Sabbath: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Second Week after Pentecost
1) This week nearly six months of “Ordinary Time” begins, during which this year’s walk through the Gospel of Mark (and occasionally John) will continue. We'll move chronologically through Mark, for example, for the next eight weeks.
2) Ordinary Time’s seasonal color is green, the color of growing things (including us!). From ten thousand feet, the Christian Year appears divided almost in half, with about six months of holy seasons (Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide), and about six months of Ordinary Time. Like a pendulum swinging back and forth, or a pair of lungs breathing in and out, the church alternates between these two great movements each year: high holidays and everyday life, the joys of celebration and the grunt work of growth.
3) As we re-enter Mark’s masterpiece, it’s worth recalling its overarching themes. Mark wrote during (or just after) the Jewish revolt against Roman imperial occupation, and that conflict, along with Rome’s subsequent desecration and destruction of the Jewish temple, made everything in Mark’s world seem stark, severe, and godforsaken. Accordingly, his prose is sharp and graphic, the action is swift (his favorite word is “immediately”), and the big ideas that drive the narrative forward are likewise bold and striking:
- Though it seems that evil everywhere has the upper hand, in fact the tide has turned: the Kingdom of God has come near!
- As promised by our ancestors, God will rescue and restore God’s people, and the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth – the Son of God, the messiah (literally, “the anointed one”) – is the decisive signal that this rescue is now underway.
- But make no mistake: the messiah is neither a military conqueror nor a conventional king. Instead, he is a prophet, healer, and sage pointing to an even deeper form of liberation and wellbeing. For Mark, Jesus’ primary mission is to suffer, die, rise, and redeem, sending his disciples out to proclaim the good news of God’s salvation “to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). A new era of hope, renewal, and restoration has begun!
4) According to Mark, the first day of Jesus’ ministry was a sabbath day. He begins by teaching “with authority” in the synagogue; then heals a man possessed by an unclean spirit; and then heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Taken as a whole, this first day prefigures major themes - healing, restoration, hope - that will feature at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. But the fact that he does all of this on a sabbath day reveals yet another key focus of his work: as a rabbi and reformer, Jesus is especially concerned with protecting religious life from abuse and distortion. Religious practices are not ends in themselves, or standards people must follow in order to be righteous. Rather, Jesus contends, the whole point of practices like sabbath keeping is to help foster healthy forms of life. In other words, religious observance is valuable precisely to the extent that it helps life to thrive; and it’s destructive precisely to the extent that it doesn’t. Any religious act that diminishes or inhibits healthy life isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s a profound contradiction, an act that actually accomplishes the opposite of its genuine life-giving purpose. It's sin masked as virtue, unrighteousness masked as righteousness, toxin masked as medicine, desecration masked as consecration. And so Jesus heals and his disciples “pluck grain” on the sabbath in order to provoke some religious authorities into a clarifying confrontation - which is exactly what happens in this week’s passage. Jesus does so as a Jew protective of key Jewish practices; and accordingly, from the vantage point of those who seek to follow him today, his critique should be received as directed toward Christian distortions of Christian practices, in effect calling us back to life.
1) As this week’s passage from Deuteronomy makes clear, while work is to be done six days out of the week, on the seventh day “you shall not do any work” (Deut 5:14) - and here in Mark’s story, Jesus’ critics argue that “plucking heads of grain” amounts to working on the sabbath. It’s a form of reaping - isn’t it? And so it goes against Deuteronomy and other ancient texts - doesn’t it? The plausibility of the charge is a key starting point: at first glance, it seems perfectly reasonable to conclude that plucking grain or healing a man’s hand are violations of the divine prohibition (see Exodus 34:21 for a specific prohibition against reaping on the sabbath). But Jesus presses his opponents - and disciples like us! - to look deeper. The animating objective of the sabbath, Jesus contends, the reason God established and commanded it in the first place, is for the sake of vibrant, healthy life in beloved community. How then can acts that themselves help life to thrive, acts that themselves are incarnations of love, be violations of the sabbath day? Didn’t David set priestly rules aside in order to feed his hungry companions? Isn’t it perfectly proper to “do good” or “save life” on the sabbath?
2) Jesus' argument here rests on ancient foundations. There are two primary accounts in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament of the commandment to observe the sabbath day. One is in Exodus, framing the practice as an imitation of God, who rests on the seventh day of creation as if to delight in the sheer goodness of all that God has made (Exodus 20:8-11). And the other is in this week’s passage from Deuteronomy, framing the practice as a form of remembering the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Like a “little exodus” each week, keeping the sabbath day releases us from toil, simultaneously a) reminding us of the divine deliverance at the heart of our lives ("you were a slave in the land of Egypt"); and b) providing us with a foretaste of the Promised Land, the “milk and honey” toward which all salvation history is moving (and not just for supposed insiders - note how the sabbath’s refreshment was for everyone in Israelite society, including both “resident aliens” and “male and female slaves”). The sabbath is for everyone; it "was made for humankind,” as Jesus puts it (Mark 2:27). It's meant to help us thrive, personally and communally - and its spirit embraces the whole neighborhood, including other species (“ox, donkey, livestock,” and so on; Deut 5:14). In short, sabbath keeping is for restoration, for experiencing and cultivating the deep, abiding goodness of God and the world that God has made.
3) And not just one day a week. To keep the sabbath is to enter into a pervasive, ongoing “every seventh” rhythm of delight, remembrance, inclusion, and anticipation - a rhythm replicated at wider calendrical levels in both Exodus and Leviticus. Every seventh day is a sabbath day; every seventh year is a sabbath year; and every seventh sabbath year (plus one) is a Jubilee year of restoration, a kind of sabbath writ large: the land rests, slaves are freed, and debts are forgiven (Leviticus 25:8-12; Exodus 21:2; Exodus 23:10-11; Deut 15). And finally, when Jesus proclaims “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19), he evokes this Jubilee tradition, casting the Kingdom of God’s arrival as a Jubilee writ large, a Jubilee of Jubilees. Weekly sabbath keeping participates in this symphony of nested sevens, all for the sake of health: personal health, familial health, societal health, and the health of all creation. Recalling that the root of the word "salvation" is the Latin salvus ("health"), we can put it this way: the rhythm of the sabbath is the rhythm of salvation.
4) Once this spirit is understood, it comes clear that observing the sabbath in any way that diminishes or postpones healthy life - to say nothing of destroying it! - is a perverse parody of sabbath keeping. In fact, it’s a form of desecration, an attempt to use a divine gift in order to hinder divine purposes. It’s withholding food from the hungry - in the name of righteousness. It’s withholding healing from the sick - in the name of holiness. And so Jesus is angered by this desecration, even as he grieves it (Mark 3:5). In yet another allusion to the Exodus story, Mark writes that the confrontation lays bare the “hardness of heart” of Jesus’ opponents; they care more for their own supposed rectitude than they do for the one with the withered hand. And in the starkest irony of all, on this sabbath day, while Jesus restores and in that sense “saves” life, his opponents subsequently conspire to “destroy” life (Mark 3:6) - giving the lie to their alleged concern for orthodoxy.
1) As Ordinary Time begins, this is a perfect week to remember our ongoing walk through the story of Jesus’ life, with Mark as our guide (and John helping out here and there). This is a season of growth and development, a renewed invitation to deepen and refresh our discipleship.
2) And there's no better place to begin than a reminder about the promises - and the perils - of religious practices. At its heart, Mark’s story is about how the most “holy” of duties can be carried out in ways that distort and even subvert what God intends. This is a problem native to religious life generally; not only sabbath keeping but every religious practice is permanently vulnerable to this kind of distortion, and Christians commit it at least as often as anyone does. Accordingly, Jesus is both angry and grieved, and we are wise to understand him as preaching not to some audience long ago and far away, but rather directly to us today. Every disciple, every church seeking to follow Jesus must continually ask, “Are we practicing our faith in ways consistent with the proper spirit of our practices? Are we oriented in all we do - our worship and our service, our prayers and our proclamations - toward the vibrant health of the beloved community?”
3) Sabbath keeping is an emblematic case in point of this larger theme. And so this is a perfect week to renew our understanding of the sabbath, including its participation in God’s “seven times seven” calendrical rhythm of love and restoration. Are we keeping sabbath in ways that are consistent with this sabbath spirit? Is it for us a weekly (and septennial!) occasion for reveling in the goodness of creation, reviving the gratitude in our lives, remembering “the least of these” in our communities, forgiving debts and restoring opportunities in our neighborhoods, and foretasting the “milk and honey” toward which God calls us every day? Is each sabbath a “little exodus” - and also a “little jubilee”?
4) The good news this week is that Jesus stands against religion’s (especially Christianity’s!) self-righteous distortions, calling us to recover the beauty and promise of sabbath keeping, and of religious practices more generally. Jesus is all for such practices - he is no critic of the sabbath! On the contrary, as a passionate advocate and reformer, he seeks to clarify the discipline’s proper purpose, character, and life-giving spirit, precisely so we might discover it afresh in our lives and communities today. For the sabbath was made for humankind!