This is one of those passages that’s difficult for modern people to understand. In fact, it probably wouldn’t make anyone’s list of favorite Bible stories, given that it’s a squabble between the Pharisees and Jesus and especially because it’s about Sabbath. Of all the commandments God gave to the Israelites, this one about “remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy” is the one that is the most routinely ignored in our busy culture. Sure, we know we need to take a day off once in a while and we know that going to church to worship is important if you’re a Christian, but for the most part we don’t give the idea of Sabbath much thought. And yet we see here in Luke 6 an argument about Sabbath that is so intense that, at the end of it, the Pharisees are looking for a way to get rid of Jesus. What’s going on here and why does it matter?
Well, I want to argue today that this passage is actually very important for us to consider if we want to understand the message of Jesus on the one hand and, on the other, to understand the reasons that people will want to kill him. We’ve already seen how Jesus’ teaching got him in trouble in his hometown of Nazareth, proclaiming that the Messiah had come not just for his fellow Jews but for the Gentiles as well—a fulfillment of the promise of Abraham. Nobody likes to have their current views challenged by the lens of history (still a major problem today) so the people there seek to throw Jesus off a cliff.
This section of Luke’s Gospel reveals, however, that Jesus’ mission is pushing the boundaries even farther and especially among those who are most invested in religious leadership. As we read the Gospel, we’ll discover that Jesus is in conflict with the various sects of Judaism in his day—groups that generally spent much of their energy battling each other. What’s interesting, however, is that all of them will eventually agree on one thing, and that is that Jesus of Nazareth had to be disposed of. He was dangerous to their agendas and, in their view, too dangerous for the people to follow.
The group with which we’re most familiar is the Pharisees. Today we think of them as religious curmudgeons, sticklers for the rules, kind of the religious establishment. When people in our day want to characterize someone as too religiously conservative, they often play the “Pharisee” card.” But the truth is that the Pharisees were an unofficial religious protest group in first century Israel. They were not the establishment, but spent much of their time critiquing it and calling people to alternative views. We might think of them as a kind of “Occupy Jerusalem” movement, wanting to bring change. They were religious activists more than they were straight-laced conservatives.
They were interested in Jesus because Jesus was using the same language they used in their protests. “Kingdom of God,” a term we encounter often in the Gospels, was central to their beliefs. For a first century Jews, “kingdom of God” meant God’s reign and rule on the earth, not a distant and disembodied heaven. When the kingdom of God came, ushered in by the Messiah, then God would finally come back to his temple, the Roman occupiers would be expelled, and God would dwell with his people once again. Several of the different groups we’re talking about used “kingdom of God” language, but they differed on the conditions for bringing the kingdom about. For the Pharisees, the “kingdom of God” would come only if Jews returned to a strict obedience of the Torah, the Law of Moses. Only an intense obedience to the law among the people would pave the way for God’s return, thus the Pharisees saw themselves as the arbiters of religious correctness—and would enforce it sometimes to the point of violence. In Acts 9 (also written by Luke) we learn that a Pharisee named Saul had been going around the region arresting and torturing Jews who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. That was before he met the risen Christ himself. The point is that the Pharisees were looking for a Messiah who was thus an activist for the law of Moses, just like they were.
And what were the most important laws that needed following? Well, for pious Jews there were several non-negotiables: Circumcision, the dietary laws, the purity codes, and keeping the Sabbath. Eliminate any of these and you will be outside of the bounds of Judaism and threaten the very identity of God’s people. There had been a period, just over a hundred years before this time, when a foreign invader had taken over Jerusalem and outlawed these practices. A pagan Syrian-Greek ruler named Antiochus Epiphanes took over the temple and sacrificed a pig on the altar, outlawed circumcision, and forbid people from celebrating the Sabbath. It was an attempt to erase their Judaism and it caused a revolt led by the Maccabees.
When the Pharisees encountered Jesus, this was all in the back of their minds., and when they found his disciples eating heads of grain on the Sabbath it provoked their activist passions. Jesus himself had been using “kingdom of God” language, but his understanding of how the kingdom would come was very different. And now he was messing with the Sabbath as well. It’s no wonder they reacted so passionately against him.
But it’s not as though Jesus was ignoring the Sabbath (a crime punishable by death according to the law of Moses). The problem for Jesus was not the Sabbath itself but the interpretation of the Sabbath laws.
Remember what the Sabbath was for—it was a gift to the humans God created in his image. In Genesis 1 we see that God rested on the seventh day, his presence dwelling with his creation and his people. Because God has “moved into” his creation, humans and animals are given a day of rest—a day to remember that the God who created the earth and rests in it is still in control. The human response on the Sabbath is thus worship, rest, and communion with God and with others in community.
But Sabbath isn’t just suggested, it’s one of the ten commandments God will give to Moses. If you read the commandments carefully you notice that it appears right in the middle as the fourth commandment. The first three commandments are about how people are to love God (no other gods before him, no idols, no taking God’s name in vain). Commandments five through ten, on the other hand, are about how to love one’s neighbor—honor parents, no murder, adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting. The command to keep the Sabbath thus acts as a linchpin between these, bringing together the love of God and neighbor into focus. Sabbath is the day that we recalibrate what it means to love God and neighbor and pause to allow our worship of God to transform us and prepare us for the task. The Sabbath, in other words, reminds us that our love for God is bound up in our love for our neighbors. We worship God best when we care for his people.
Jesus’ disciples are plucking heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them on the Sabbath. The problem here is not that they are taking grain from a farmer’s field. The law of Moses allows anyone to eat produce from a farm field so long as it doesn’t involve using a sickle. The disciples are hungry, and no one would have disputed that they could eat the grain. The problem was that they were rubbing their hands together to do it, which the Pharisees interpreted as “work,” thus a Sabbath violation. “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?” they ask Jesus with gritted teeth.
Jesus responds by provoking them with the fact that the way he understands Sabbath is ingrained in the law itself. For Jesus, the focus of the law is always about concern for human life—even on the Sabbath. He points them to a story from Israel’s history. We read about it in I Samuel 21. David, who had just been anointed king, was on the run from the current King, who was Saul. David and his companions were famished when they approached the tabernacle at Nob and there they ate the consecrated bread that put before God and then reserved for the priests. How did David get away with that? Well, he was the king, anointed by God. The priest gave David and his men the bread because there was no other bread to give—it was about meeting a deep human need for food.
This had to make the Pharisees as crazy as Jesus’ teaching in Nazareth made the people of his own town. Was Jesus comparing himself to King David? But then it gets worse. Jesus says to them, “The Human One (The Son of Man) is Lord of the Sabbath.” “Son of Man” was a messianic title, and only God could be Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus was claiming authority over the Sabbath and its original intent—to promote both love of God and love for neighbor. Meeting needs on the Sabbath wasn’t a violation of the law, but rather its fulfillment.
As if to illustrate the point further, Luke includes the next story about a man with a withered hand who was in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The Pharisees and other self-appointed legal experts were waiting to see if Jesus would heal the man on the Sabbath as a way of bringing charges against him. Here again, this seems so trivial to us—but we forget that what constituted “work” on the Sabbath was the point of dispute, even if that work needed to happen in an emergency.
For example, there was a law written in the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community that stated that if it was the Sabbath and you came across one of your livestock that had fallen into a pit, you had to wait until after the Sabbath to get it out—otherwise it was work. But what happened if it was the Sabbath and you discovered a person trapped in a pit. Could you get them out? The law said you could but only if you already had a rope with you. If you had to go and get a rope, that was work and you were prohibited from doing that.
Here again, the original intent of the law had been missed, and Jesus wants to prove a point. He has the man with the withered hand stand in front of the synagogue and then, like a good rabbi, he begins with a question: “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or destroy it?” As in the previous story, the Pharisees have no answer. Jesus has the man stretch out his hand—which wasn’t “work”—and the man was healed. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were furious. They missed the miracle because it didn’t conform to their understanding of the law. Rather than embrace the one who had actually demonstrated God’s power, they sought to bump him off.
The problem, I think, is that the Pharisees defined their faith and their religious identity by what they didn’t do. Jesus was actively doing things that seemed to violate their sensitivities, even though they were not strictly violating the law. For the Pharisees, it was all about avoidance of mistakes and transgressions. Surely, the Messiah would not come and the kingdom would not break in unless people stopped making mistakes. Better to do nothing and be right than to do something, even if it seems right, and risk being wrong.
Jesus challenged their whole understanding of Sabbath and, by doing so, challenged the basis for their identity as reformers. He called them back to the original intent—after all, most real reforms happen when people go back to the basics. Jesus reminds them that the Sabbath was created as part of God’s good creation, and thus doing good on the Sabbath honors the greatest of all the commandments—the one that sums them all up—the love of God and the love of neighbor. For Jesus, real faith isn’t defined by what we don’t do, but rather by what we do. When we take Sabbath seriously, it will always remind us of this truth.
The Sabbath is about life—real life as people created in the image of God. What is it that gives us real life? The love of God and neighbor. We rest on the Sabbath because we know that the God who loves us is in charge, and we come together in community knowing that our love for God is most tangibly expressed in our love for others. It’s not a matter of what you don’t do on Sunday, but what you do—focusing on God and on the life God wants to give us and others.
At our leadership retreat yesterday we discussed again the model for a disciple—one who loves God and neighbor. We love God through acts of worship and devotion and we love our neighbor through acts of service and compassion. Our love is both public and private, given at any time. There is no limit or timetable for doing good and acting in love. Sabbath enables us to step out of our regular routine and remember this.
It’s no coincidence that in the very next verse (v. 12) we see Jesus head out to a mountain to pray all night long. After a conflict about Sabbath, he needed Sabbath! It was a time to prepare for the work ahead, a time to focus on love for God the Father and love of neighbor. I believe his immense capacity to love God and neighbor was not just the result of his human and divine nature, but also the result of doing Sabbath well in ways the Pharisees could not have imagined.
It’s time for us to reclaim a similar way of doing Sabbath—to not merely see it as a “day off” on the one hand or an obligation on the other, but as preparation for discipleship, increasing our capacity to love God and our neighbors. On the Sabbath, we allow our lives to be recalibrated by the presence of Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath.
Worship, Rest, and Community
How do we do that? I want to suggest three things: First, we worship. Setting aside time for worship resets our week because it’s here that we recognize that we are not in charge of the world—God is. We need to hear the Word of God and allow it to speak in our lives, reminding us who we are—people created in his image for love and for purpose.
Second, Sabbath is about rest—real rest. We all rest in different ways. Most of the time we are resting from a busy week of work. But that’s recovery, not rest. Rest means increasing our capacity to face what is ahead. Rather than fill your Sabbath with activity, getting more things done for the week ahead or trying to cram in as much recreation as possible, you used the time to do nothing for awhile—to allow your mind to wander, or to shut down; to do something that feeds your soul rather than draining it. God is already in charge of the week ahead. Take the time to rest.
And thirdly, Sabbath involves community. Jesus didn’t fail to notice the people around him who were in need, even on the Sabbath. He was fully present with people. Can we be fully present with each other? Fully present with our families, our neighbors, our friends, the people we meet on the way to and from worship. This is something I challenge myself with, too—but the more present we are with the people around us, the more likely we are to see them as Jesus sees them—as people worthy of our love.
Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, but it wasn’t coming in the form of strict obedience to ever tightening laws. It was coming via the law of love—a law on which there is no time limitation. Sabbath is a reminder that the kingdom is here and is also still on the way. It comes every time we engage in acts of worship, devotion, compassion and service. It comes when we choose to give our lives and work to the Lord of the Sabbath.
“I Love to Tell the Story” Podcast. WorkingPreacher.org. January 29, 2017.