In our gospel today, Jesus is confronted about two separate incidents in which he is judged to be violating the spirit as well as the letter of the law prohibiting work on the Sabbath. These two vignettes come on the heels of Mark 2:18-22, where the Pharisees confront Jesus about not observing fasts with his disciples, in comparison to even the disciples of John (of whom Jesus may have been one at some point, given his baptism by John). And of course John and his disciples fasted—John preached about repentance of sin and lived out in the desert wearing rough clothing and eating locusts—I’d fast too, if that was my diet.
Jesus and his followers are accused of violating the Sabbath in our gospel today because they are plucking heads of grain and snacking on them as they walk through a farmer’s field. I’ll be honest, one of the things that has always bothered me about this set-up to this story is how the Pharisees knew it happened in the first place? Did they have spies stationed among the wheat stalks? Did they sit around and gossip on the Sabbath as someone else told them? Because I am pretty sure gossip doesn’t really accord with keeping the Sabbath holy, either.
Then Jesus on his own enters a synagogue, where he immediately encounters a man with a “withered hand.” Note that Mark’s gospel shows the Pharisees taking it for granted, even here in only the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, that Jesus COULD heal the man’s hand. Not “could he,” but “would he?” Their priorities are so scrambled that they are willing to brush off a miraculous healing, as long as they can use that healing as a weapon against Jesus.
Ultimately, here, Jesus defends keeping the spirit of the Sabbath, by privileging people over practices. The Sabbath was made for the good of people—and in most cases, people’s good can’t help but be served by observing a day of rest. Yet, there are acknowledged exceptions even to the observance of Sabbath: even the most observant person is allowed to work to prevent suffering, or to save a life. And yes, the irony is not lost on me that we clergy are the worst about that, and Sunday is a day of work for us.
Yet, the purpose of the Sabbath is restoration, in other words—and what is more in the spirit of that than restoring strength through eating, and restoring the ability to make a living by healing a hand? In healing the man, Jesus restored him to wholeness and agency. Especially in Jesus’s time, workers depended on their hands for their livelihoods.
The question posed in our gospel reading from Mark today is this: how do we best live a faithful life? There is obviously a difference of opinion here between the Pharisees and Jesus. But before we go off railing at the Pharisees, let’s remember that far too often we modern Christians devolve into rule-followers rather than healers. We must be on guard that we don’t make the Pharisees “those hide-bound Jews” rather than “us.” Texts like this have been used against Judaism for millennia, and that misses the entire point. If we are really honest, there is a Pharisee lurking in the hearts and minds of each and every one of us, at one time or another.
Living a faithful life has to be grounded and rooted in love and integrity, in trying to make ourselves holy reflections of God’s mercy and grace in the world. Jesus is not saying that keeping the Sabbath is pointless—far from it! As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, in the story of creation that starts the book of Genesis, God makes things and admires them, calling them good. But the first time God blesses and makes holy is not connected to a “thing” at all. The first thing God blesses and sanctifies is the Sabbath—a period of time, not a thing at all. And by tradition, the spirit of the Sabbath, as is the case with all laws, is grounded in relationship, not in things.(1)
As modern Christians, most of us don’t even come close to keeping a Sabbath in terms of rest, refraining from “work,” and from acquisitiveness. There are too many other things going on. I am old enough (and from the Bible Belt) to remember when stores were closed on Sunday until noon. The assumption was that you should be in church during that time—including the employees. Yes, it’s true. But gradually, in the 1970s- 1980s, that stopped. Now, partaking in commerce is a 24/7 proposition. Any time you want something today, you can probably locate it online and start it zooming toward your mailbox or porch with just a couple of clicks of a mouse, trackpad, or phone.
But what if we understood that we are called to a holy work in keeping the Sabbath—the holy work of listening to each other and caring for each other, regardless of differences? What if we understood keeping the Sabbath as calling us to remember that community and the compassion that is the foundation of community is sacred, as Jesus repeatedly teaches us?
Sometimes we have a tendency to privilege institutions and systems, especially legalistic systems, over human good, to the point of almost deifying them. We cling to institutions and systems of law because they make us feel secure, because we believe that they work for us. But if we fail to unplug from our striving for possessions every now and then, if we fail to hold our treasured laws at arm’s length and take a good look at them, we can all too easily miss the fact that institutions and legal systems can and do fail other people. Our constant busyness sometimes numbs us to the very real costs that accrue to ourselves and others when we forget that time itself is sacred and holy, and that we will not pass through any day again.
The foundation of all law, after all is relational. Those who live alone have no need for law. Law is there to regulate our common life together—and in the case of religious law, it is there to mandate our relationship with each other as well as our relationship with the Divine.
When we adopt attitudes like that, it is to justify our inaction as helplessness, which is actually quite a different thing. We are attempting perhaps to insulate ourselves from the demands of compassion. And that’s where Jesus’s point becomes clear: the heart of the law is relationship. The heart of the law is love: loving God, and loving our neighbor, as Jesus states in the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40. Jesus’s call and example to us to keep the Sabbath centered around restoration and relationship also calls us to action for the sake of others—for the sake of love.
One of my favorite writers and poets, Wendell Berry, has made it a practice to walk around his Kentucky farm on Sundays. Since 1979, he has written a series of poems that have had their birth during these walks, which he simply calls “Sabbath Poems.” This is one of them, entitled “Amish Economy”:
We live by mercy if we live.
To that we have no fit reply
But working well and giving thanks
Loving God, loving one another,
To keep Creation's neighborhood.
And my friend David Kline told me,
"It falls strangely on Amish ears,
This talk of how you find yourself.
We Amish, after all, don't try
To find ourselves. We try to lose
Ourselves"-- and thus are lost within
The found world of sunlight and rain
Where fields are green and then are ripe,
And the people eat together by
The charity of God, who is kind
Even to those who give no thanks.
In morning light, men in dark clothes
Go out among the beasts and fields.
Lest the community be lost,
Each day they must work out the bond
Between goods and their price: the garden
Weeded by sweat is flowerbright;
The wheat shocked in shorn field, clover
Is growing where wheat grew; the crib
Is golden with gathered corn,
While in the world of the found selves,
Lost to the sunlit, rainy world,
The motor-driven cannot stop.
This is the world where value is
Abstract, and preys on things, and things
Are changed to thoughts that have a price.
Cost + greed - fear = price:
Maury Tulleen thus laid it out.
The need to balance greed and fear
Affords no stopping place, no rest,
And need increases as we fail.
But now, in summer dusk, a man
Whose hair and beard curl like spring ferns
Sits under the yard trees, at rest,
His smallest daughter on his lap.
This is because he rose at dawn,
Cared for his own, helped his neighbors,
Worked much, spent little, kept his peace.(3)
The Sabbath is a time to remember to stop, to remember that we are upheld by God’s generous grace and mercy—grace and mercy that heals our wounds and restores our souls by calling us back to ourselves. Jesus reminds us that healing and restoration are what the Sabbath is all about. Jesus does not call us to be secure from each other, but rather to be vulnerable to each other as only those in community can be, acknowledging our obligation to the needs of the other who is made as much in the image of God as we ourselves are.
In our gospel today, Jesus points us back to the establishment of the Sabbath in the amazing self-giving that allowed God to create in the first place. Jesus reminds his critics—and that means us-- that the ground of Sabbath observance is tied to the ongoing creation God is effecting in the world around us—and in our hearts. And keeping Sabbath can definitely be a vital part of that. It is holy time that is meant to help us remember who we really are: God’s beloveds, made to work for what our Jewish friends call tikkun olam: the healing, repair, and restoration of the world. The Sabbath reminds us that we find our deepest meaning not in things, but in relationship with and for the sake of others.
The Pharisees were not wrong in lifting up the Sabbath, but in forgetting that the end is not mere obedience, but compassion. The Sabbath was made for us; we were not made for the Sabbath. Like the boy Samuel, we are called to keep it, to keep it and make ourselves holy in the keeping. In our time, may keeping the Sabbath remind us that all our time as disciples, whether at work or at rest, is rightfully turned to hearing the call of love and compassion. If it doesn’t serve the causes of love, mercy, and healing, we are not doing it right. Time to turn and start again, upheld by the spirit of grace that is the heart of the Sabbath, no matter what day of the week it is.
Preached at Calvary Episcopal Church, Louisiana, MO at 10 am and St. John's Episcopal Church, Eolia, MO on June 3, 2018.
(1) Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (FSG Classics), pp. 5-8.
(2) Bruce Hornsby, performed by Bruce Hornsby and the Range, from the album The Way It Is, 1986.
(3) Wendell Berry, 1995, from This Day: New and Collected Sabbath Poems, 2013, pp. 160-161.
(1) Jesus heals the man with the withered hand, unknown orthodox icon.