Gospel: Mark 2:23-28

The Lord of the Sabbath

When was the last time you enjoyed a leisurely Sunday? What did you enjoy about the day?

With the victory of capitalism over other ideologies and economic systems, the work ethic of independent business person has taken center stage in popular culture. Some people work so hard and for so many hours to "get ahead", their personal lifes suffer. Indeed, some people so define themselves by their employment, they have no sense of self outside the work environment.

Has work so overtaken our lives we cannot stop thinking about its duties? Has our society lost the meaning of the Sabbath, a day to honor God and to rest? While the controversy was different in this passage from Mark, the issue remained the same. What is the place of the Sabbath in life?

Popular Translation

23 One Sabbath, Jesus walked in the wheat fields. His followers began to pluck the grain from the stalks for a snack to eat. 24 "Look!" the Pharisees said to Jesus. "Why are your followers doing something that's against God's Law?"

25 "Didn't you read in the Bible what David did when he and his friends were hungry?" Jesus replied. 26 "When Abiathar was the high priest, David and his friends went into God's holy place. David ate the holy bread that no one but the priests were allowed to eat. And David shared the bread with his friends!"

27 Then Jesus said, "God created the Sabbath for people, not the other way around. 28 So, the Son of Man is master of the Sabbath."

This gospel is the short reading for the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time. The long reading (Mark 2:23-3:6) contained two controversies over the Sabbath. In the first (2:23-28), Jesus defended his followers against Pharisees in a rhetorical exchange. In the second (3:1-6), Jesus defended himself through his healing power. In both controversies, the Pharisee objected that Jesus and his followers broke the edicts against "work" on the Sabbath. In each, Jesus won the argument. Let us look at the first controversy.

Literal Translation

23 It happened (that) HE, on the Sabbath, traveled through the grain fields. And his disciples began to make (their) way (through the fields), picking the grain stalks. 24 The Pharisees said to HIM, "Look! Why do they do (something) on the Sabbath what is not proper (according to the Law)?"

1:24 "Why do they do...what is not proper...? This question by the Pharisees actual objected to the "work" being done by Jesus' followers. According to Exodus 34:21: "Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; in plowing time and in harvest you shall rest." (RSV) The Pharisees followed the Law so strictly that they even objected to the simple act of picking a head of grain, rubbing the head between the palms of the hands to separate the grain from the chaff, and eating the grain as a snack.

Beginning last week, Jesus engaged the Pharisees in controversies, first about the spiritual practices (last week), then about interpretations in the Law (this week). Unlike last week, when Jesus could use analogies to defend his followers practices in public, this week he met the Pharisees on their own turf: rhetorical debate. Among the contemporaries of Jesus, debates like this one challenged the person's character and place in society. So, the Pharisees questioned Jesus on more than an issue of orthodox practice. The Pharisees objected in order to assert their authority over all Jews, even the followers of Jesus. They objected because they wanted to be the voice of Yahweh for his people. Of course, they would reduce place of Jesus to an insignificant status.

Despite the motive and the petty nature of the objection, the controversy represented the larger issue of spiritual vision. The question of the Sabbath observance was the flash point. The Pharisee held a believer could only live a faithful life by maintaining God's Law, even in the smallest detail; for, if one broke even the smallest precept of the Law, he of she broke the entire Law. As a gift from God, the Law was the surest road to God; keeping the Law was the surest way to experience God. To step away from the Law, even in the smallest way, was to step on the slippery slope toward evil.

Jesus saw the Law as a means to an end (a relationship with God), not an end in itself. Holding the Law so scrupulously, Jesus held, ironically took the person away from God; for, one could make the observance to the Law a higher value that the pursuit of a relationship with God. To make his point, Jesus only needed an example where the Law was broken, yet the benefits outweighed the damage. Scripture itself provided that example.

25 He said to them, "But did you not ever read what David did when he had a need and he was hungry himself, and those along with him: 26 how he went into the house of God when Abiathar (was) the high priest and he ate the breads of (God's) presence which was not proper (for anyone, according to the Law,) to eat except the priests; and he gave it to the others being with him (to eat)?"

1:25-26 "But . . . with him (to eat)?" This long question answered the question of the Pharisees. Jesus compared the simple act of the followers with David's request for bread and a sword at the Tabernacle in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. If God allowed David to eat the forbidden holy bread when the high priest offered it to him, surely his followers could eat grain God provided on their journey.

1:26 In incident in question actual took place when Ahimelech was high priest. Abiathar, the son of Ahimelech, was the high priest during the reign of David. Mark is historically inaccurate when he confused the son for the father. "...house of God . . . " Since the Temple in Jerusalem had not been built yet, this phrase referred to the Tabernacle

1:26 " . . . the breads of (God's) presence . . . " According to Leviticus 24:5-9:

5 "And you shall take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes of it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each cake. 6 And you shall set them in two rows, six in a row, upon the table of pure gold. 7 And you shall put pure frankincense with each row, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion to be offered by fire to the Lord. 8 Every sabbath day Aaron shall set it in order before the Lord continually on behalf of the people of Israel as a covenant for ever. 9 And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the offerings by fire to the Lord, a perpetual due." (RSV)

These breads were the finest offering of the people, like offering the first of the harvest or the first born male farm animal. The priests would eat the bread as their payment for services rendered.

Score one point for Jesus. The Pharisees could not deny the example Jesus produced. In fact, the way Jesus prefaced the question ("But did you not ever read...") returned the challenge with an insult. Of course, they had read the story, for they were educated men. But, Jesus implied they were not spiritually wise men. He also implied their spiritual vision was distorted.

While the question of the Pharisees demanded an answer, the question of Jesus did not. It was rhetorical and obvious. The greatest King of Israel had indeed broken the Law over the issue of hunger, and neither God nor man punished him. If David himself could break the Law for his good and the good of his men, couldn't the followers of Jesus? Wasn't there a greater issue involved?

27 And HE said to them, "The Sabbath was made because of man, not man because of the Sabbath. 28 So, the Son of Man is also master of the Sabbath."

1:27 "The Sabbath was made for man . . . " Jesus not only made a counter-ruling on the Law against the judgment of the Pharisees, he based it upon Scripture. This phrase alluded to Genesis 1:26-2:3, where the Sabbath occurred after the creation of humanity. In the Jewish sense of time, the sequence of events has weight. Since the creation of humanity occurred before the celebration of the Sabbath, the needs of humankind outweigh the needs of the Sabbath.

In the mind of the Pharisee, Jews were to honor the Sabbath, not just because of the commands in the Law. Jews kept the Sabbath so they could imitate God. Jews would work during the week as God had "worked" in the creation (Genesis 1). Then they would rest on the seventh day as God rested. So the Sabbath was more than sacred time to worship God. It was to be a time for re-creation, a day to balance the others and a day to experience the full measure what it meant to be human. (After all, God's last act before he rested was the creation of humanity.)

Hence, the celebration of the Sabbath had tremendous weight for the Jew. It was a defining mark of Judaism. Jesus understood that fact. Why did he, then, state the needs of man outweighed the needs of religious observance? After all, don't people need habits and rituals to support their self-control? Don't people need institutions with their rules and regulations for guidance? Does the Sabbath tradition outweigh the petty desire of a few country Galileans?

Jesus was right, of course. Because the humanity was created before God rested, the needs of humanity outweighed the needs of the Sabbath. But 2:28 alluded to a greater issue: coming of the Kingdom in God's time. A close reading of Genesis 2:1-3 revealed another way to view the Sabbath through God's eyes. Because evening never came like the other six days of creation, God's day of rest (the creation Sabbath) never really ended. The contemporaries of Jesus believed they still lived in divine day of rest. They, however, awaited the new day of God's "work," the day of new creation, the day of the Kingdom. The Lord of the Sabbath would be the author of this new day and of this new creation.

On one lonely morning after the Jewish day of rest, the Lord of the Sabbath began his new creation. The buried son of a carpenter rose from the dead. By raising his Son, God worked in a new way. So, those with Jesus did not really break the Law, for they did their work on a new day in a new realm.

Catechism Theme: The Lord's Day (CCC 2168-2176)

As Christians, we are obligated to honor the spirit of the Third Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." (Exodus 20:8, RSV) God rested after he created humanity (Genesis 2:1-3). The day was to remind Jews of their liberation from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 20:11). The Sabbath stood as a sign of God's covenant with his people (see Exodus 31:16). And, as a time of community rest and worship devoid of work, the day served as a "protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money." (CCC 2172) In short, the day was to remind people of God's mercy and his prominence in life.

Why, then, don't Christians worship on the last day of the week, like their Jewish brothers and sisters? Christians worship on the first day of the week because (as noted above) Sunday is the day of God's new creation: the Resurrection. The focus of the Christian shifts from the Passover in Egypt to the Passover on the cross, from the covenant of Mt. Sinai to the covenant of Christ's own blood, from the old creation of the cosmos to the new creation of the Kingdom. For the Christian, celebrating the Lord's day on Sunday fulfills the spirit of the Law and helps to realize the Spirit of God's Kingdom.

How have you honored the spirit of the Sabbath? What have you done, outside of weekly worship, to rest in the presence of God? How have you allowed God to re-create you on the Sabbath?

The Pharisees may have overemphasized the obligation of the Sabbath to the determent of a relationship with God. Our times have the opposite problem. We so void the Sabbath obligation with work concerns, consumer needs, and recreation distractions, that we lose sight of it's original intent. While the Sabbath was made for us, we were made for God. The day was instituted for us to focus on him.

What would happen if you cleared your calendar of all activities on a coming Sunday? Try it. Now fill the day with ways to build up your relationship with God and with others. Make out your list in prayer. And ask for God's blessing on that day.