Lord of the Sabbath
The world’s longest fence is found in southern Australia. It is a pest-exclusion fence that was built during the 1880’s and completed in 1885. It was built to keep dingoes out of the relatively fertile southeast portion of the continent and protect the sheep flocks of southern Queensland. It is one of the longest structures on the planet, and the world’s longest fence. It is known as the Wild Dog Fence or the Dingo Fence. It is six feet high and extends one foot underground. It is 3,438 miles long. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, “Now, that’s a fence!”
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day knew the value of a good fence. In fact, they built them and they built them well—not physical fences but symbolic fences.
To stop people from breaking God’s law, they simply fenced it off.
A Fence Around the Law
The inner circle represents the Mosaic Law itself as it appears in the Bible. The outer circle represents a series of rules interpreting the Law. The Pharisees felt that the Law was so holy, that they needed to place a "fence" around it so that no one would inadvertently break the Law. This "fence" was the "traditions of the elders," a body of oral law later written down by the Rabbis in the Second Century and later to form the Talmud. The idea was if you keep the oral law, you can't help but keep the actual Mosaic Law.
What resulted was a Law-centered religion. Love for God was expressed in love for his Law. But being consumed with keeping the Law for its own sake makes one vulnerable to being centered on one's own performance, rather than on the more important principles that underlie the Law -- love for one's neighbor, real justice, and mercy. Jesus accused the Pharisees of tithing even on garden herbs, but neglecting the love of God (Luke 11:42).
Lord of the Sabbath (6:1-5)
In the area of Sabbath observance, the Pharisees had an especially large accumulation of rules. Observant Jews observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday evening to sundown Saturday evening, and seek to honor God in the day by doing no work, but observing a Sabbath rest. That is a good thing. But the Pharisees and scribes began to define what was and was not work, and some of their rules were just plain silly.
Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat or barley field just before harvest, probably on a field path, helping themselves to handfuls of the grains pulled off grain heads. They would rub the grain between their palms to dislodge the husks, and then eat the grain. Now you might object to this if it were your grain field, but what they were doing was considered entirely appropriate: "If you enter your neighbor's grain field, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to his standing grain" (Deuteronomy 23:25).
The Pharisees, however, were concerned because they were doing this on the Sabbath, and it broke their myriad of rules against working on the Sabbath. Here's an apt quotation from the Talmud:
"In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered as sifting; if she rubs the heads of wheat, it is considered threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she bruises the ears, it is grinding; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing."
The Pharisees must have been watching Jesus and his disciples for just such an infraction of their Sabbath rules. And when they spotted the disciples eating grain in the fields, they asked: "Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" (6:2)
Jesus' answer is different than I would have expected. I thought he would point out the foolishness of their Sabbath labor interpretations that were laughable if the Pharisees hadn't been so serious about them. But that would have put him on their level, debating with each other exactly how the law should be interpreted. Instead, he takes an entirely different tack.
"Jesus answered them, 'Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.' " (6:3-4)
Jesus refers to the incident in 1 Samuel 21:1-9, where David flees for his life when he learns that King Saul is seeking to kill him. He goes to Nob, a village in Benjamin where the tabernacle is located. He asks for five loaves of bread for his journey, and the priest answers that he has nothing to give him except some of the special consecrated bread (Bread of the Presence) that has just been replaced by fresh bread, and had been sitting for a week on the table in the tabernacle. According to Leviticus 24:5-9, it is reserved for the priests who must eat it in a holy place.
Nevertheless, the priest gives David some of the consecrated bread for him and for his men. He does so because David is the Lord’s anointed.
What point is Jesus making by referring to this incident? Apparently, that human need should override legalism, for Mark adds Jesus' comment, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). The Pharisees must have been fuming. To them the opposite was true, that man must conform himself to the law no matter what the inconvenience or need.
But Jesus doesn't leave it there. Instead he asserts his own authority: "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" (6:5). If David could eat the consecrated bread, how much more should the antitype of David do so? Though Jesus does not clearly state the messianic implications of his self-designation Son of Man, they are implied here. If the Pharisees had been angry at Jesus' allusion to need taking precedence over the law when David ate of the consecrated bread, they must have been furious at Jesus' assertion of his own authority over the Sabbath. "Just who does he think he is?!"
Saving Life and Doing Good on the Sabbath (6:6-11)
Luke includes a final incident to illustrate Jesus' conflict with the Pharisees. On another Sabbath Jesus enters a synagogue -- we're not told in which town this occurs -- and begins to teach. In that particular synagogue is a man whose right hand is shriveled, probably some form of muscular atrophy or paralysis. Luke notes that "The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath" (6:7).
Laws about healing on the Sabbath seem somewhat contradictory and confused. In general, the rabbis held that only a danger to life warranted a breach of the Sabbath law. Someone suffering from a heart attack might be treated, but not someone with a toothache.
Jesus is aware of the Pharisees' motives, and tells the man with the shriveled hand, "Get up and stand in front of everyone." The stage is set for a confrontation.
With the poor handicapped man standing before them, Jesus asks, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" (6:9). Jesus looks around at them all, waiting for an answer. Surely, their own Sabbath tradition affirmed that the Sabbath was for doing good. How could they argue at that? But by their looks, Jesus can tell that they are unhappy at being so neatly outsmarted. The Pharisees have no concern, no pity for the man standing in the synagogue. All they can think about is their precious interpretation of the Law. Mark's Gospel adds, "He looked around at them in anger ... deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts" (Mark 3:5).
Jesus looks around at the Pharisees in their petty stubbornness and self-righteousness. Then he turns to the man and says, "Stretch out your hand." As the man does so it is completely restored to normal. In my mind's eye, I can see him hold his healed right hand up next to his normal left hand and break into a great smile. The people in the synagogue gasp. But the Pharisees are angry.
This section concludes with the Pharisees beginning to plot how they might stop Jesus, a plot that grows until it culminates in Jesus' death.
Lessons for Disciples
Imagine you are one of Jesus' disciples observing all this (actually, you are). What does Jesus intend you to learn from it?
First, to observe the Sabbath. Jesus never teaches people to not observe the Sabbath. No doubt he and his disciples observed it as a day of rest and worship.
Having said that, let me add that I don’t believe that keeping the Sabbath is a matter of a certain day. Sunday is not the Sabbath. It is the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath celebrates the completion of creation. The Lord’s Day celebrates the completion of Jesus’ work of salvation in his resurrection. Christians are nowhere commanded in the New Testament to keep the Sabbath.
But, having said that let me say that I believe that the principle of the Sabbath is eternal. The world will tell you to work 24/7 to make money and build up that 401k. God, in his great love, has provided a day of rest for us. Take time in your life to rest, to re-create, to worship and to love and care for people. And I don’t think it matters if that happens on Sunday morning, or on Saturday, or on Thursday afternoon. Sabbath rest needs to be part of your life.
Second, that the Law is not to make life harder for man, but to help man. While the Pharisees have no qualms about the Law preventing mercy towards the suffering, Jesus will have none of it. Jesus is clearly not a religious legalist, but a Man in love with people, always cognizant of their needs and eager to alleviate their suffering. He doesn't see observance of the Law as the point, but the love and mercy that the Law points to.
The Christian world is full of legalists and legalisms. We fuss about hem heights and make-up, sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes. We make judgments of men and women and young people based on hair length, body piercings, and tattoos. Two generations ago in America we fought about whether black men and women could attend our churches and sit in our favorite pews. We dispute about words and scheme ways to defeat our religious opponents who don't see things quite as we do. We argue about which church's members can be saved, since they surely don't agree with our pet doctrines. We pride ourselves on our fiscal responsibility and tight purse strings while needs in our communities go unmet. A rules-based religion is no more than a modern-day Phariseeism.
When I read this passage, I get the distinct feeling that Jesus is disgusted with our moral justifications that end up defeating his purpose in our lives and in our churches. His is a much simpler religion. It starts with love for the Father and works itself out in love for our neighbor. It flows from a heart yielded to God, not a mind schooled in regulations. That's the religion Jesus modeled for his chosen disciples -- and for you and me today.
And realize this, if you choose to follow Jesus in his simpler religion you will be criticized by your religious peers. Jesus was; can we expect anything less? But his is the way of Life, where people with shriveled hands and lives are encouraged by the Master to stretch them forth, and in the process of this stretching faith, are wonderfully restored. That, my friends, is today's lesson for disciples.