had given to Moses, so a whole society could observe the sabbath day. That’s not the case today. Most of our contemporaries are not Christian and see no reason why they should observe a Christian holy day. Many of our employers feel the same way too – they want their businesses to be open on Sunday.
So it may not always be possible for us to observe Sunday as our sabbath. No worries – Sunday isn’t the original sabbath, anyway! The Old Testament sabbath was Saturday. The first Christians began observing Sunday as a special day because of Jesus’ resurrection, but for most of them in those early days it wasn’t a day off work; they met for the Eucharist before sunrise, and then went to work. And I expect in the next few years we’ll be getting even more creative about holding services at times around the edges of the working day.
So applying this command today isn’t about how we respond to the obligation some of us may have from time to time to work on Sunday. It’s about the times we do have a choice. Working 24/7 isn’t how God designed us. He commanded us to take one day off in seven, completely free from economic activity, to rest and worship. This is not an option; it’s one of his commands. And it’s meant to be a blessing, not a burden. So why would we refuse that gift?
The second principle we see in the passage is that ‘the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath’ (v.28). So if we want guidance as to how to apply the command to keep a holy sabbath, Jesus is the one we can turn to. And one thing we know for sure about Jesus is that on the sabbath he went to worship with his people in the synagogue. Luke 4:16 says, ‘When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom’. Every available indication is that Jesus continued this practice his whole life long. So did his followers after his ascension; the Jewish Christians continued to attend synagogue on Saturdays, and they also established their own weekly pattern of celebrating the Lord’s Supper on the morning after the Sabbath – Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
In the days of the early church a very high premium was put on attendance at the weekly Eucharist. Christians saw this weekly sharing in the Lord’s Body and Blood as a lifeline. There are stories from the days when the church was a persecuted minority of how Christians would even sneak into jails to take the consecrated bread to their sisters and brothers who had been imprisoned there – risking their own lives and freedoms. That was how important they thought it was!
Nowadays that isn’t always the case. Many of us take the opportunity to get away on weekends, especially now when the weather turns nice. Nothing wrong with this, of course – but do we go to church while we’re away? Think of the benefits of this! We make contact with new communities of Christians. We receive the sacrament to strengthen us for the week ahead. We teach our kids that God is still important to us; he doesn’t take a holiday from us, so we don’t take a holiday from him. We get to hear a different voice in the pulpit from time to time. And our presence in the worshipping community is a witness to the fact that Christ comes first in our lives, even when we’re on holiday.
We can recover the sense of the sabbath as a gift. We can remember that Jesus is Lord of the sabbath and gives us guidance about how we use it – especially when it comes to joining with God’s people for worship. Finally, we can use the sabbath as a day for doing good. Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3.4). The answer is obvious – the sabbath is a day to do good and to save life.
So a day of rest is not necessarily a day to do nothing. We live busy lives and our weekdays are often frantic; we don’t often have time to do the good deeds we’d like to do – visiting a lonely relative, helping out a neighbour who needs some yard work done, visiting sick people in hospital and so on. I think of our team that goes to the Bissell Centre once a year to help serve a meal there to the folks at the Inner City Pastoral Ministry. I know of some churches – not usually Anglican ones, it has to be said – who cancel their regular Sunday service once a month and get involved in some sort of mission or outreach project together. These are all good ways of keeping a holy sabbath.
One more thing: I think it could be good to mark the beginning and end of our sabbath day in some way. In the Jewish tradition a day begins at sundown the night before, so the first meal of sabbath is actually Friday night. I’ve read of Jewish people expressing their sense of joy in the traditional observances at that meal – the lighting of the traditional sabbath candles, the special prayers that are said for the beginning of the sabbath, and so on. Customs like that can be very helpful and we might want to think of how we can develop some for ourselves. I know some Christians who observe the sabbath as a day free from electronic devices, which so often are Pharaoh’s tool to bind us to his service. A ceremonial turning off of your cell phone might be a very good way to start a sabbath day, don’t you think?!
So, to sum up: a sabbath day is a gift from God. It was given as a blessing for us, to bring us refreshment, rest, and reconnection with God and the people we love. It’s a day to worship, to put God at the centre of our lives, whether we’re at home or away. It’s a day to follow Jesus in living lives of love for others and doing what we can to be a blessing to them.
Nowadays a lot of people are trying to find ways to live a more balanced and healthy life. In that quest, I think the gift of sabbath might just be one of the best things Jews and Christians have to offer. But it has to start with living it ourselves. This is not about asking Canada to make laws about it. It’s about being willing to embrace it in our own lives and making it attractive to others. I know I’ve still got a long way to go on that journey, but I hope you’ll join me in it.