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How do we keep the Sabbath holy? (September 10, 2023)

When we lack clarity about how best to interpret a text or how we ought to live our lives, Jesus always asks us to consider how our actions impact others, writes Daniel Frayer-Griggs.

Outlook Standard Lesson for September 10, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Luke 14:1-6

I suspect that most of us, if we’re honest, are looking for clarity about how best to live our lives. What’s the right thing to do in any given scenario? And if we open the Bible to seek answers to questions such as this, we might look for a set of rules like the Ten Commandments. Yet even here, where we most expect to find precision and clarity, we more often encounter frustrating ambiguity and the need to interpret. Take, for instance, the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

The first question we might ask is, “What is the Sabbath day?” Well, that depends on whom you ask. For observant Jews, the Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, and according to Jewish reckoning, each new day begins at sundown, so the Sabbath begins Friday evening and concludes at dusk on Saturday. On the other hand, most Christians – Seventh-day Adventists are an exception here – observe the Sabbath on Sundays in remembrance of the day of Jesus’ resurrection.

Assuming you observe the Sabbath on Sunday, a second question we might ask is, “Why should we observe the Sabbath?” In this case, the answer varies depending on which text we’re reading. In Exodus 20, the commandment is grounded in the Imitatio Dei — the imitation of God. Since “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth … but rested the seventh day” (v. 11), so also should we set aside a holy day to rest from our daily work. But if we’re reading Deuteronomy (deuteronomos is Greek for “second law”), we find a second version of the Ten Commandments, where we encounter a different rationale: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (5:15). In this version, the Sabbath is a day to remember God’s act of delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. These differences may prompt us to exclaim, like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser!”

But let’s leave aside these calendrical differences and textual discrepancies for another question. How are we to observe the Sabbath? That’s the question with which today’s Gospel lesson is concerned. As in last week’s lesson, in Luke 14:1-6 Jesus is again invited to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. Whether on their way to the Pharisee’s house or once they have entered – the text isn’t clear – there appears a man with dropsy or edema (swelling that results from excess fluid retention). It’s the Sabbath day, which prompts Jesus to ask the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the Sabbath or not?” (v. 3). There were all sorts of lively debates about what actions were and were not permitted on the Sabbath, and Jesus here invites the Pharisees to state their view. But they don’t bite; they remain silent (v. 4a). So Jesus answers his own question, not with words, but with action. He heals the man right then and there (v. 4b).

Since the Pharisees didn’t answer his first question, Jesus follows up with a second: “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a Sabbath day?” Most of us don’t have oxen to worry about, so at least part of this illustration may be lost on us. But it would have resonated with Jesus’ original hearers, who would likely have recognized a reference to Deuteronomy 22:4: “You shall not see your neighbor’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up.” Jesus seems to be encouraging us to interpret the unclear commandment about how to keep the Sabbath in light of the clearer commandment in Deuteronomy 22:4, which is not so much about animal husbandry as it is about how to love one’s neighbor.

The Bible is often confusing. Even Peter admitted this about Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:16). But when we lack clarity about how best to interpret a text or how we ought to live our lives, Jesus always asks us to consider how our actions impact others. In fact, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he said there were two, which can be paraphrased as “Love God, and love your neighbor” (Mark 12:28-30 and parallels). And sometimes, when it’s not obvious how we can best honor God, the answer may be that we do so by loving our neighbors.

Questions for discussion:

What Sabbath practices do you find meaningful?

What is a concrete way you can demonstrate your love of God by loving your neighbor?

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