Having moved back to St. Catharines, it has brought back a lot of memories of the way things used to be. What has changed is not so much the different location but rather the different time. One of the things that stand out is the way people spend their Sundays.
My family was church-going but not particularly strict in religion. But my parents did not have to force me to take it easy on Sundays because everything was closed. I remember when the stores at the Pen Centre was closed every Sunday and so they had a flea market. I’m not exactly sure what the difference was between regular stores and flea market vendors but that was the way it was. I never remember my father working on Sunday, unless he had to plow the snow on the streets.
I have talked to others who were a bit stricter when it came to Sunday observance. I overheard one conversation at church where a pastor on a hot day said that she thought it was good day to go swimming. An elderly man responded in shock, “You don’t actually swim on Sundays, do you?”
Of course Jewish people are much stricter with the Sabbath than most Christians have ever been with Sundays. For some Jews, the flipping of a light switch or the preparation of meal is considered work and thus forbidden. Some live in buildings where the lights go on and off automatically on the Sabbath and elevators stop at every floor so that no one has to push a button.
If this all seems strange to our ears, whether from the Christian or Jewish tradition, it simply indicates that there is much confusion about how to observe a day of rest. Even the day is confusing. I know of Christians who claim to follow the Ten Commandments but who I know do not observe the Jewish Sabbath of sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Why do Christians rest (or claim to rest) on Sundays instead of Saturdays? It is likely that the first Jewish believers in Jesus did observe the traditional Sabbath. But very early on, even within the time of the New Testament, there was a shift to Sundays at the Lord’s Day. The reason for this is that Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday and the resurrection of Jesus is the foundational event for the church. Having said that, there are Christians today who worship on Saturday and there is nothing wrong with that. Debates over the day instead of a focus on the big picture are what gets the Church into trouble. Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ experience with the Sabbath and with his critics.
Misuse of the Sabbath
The Jewish people understood that the Sabbath was important. Not only was it found in the Ten Commandments, it was found elsewhere in the Torah as well. Observing the Sabbath was so important that it was actually a capital crime in the Old Testament when someone broke it. That is serious Sabbath commitment.
During the time between the Old and New Testaments, the Jews came into conflict with the King of Syria. In one battle, the Jews were attacked on the Sabbath and they refused to fight back because that was work. They were wiped out. Realizing that this was going to give them a significant disadvantage, it was decided that Jewish soldiers could defend themselves on the Sabbath but couldn’t begin an offensive.
It is one thing to understand the importance, it is another to know what actual observance is supposed to look like. People were not supposed to work on the Sabbath. But what does that mean? Is walking to the bathroom (not that they had bathrooms) work? Walking to visit your friend in town? Walking to your cousin’s house in the next town? How much can you carry? Are you allowed to provide medical care? How sick do they have to be?
The Pharisees were very interested in these questions and they worked hard to fill in where the Bible was silent. The traditions of the rabbis became the oral law and are found in Jewish writings today. Since the rabbis did not want people to break the Torah, they made the oral law stricter to avoid all accidental breaking of the law.
Enter Jesus. Sabbath controversies would become important in Jesus’ ministry.
The first story is about Jesus and his disciples walking through the grain fields. The disciples picked heads of grain and rubbed it together before eating them. The Pharisees didn’t have a problem with the walking or the picking but they did have a problem with the rubbing. That was within their definition of work. The Pharisees used this as an excuse to accuse Jesus and his disciples of not being observant Jews.
Luke gives us another example of when Jesus got in trouble on the Sabbath. Jesus was at the synagogue as he should be. Not only is he there in attendance, he is there providing teaching. The people in the synagogue were to receive a lesson much different than they expected. There was a man in the synagogue who had a withered hand. The Pharisees knew about Jesus’ habit of healing people, even on the Sabbath.
Jesus knew what they were thinking and so he used it as a teaching moment. He had the man stand and asked the question, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath; to do good or to do evil, to save life or destroy it?” No one answered because the answer was obvious. No religious person would say that the Sabbath was for doing evil.
So Jesus did what he said was lawful for the Sabbath and he healed the man’s hand. Instead of rejoicing in this healing, they were furious with Jesus. Ironically, healing like this could only be done by the power of God but the Pharisees saw this as evidence that Jesus was a sinner.
Proper Use of the Sabbath
So the situation we have is a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. The expectation in such a situation would be to have a rabbinic debate on the issue. We have records of rabbis debating endlessly on the Sabbath and the nature of work what exactly was allowed. But that is not what Jesus chooses to do.
In the first case of journey through the grain fields, Jesus does not argue that the rubbing of grain heads fell within the biblical perimeters. Instead he looks to the Old Testament for an example from David. David and his men, while on the run from King Saul, were in need of food. While eating the consecrated bread was technically wrong, it was allowed because it was needed for the benefit of the hungry. Jesus sees here the guiding principle being about care for the needy rather than restriction of work.
In the second case, Jesus does something similar but without the biblical example. There were rabbinic discussions about the level of medical care allowed on the Sabbath. Some saw only life and death situations being eligible for the Sabbath. This was not the case with the man with the withered hand. He could have survived the day with his hand still withered. Jesus could have waited until the next day to heal him. But Jesus was still in teaching mode.
For Jesus, the case was clear. Was the man in need of help? Yes. Was Jesus able to help him? Yes. Therefore the healing was allowed on the Sabbath.
Notice what Jesus said earlier, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” That is a pretty major claim and some very good evidence that Jesus was more than a prophet and teacher.
The Son of Man, who is Jesus, is Lord of the Sabbath. That means that whatever Jesus values is appropriate for the Sabbath. Can we say that Jesus values worship of God? We can. Can we say that Jesus values care for those in need? We can.
Jesus is not inventing something new. The Sabbath was always meant to be a blessing and not a curse. The need for rest is built into creation. It is true for the soil, for the animals and for human beings. We have plenty of time to watch people overwork in order to achieve the financial goals they have desired. We have seen what it does to the body, to the family and to the soul. We should have a Sabbath rest. But that rest does not have to be a chain to prevent us from doing anything. Rather it is freedom to do what is important. We can come together and worship as a community. It is not that you have to go to church, it is that you get to go to church. We have the privilege to be able to sing songs together, pray for one another and to reflect on God’s Word together. This is not an obligation, it is a blessing.
Unfortunately, human nature looks at the Sabbath and begins to ask how far can we push the limits. The questions are, what do I have to do and what am I not allowed to do?
The Lord of Sabbath frees us to ask, what do we get to do? What will a Sabbath look like where we can experience blessing and be able to bless others. The foundational principle of the Sabbath is about what is required for the person in need. It may be food. It may be healing. It may be a good long Sunday afternoon nap. It may be a trip to the park with the children or grandchildren. It may be sending the children to the grandparents so the parents can have a rest.
Do you see how freeing the Sabbath can be? As Christians, we take the Lord’s Day as our day of rest. Which Lord? Not the Lord that insists that we work as hard on the weekend as we did the rest of the week. Not the Lord who applies such harsh restrictions on activity that we can’t wait for the day to be done. It is the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord who was raised from the dead to give us abundant life. It is the Lord that comes to provide freedom.
This is what we have. There is an extensive biblical tradition of the Sabbath. That original Sabbath has transitioned into the Lord’s Day where we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.
We can respond by ignoring it and making Sunday just another day like any other day. Or we could impose strict measures limiting activity and condemning those who break the roles.
Or we could make the Sabbath a day to embrace the Lord of the Sabbath and all that he values. What would this look like? It should include corporate worship if we are able. It should include quality time with friends and family. It should include rest from the week’s labours. It should include a willingness to help those in need, whether that be others or even ourselves. The Lord of the Sabbath comes to free us. The Lord of the Sabbath comes to refresh us. The Lord of the Sabbath comes and says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)