by Allison Johnson
The Sabbath. These two passages are built around the practice of the Sabbath for the Jewish community.
The context in both of these small passages is the same: what is permitted on the Sabbath? What can you do? What can’t you do?
We first encounter the Pharisees pointing the finger at the disciples for picking grain on the Sabbath. Their snark seems ever present: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus’ response is, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
One point really jumps out here: who/what are you serving? And, what is the outcome of that service? Are human needs being met by picking grain, or by not picking grain? Is the law to rest something that is giving life? Or is it dealing death?
Jesus points us to life. The human need to satisfy hunger takes priority over rest.
How are we satisfying the hunger of others? Are the rules we create and follow serving human need? How are the laws, politicians, policies, and more serving human need? Or, more specifically, what are we doing with our extra food after that luncheon? Could that be spared from the garbage and taken to a shelter? Could it be shared with someone who is hungry?
The Son of Man is lord even on the Sabbath. The Gospel of Jesus should be life-giving. As disciples, our “discipling” should also give life. What the Pharisees seem to miss in this interaction is that their privilege of status, gender, health, etc. allow them to celebrate the Sabbath with rest. The Sabbath is intended for human delight, and they are able to delight this day because apparently their bellies are full while others’ are not.
The Sabbath can only be delightful for those privileged enough to take a break. I imagine I can delight a little more than my black sisters and brothers because I am not worried about police shooting me. I am not worried about a stranger thinking I am suspicious because I am privileged in my whiteness. Next month, as I celebrate Pride, I will delight less than straight folks because I remember the Pulse shooting. To be straight carries its own privileges that allows for Sabbath rest.
How are we able to use our privilege to practice the life-giving Gospel Jesus embodies?
The life-giving theme continues in the reading. Jesus heals a man’s withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The interpersonal conflict is a bit heavier here, though.
The Pharisees were watching Jesus’ interaction with this man, and Jesus knew he was being watched. He asks them an important question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees are silent. While silence could be positive or negative, I assume a negative connotation here.
Jesus is angry he is grieved at their hardness of heart (v. 5), and since the Pharisees immediately went to conspire against Jesus (v. 6). Interestingly, the word used for “anger” is the same Greek word used in some other Second Testament writings to talk about God’s wrath (see John 3:36, Romans 1:18, and others).
C. Clifton Black makes a fascinating point that can easily be overlooked here: “No observant Jew would endorse killing or doing harm on the Sabbath; none would dispute the legality of doing good and saving life on that day.” This seems obvious, but it shows us that any follower of the law would not be conspiring to destroy another being on the Sabbath.
So, is Jesus calling them out on their disapproval of his ministry as the Son of Man? Can this passage be a critique of our hypocrisy as it is a critique of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees?
Do we know that the Gospel is life-giving and yet endorse, support, advocate for, and practice harm? Are we silent when confronted with the question Jesus asks the Pharisees? Of course it’s lawful to do good and to save on the Sabbath; this we know. But are we silent when the opportunity to do good—to share life—stares us in the face? We continue to see gun violence wreaking havoc all over the US, and I write this as another school shooting happened May 18th in Santa Fe, Texas. Are we giving life?
Both of these passages show Jesus embodying life and giving life to others. So, church, let’s also embody the life-giving Gospel of Jesus even when it’s hard, even when it rubs someone the wrong way, even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it challenges the status quo. Let’s live.