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The Lord of the Sabbath

February 13, 2022 Speaker: Josh Moon Series: The Gospel according to Luke

Topic: Luke Passage: Luke 6:1–16

One would think that an argument for the Sabbath would be an easy sell. A day fully given to rest, no one in the whole community working beyond what's needed to rest—eating together, worship, conversation. No toil anywhere in sight.

How many of us have felt deeply weary? Tired of the running required in a world that refuses to rest—I should say, in a culture that refuses to rest. We fill our time with voices and work and entertainment and school and more. I was talking this week with some men who expressed just how hard it is not to pick up their phone and check... anything, the moment they are standing still. You are standing in line? Phone. Climbing in the car? Phone. Walking into the store? Phone. Going to the little boy's room? Phone.

Voices, information, news, sports, emails, texts, social media, work. I've heard so many talk about how tired and overstimulated we are. Sabbath should be an easy sell: a whole community steadfastly putting everything down, and doing it together because alone I would so easily just pick it back up. Work for six days then take the seventh off! Rest. No voices but real ones; no emails; no labor no toil. As one modern Jewish writer puts it:

In the tempestuous ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where man may enter a harbor and reclaim his dignity. The island is... the Sabbath, a day of detachment from things, instruments, and practical affairs... [Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, 29; for "place in time," cf. p.15]

He calls it "a palace in time." Rabbis say that the Sabbath is to time what the temple is to space; a meeting of this world and the next, a place where we enjoy God being with us.

But questions of the Sabbath in Christian practice (on the Sunday rather than the Saturday, tying it to the resurrection) are both divisive and  In part, all of us have a streak where we think: "Yes, that might be nice. But don't tell me what to do." The moment we start pressing into that notion of "required" rest, we start to bristle. Don't tell me what to do—or what not to do—with my time. Time is a strange thing to call "mine," but we do it about stranger things than time.  Invite me into the Sabbath and I can remain in control of whether I think it right; call me to follow and I will bristle. That's been true of all of us in some things (or many things) from our terrible twos onward. We just have to admit that, I think.

The staunch requirements in the Bible around the Sabbath day are not numerous, but they are firm in part because it concerns a whole city or community, not just a bunch of private individuals. The commandment addresses the head of a household in the ancient world:

You shall not work; not you, not your son, not your daughter, not your servants (male or female), not your animals, not the immigrant or refugee who has settled among you. You shall all rest; the day is holy. God rested on that day, you shall rest too.

Why the requirements? Well, like in all things because God loves us. But also: we know a world where those in power "work" seven days a week by exploiting those who are more dependent. A world like ours. The ancient Romans mocked the Jews, despised them for their community-wide practice of the Sabbath day. They were lazy, Roman writers said, mocking the Sabbath in plays and writings. But every one of the writers we have who mocked belonged to that wealthy class of Romans, the vast majority of whom owned slaves. LOTS of slaves. For the scoffers to "work" on the Sabbath was, at least in large part, just to make dependents work. They had the privilege and ability to take vacations whenever they wanted. Rest easily becomes a privilege of the wealthy, an issue perhaps exacerbated in our own market culture. As a modern hip-hop singer puts it:

Rich man need a vacation, hop a plane;

Broke man need a vacation, mary jane. [Lecrae, "Deja Vu"]

Those who are dependent are the ones who lose when a community refuses to rest. The Sabbath will always interrupt worship of economic or technological advance, a witness against such idolatries.

I could go on and on like this. There are lots of things that push against the practice of Sabbath. And yet I hope that at some point you have the experience of looking with jealousy, longing for the palace in time. An old rabbinic line has God saying:

Sanctify the Sabbath by choice meals, by beautiful garments; delight your soul with pleasure, and I will reward you for this very pleasure. [Deut. Rabbah, 3.1]

It should be an easy sell! And yet Christians sometimes imagine the Sabbath as one of those things to shunt off our shoulders and proclaim ourselves "free" to work all we want. And, as with so many other things, we find the freedom we imagined to be bondage.

Luke provides us an insight into the goodness of the Sabbath in these two conflicts with the Pharisees over the Sabbath. I know that's not how it's sometimes read, but bear with me. Many read this as if Jesus is denying the Sabbath, as if he is refusing it, freeing us from it. But clearly the opposite is really in play: the issue is what is lawful, what would the Law have us do?

What we see is, in fact, much closer to a famous scene in a Woody Allen film, Annie Hall. Woody Allen stands in line for a cinema and is subjected to the inane pretensions of another man in line, explaining to his date all about the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan. "Mansplaining," we'd call it today. Woody Allen starts arguing with the guy that he doesn't understand what he's talking about, and they hit an impasse. Until Woody Allen pulls a guy out from off-screen and says, "Here; here's Marshall McLuhan"—and it's actually him. "Does this guy know what he's talking about?" And McLuhan tells the guy, "You know nothing of my work." Then Woody Allen turns to the camera and says, "Don't you wish real life was like that?"

Luke's not doing the exact same thing, but it's at least close. The central statement—"The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath"—is a "narrative hinge between the two episodes." [Rowe, Narrative Christology in the Gospel of Luke, 110] The first story moves towards that declaration, and the second moves from it. Before jumping in, there's some discussion about whether "lord" here means "the Lord," God of Israel, or a more general "master." But it seems to me a strange argument. Who could possibly claim to be lord of the Sabbath except God? The Sabbath was instituted by God, started by God, the regulations for it were given by God. As one writer puts it:

the Jewish characters within the story would know of only one κύριος [Lord] of the Sabbath, namely God. [Kavin Rowe, Narrative Christology in the Gospel of Luke, 109]

In other words, it's something like Marshall McLuhan walking on stage and declaring: "Don't tell me what I meant by the Sabbath!"

But the way he makes the argument is interesting. In the first conflict the disciples are doing what the stricter sorts said should not be done: walking through a field and plucking grain for a small snack. And the form is actually what we'd expect in a debate between rabbis. As one writer puts it:

After the Pharisees ask what is a perfectly valid question given Jewish practice and belief (6:2: 'Why do you do what is not permitted [by Torah, God's instruction] to do on the Sabbath?'), Jesus responds in a typically Jewish way: he appeals to the Torah... to justify the behavior that seemed prima facie to run counter to it. [Rowe, op. cit. 107]

That's what you find all the time in the rabbis. To be clear, God never said, "do not pick grain when walking through a field on the Sabbath." His instruction would forbid treading grain, the kind of work you do to make bread. That's obviously not what the disciples are doing, so Jesus had plenty of room to disagree with the application, the "fence around the law." But he doesn't even do that.

He doesn't say that the Law was wrong or misguided, or that now the Law doesn't matter. He appeals to Torah, to David's act long, long before, in a story known from the Hebrew Bible. David had been anointed king, but was wandering through the land with his ragged band followers before he had taken the throne. Kings had to provide for their people, so David here takes the provision of bread (normally only to be eaten by priests) as a provision from God for his followers. So Jesus asks: do you condemn David for what he did? No? Then you cannot condemn me.

The argument only works on one condition: that Jesus has the standing of David. That's why the concluding statement fits the argument being made. What is Jesus' status relative to David, and so relative to Sabbath? Jesus actually oversells it: not only does he have the status of David, but outstrips David by rather a lot. "Don't tell me what is proper and improper on the Sabbath! I gave it; I'm Lord of it."

The second episode moves the whole matter forward. Jesus stands a man with a withered hand in front of everyone, right at the center of the room. A man almost certainly barred from the temple, who (once more) publicly carried a mark of this world's decay and corruption—all on his right hand, the working hand. Jesus is not going to back down here; he wants everyone to see. And he asks the Pharisees, some of the more pious among the people:

Which is lawful on the sabbath: to do good or harm? to save a life or destroy it?

Ok, so we'd probably respond that there are a lot of options between those two. But you can see the question is not that the law was bad, or is now no longer relevant. Which is lawful? What would Torah have someone do on the sabbath?

It seems clear that they viewed Jesus as something like a physician on steroids. He was a healer; that's fairly well-established historically and certainly they were not going to deny Jesus could heal. The rabbis of the time agreed that a physician should intervene in a life and death crisis; might come to the aid of delivering a baby; might help staunch a wound on the Sabbath [e.g. Yoma, 8.1]. But you don't set up office hours (as it were). This man's withered hand could wait to the next day for a physician.

And in that one stroke they missed what they saw. Even at the close it says that they were "filled with fury," not because Jesus was being mean but he flouted their authority and they could not understand it. They were "at their wits end," as one commentator puts it [I.H. Marshall, Luke, 236]. If Sabbath is to time what the temple is to space—where we enjoy the presence of God on earth—the Lord of the Sabbath here brings this man into that celebration. "Saving life" is a perfect Sabbath work: it is good and for the enjoyment of Life.

I have long loved the Sabbath; loved the calm, the quiet, pushing out all other things to enter into rest. And it is not just the rest of sleep (though that's a great Sabbath thing—just ask Jen, for whom it's apparently a jealously guarded practice). What makes rest? It isn't just not working (boredom can be without work, but is not rest). Rest as a word hangs out with other words like contentment, calm, peace, enjoyment of things as they are. NOt the burden of improving, but enjoying as they stand. We can rest with others or by ourselves, but to rest is to stop pursuing. Stop chasing. Enjoy the goodness of what is here, now, trusting in what God has provided. 

There have been lots of debates in the Christian church about the Sabbath, sometimes unhelpful and most of the time with very little study or sympathy. But as you can see I hope to frame it as a thing we love rather than telling one another what to do or not do. The Pharisees did not just go a little beyond the Law. An entire part of the Mishnah, the chief source for rabbinic teaching, combs through life in tireless zeal making rulings. This kind of knot is ok on the Sabbath, this kind of knot isn't. In modern practices, you can take an elevator that is already moving up and down, but not one that requires you to start it moving.

I don't want us to start down that road, though I can understand it. What I want is for us to love the Sabbath as a gift, and to pursue it as a thing we love together. It's not meant to be an individualistic command, it is meant for a whole community: and I mean a city, but at the least a neighborhood. For us to keep it will always be constrained by realities around us; we can't enjoy it fully with a world that is rest-less. Some of us are employees who suffer the reality of a world that can't stop chasing and pursuing. But some things we do together on this day on purpose: we worship, feast; we lay down the pursuits of all the things that pass away, and give ourselves to enjoyment of what is already here. It is the day within time that intersects with eternity: a day to rest with what is already done, enjoying it as we can.

It is lawful to see the Sabbath as the day of God's restoring work; God's healing. In rabbinic writings they often speak of the sabbath as meant to be a time when we taste eternity. When the author of Hebrews speaks of pressing forward in this life to enter the Sabbath rest meaning our life beyond death, he's treading ground that rabbis have always trod. We speak of one dying as "ceasing from her labors." The Sabbath images for us, acts as an icon of the great rest we are entering one day, where toil is done away with. The Jewish writer I started with also speaks this way, remarking on the Romans despising of the Sabbath:

The idea that a seventh part of our lives may be experienced as paradise is a scandal to the pagans. [Heschel, Sabbath, 74]

It's strange that it ended up not only a scandal to pagans. But that is what Jesus provides: a seventh part of our lives experienced as paradise. Tasting it, remembering it, and doing so together. Jesus does not despise the Sabbath; he is the Lord who started the whole thing off and who brings this man with a withered hand into its enjoyment. It should be a day we love, an easy sell, and a joy for the people of God: a people longing for, and heading for, rest as the enjoyment of Life.

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