The Sabbath was Made for and Gifted to Us

Jun 02, 2024

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Text: 2:23-3:6
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It’s not all that difficult to understand why, by Jesus’ time, the keeping of the Sabbath was burdened by rules. People liked knowing exactly what was required of them when it came to commandments from God, since they thought getting it wrong could have dire consequences. Still, such clarification had gone too far.
     Before we go there, though, let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page. Our focus today is on the third of the 10 commandments given by God to the people of Israel after they were freed from slavery in Egypt and needed some guidance to succeed as free people. The version of the commandment that we read from Deuteronomy makes the sabbath’s purpose clear – rest and remembering. Rest not only for the Israelites, but for their slaves, their livestock and any foreigners who lived among them.
     But the sabbath principle was not new for the Israelites; it went clear back to the story of creation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, commanding those who had been created to do so as well. By doing so, the Israelites were not only obeying the Lord, but setting themselves apart from the nations around them.
     Sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday was the designated time for rest and worship … the sabbath. Later, Christians made the first day of the week, Sunday, their sabbath because that was the day Jesus rose from death to life.
     In today’s Gospel reading, two sabbath events are described. By the time Jesus and his disciples walked through that wheat field on the sabbath, centuries of religious leaders had tried to define what constituted work so people knew what they could and could not do on the sabbath – and it had gotten somewhat out of hand. For example, harvesting grain was not allowed on the sabbath, which makes sense since doing so was part of the day-to-day work of farmers and their animals.
     I’ve told you before, I think, how my grandfather, a farmer, refused to do field work on Sunday. This was because the one time he tried to thresh wheat on that day, because the harvest was ready, the machine broke down and the harvest ended up being delayed multiple days. He viewed that as the consequence of breaking the commandment.
    Getting back to Jesus and his followers … by the sabbath day in question, the rules indicated that the disciples’ breaking of heads of grain to eat, evidently because they were hungry, was harvesting and thus a violation of the commandment. The Pharisees complained, how could Jesus allow his disciples to do such a thing?
     Jesus corrected these religious leaders by showing them that their rules were not in line with what God intended the sabbath to be, the bottom line being that God’s concern is for the well-being of God’s people.
     Jesus said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Now, that may cause you to scratch your head and wonder what Jesus meant. It is, basically, that the sabbath law was created to benefit people, not as rules that governed people, to be followed for the sake of keeping rules.
     All that might have been OK had it not been for what Jesus said next, “the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath,” which indicated that his interpretation of sabbath-keeping had more authority than that of the Pharisees. These were considered “fighting words” by his opponents.
     By the time of the second story, which occurred on a separate sabbath day, Jesus’ enemies are still smarting from his comments about the grain and his own authority. They are out to get him. Will he cure on the sabbath, so they have more accusations against him? It almost sounds as if it’s a set-up, that the man with the withered hand has been brought there purposefully to put Jesus to the test.  
     It’s important to note that the law permitted healing/helping someone in a life-threatening situation on the sabbath, which this was not. So, why didn’t Jesus wait until the next day to heal the man? To do so, Jesus would have had to ignore both the man’s need and his own ability to help. So, with his words, without touching the man or even lifting his own hand, Jesus healed him.  No doubt he wanted the people watching to grasp what honoring the Lord by observing the sabbath should be – not about rules, but about doing good – for others, for oneself and even for God.
     Grieving the Pharisees’ hardness of heart, Jesus put them in their place. It’s interesting to note that at the end of today’s account they were plotting Jesus’ murder – not exactly sabbath-like activity.
      So it is that loving God and loving of others sets the sabbath tone. Reflecting on today’s accounts, commentator Chelsey Harmon writes, “What better way (is there) to understand the purpose of the sabbath than (as) literal restoration and fulfillment …as hunger being satiated, and wounds and defects being made well? (We should view the sabbath) as rest and a break from having our needs run the show and so that we might remember and know the goodness, generosity and bounty of God?” (1)  She goes on to say that fulfilling the sabbath unleashes goodness, helping us to become the kind of people who resist doing harm and evil since we have been reoriented toward God who is good.
     We all have received the gift of the sabbath, but we live in a world that is far removed from the first century, so we ask ourselves, what is the sabbath for us (or what should it be?) I’m going to suggest three “R’s” for the sake of easy remembering.
     The sabbath, which we think of as Sunday, but might be another day, is a day to Rest/Recharge our physical, emotional, spiritual and mental selves. If the Sabbath ends and we are exhausted and anxious, then it may not have been a true sabbath.
     The sabbath is a day to Remember God by Retelling the story of God’s involvement in our world, giving thanks for God’s grace that came to us through Jesus, growing in faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit and strengthening our relationships with God and fellow believers. If some thought has not been given to God, whether or not one attends worship on a particular day, then it may not be a true sabbath.
     And it’s a time to Reach Out to those who need support and hope. If our focus is only on ourselves and we haven’t in some way expressed care for others, then it may not be a true sabbath.
     You’ll notice that I said “may not” in each statement since rulemaking is opposite of what God had in mind for the sabbath. Stressing ourselves out over this is certainly not the point. Perhaps we cannot do all three – Rest, Remember and Reach Out – every sabbath. That’s where grace comes in … including the grace of knowing that this is God’s will for us because it’s what is good for us; God cares about our wellbeing.
    The sabbath was made for and gifted to us; it’s a reflection of God’s love for us and yet another reason to proclaim, “Thanks be to God.” Amen 
  1. “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6” by Chelsey Harmon, June 2, 2024,