Step into the study, pour yourself a cup of coffee, get comfortable and let’s enjoy the Gospel of Mark.
Our scripture this week is Mark 2:23-28 “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
This section contains a controversy story, a saying of Jesus and an affirmation about Jesus. The general theme that holds these together is the Sabbath, an integral and substantial part of Judaism. This section allows us to see some of the substantial disagreement between Jesus and his critics. This is most certainly a portrait of Jesus challenging the Pharisees at the core of their religious perceptions and not at the fringes. The passage also shows us Christian reasoning about the Sabbath itself and the sort of justification that was put forward by Christians for worshipping on a new day of the week.
When was the last time you heard a sermon on Sabbath keeping? This isn’t a hot topic in today’s feel good religious environment. The various “Seventh-Day” sects and denominations within Christianity bear witness to a day when this was a major concern of the Christian community. The Puritans and their heirs were strong on Sabbath-keeping and preached about it (as well as exercised discipline over breakers.) Still, discussions of the appropriate day of worship or the appropriate behavior on the day of worship are hardly popular today. This is obviously a departure from the Old Testament emphasis on keeping the Sabbath holy and altering behavior in order to show reverence for God on that day. The creation story itself forms the foundation for the Bible’s strong emphasis on a day of worship. It is important that we understand Jesus at this point, as it shows us his own understanding of the Old Testament and his personal attitude toward the day of worship concept.
The reference to “Abiathar the high priest” seems to be inaccurate when compared with I Samuel 21:2-7 and 22:20. There is no simple way of dealing with this factual difference. Our best choices seem to be (a) this is an early copyists error, (b) Jesus is referring to a story unknown to us or (c) Jesus is making a simple error because it was virtually impossible to check a scripture reference. (A) seems to be an unwarranted assertion based on no evidence, (b) is the same and (c) troubles those who believe Jesus made no errors. I believe, however, that the doctrine of incarnation means Jesus was free from sin, not free from human limitation, which included, at times, imperfection in reasoning. Are we to believe Jesus never made an error as a carpenter? That he never missed a name or forgot where he put his shoes? This may seem absurd, but the incarnation is not perfection on this level.
The same is true for scripture itself. If inerrancy means there are no statements less than perfectly true, then our doctrine of inspiration becomes a Mormon doctrine of dictation. I would suggest the human element in the scriptures include some inaccuracies in some areas that do not bear on the truthfulness of scripture. This will distrurb some I’m sure and I will be glad to discuss what “free from error” means in another forum.
According to Deuteronomy 23:25, grain maybe plucked from a neighbor’s field. This was part of the provision for the poor in the Old Testament economic system. The Jewish oral law at the time of Jesus restricted 39 kinds of labor on the Sabbath and the activity of Jesus and his disciples was a violation of that oral law. As a rabbi and teacher, Jesus was expected to have a high regard for the Sabbath and its place it Jewish life. It separated Israel from other nations and marked Jews with he covenant law of God. Wherever they were, Jews would keep the Sabbath and thus bear witness of their creator and redeemer and lawgiver: Yahweh. In the eyes of the religious leaders, Jesus was despising a sacred trust and leading his followers away from one of the pillars of their faith.
The idea of marking the day of worship by abstinence from labor and conspicuous devotion has become unpopular today. Americans who have lived in “Bible belt” culture where Sunday was honored as a day of rest by the entire community know that such an observance, with all its possibilities for empty use and meaningless abuse, still spoke of a reverence for a “nation under God” that is now largely lacking. Christians who practice abstinence from work on their day of worship are likely to run afoul of their employers, their children’s coaches and members of the family. Even turning off the television on Sunday is considered too much. But is it really? The Pharisees may have been mired in tradition but Jesus was not attacking the keeping of the Sabbath as described in the Old Testament or the premise of a day of worship and rest. All of us who are “people of the book” should spend our day of worship honoring the Lord and abstaining from all but necessary work and ministry. Families would benefit greatly from returning to an honoring of the Lord’s day in the Spirit of true Old Testament Sabbath keeping. Even churches might consider whether they are keeping the day of worship in the spirit of the Bible when they demand hours of activity from leaders and members on the Lord’s day.
Jesus’ point is that gathering food is an act of necessity, even of mercy, to the needs of human beings. To restrict the gathering of food is to go beyond the purpose of sabbath keeping and into legalism. Jesus understood that human beings will take the commandments of God and turn them into a platform for demonstrating human righteousness rather than honor to God. Legalism of this sort becomes a competition to see who can be the most obedient and the most spiritual, when God intended simple and worshipful honoring of His commandment in a spirit of awe and love. Modern Christianity rivals the Pharisees at their worst in this regard. The command to pray becomes who can pray the most. The command to read and obey the word becomes who can own the trendiest Bible. The command to worship and sing becomes a mad competition to see which church can be the most entertaining and unusual. The command to be filled with the Spirit becomes a sad spectacle of demonstrating how spiritual we are with phoney manifestations, a bizarre manner of speaking and ridiculous displays of faked emotion. Be careful before you condemn the Pharisees.
The Sabbath principle was intended to honor God and benefit human beings. It was not an excuse for excessive sabbath-keeping, but joyful worship, quiet reflection, quality interaction with others and personal time with God. We should love the Lord’s day, and look forward to the sweet opportunities it gives us to have deeply satisfying human experiences. In this sense, the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath. The law of God follows the creation of man. It is meant to relate man to God and to bless us. Obey and live was the repeated message of Deuteronomy. To the extent that we do not keep God’s law, we are separated from Him and from the blessings of knowing Him. At the heart of all that God asks and commands is His love for us and His desire for the best for us. His laws are not a punishment, a game or an obstacle course. The person whose life is shaped by the law prospers in all he does (Psalm 1).
Critics of Christianity often say we create religion to meet our own needs. Strangely, Jesus seems to be saying that “religion,” at least the external requirements, was created by God to meet our deepest needs. The joyful keeping of the law is a mark of the righteous man because its puts him in covenant with a God of lovingkindness and goodness, a God from whom all blessings and mercies flow. Doesn’t this “joyful lawkeeping” mark the heart of those who know God best?
Christians abandoned the Sabbath not as a way of abandoning the Old Testament, but as a way of moving into the fullness of what the Old Testament taught. Every day is God’s day. Every day is our day of worship. We keep the Lord’s day in the Spirit of the Sabbath, but not in a legalistic manner. On that day we pause to worship, to reflect and to relate because there are our privileges everyday. Sunday worship should be God-centered Joy that culminates a week of worship and that anticipates every day in His presence. When we know this God, we know that actions of mercy and works of necessity do not dishonor God on his day, they reflect more aspects of his goodness and compassion. Christians who do not honor the Lord’s Day are not healthy believers. An eager entering into the spirit of Jesus will find us where Jesus was on every day of worship: in the house of the Lord, with His people, proclaiming the goodness of the Lord.
The final statement in this passage is the point Mark most wants to press home: Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. Critics who want to minimize this are simply dedicated to overlooking the obvious. As Jesus breaks the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees he is expressing more than just an opinion- this is the Lord of all things showing us the heart of what it means to know him. This is the God who invites us to know that his yoke is easy and light. Jesus calls disciples who discover the meaning of everything God asks us to do in the relationship with Jesus himself. The creator of the Sabbath knows it. Jesus is a living picture of the law of God. As we confess Him as Lord and live under His Lordship, we are invited to affirm all those things Jesus treasured as God’s gifts to us. The Lord of the Sabbath is not just the master- He is the rest of God himself. He is the great intercessor who invites us to pray. He is the living Word who invites us into the scriptures. He is the High Priest that invites us to worship. There is no place in Christianity that the Lordship of Christ does not meet us, show us our need, our weakness and completely meet the very demand God makes of us, thereby making it possible for us to obey God in a new Spirit of obedience.
This is the one who said “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17) Mark shows us the meaning that Jesus gives to the Sabbath: a freedom from legalism, a sense of the heart of God for human beings and a vision of the Lord Jesus who is and is above the Sabbath. May our lives be full of the reality of Jesus and free from the empty religion that separates human beings from God, others and even our best selves.
# Questions How do you keep the Lord’s Day?
# Do Christians put too little or too much emphasis on the Lord’s Day? Does it matter what day we worship on?
# The Pharisees had added 39 oral traditions to the command not to work on the sabbath. How do we do the same thing today with God’s commands?
# Michael says Christians tend to take God’s commands and use them to prove how spiritual they are. Do you agree or not? Why?
# How would you respond to someone who says Christians should worship on Saturday, not Sunday?
# How does recreation fit into keeping a day or worship?
# Other than attending public worship, how should Christians keep the day of worship?
# If you were an employer would you require employees to work on Sunday? How would you respond to one who asked to be allowed not to work on Sunday?
# Jesus seems to make a factual error in his Old Testament quotation about the high priest. Could Jesus have made factual errors and still been sinless? In what way was Jesus perfect? In what ways was he NOT perfect?
# How does Jesus fulfill the law of God? If he fulfilled it, do we still have to keep it? Should we want to keep it?
# The Pharisees thought Jesus was a troublemaker by breaking religious laws. How might Jesus similarly irritate religious people today?
# Michael says Jesus is the perfect completion of all the commands of God. If he fulfilled all the commands of God for us, how are we responsible for keeping them today?
# The sabbath was made for YOU? What does that say about what God wants FROM you and FOR you?
RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: Paul L. Meir’s nice little abridgement of Josephus. Published by Kregal. Nice edition for someone who would be discouraged by the complete works. Lots of good illustrations. Makes a great introduction to this essential source. 1