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Second Sunday after Pentecost — June 2, 2024

What does Jesus say about sabbath? How can we apply his wisdom in our lives? Ellen Williams Hensle writes on Mark 2:23–3:6.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Mark 2:23–3:6
Year B

In a recent peer-learning session with other young-ish Presbyterian pastors, I heard a colleague present about his church’s creative communal practice of sabbath: once a month they have worship on Saturday night so that everyone can take the whole day off on Sunday. As part of the workshop, he asked us to share our own sabbath practices with the group. I eagerly quoted Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s precept for sabbath activity: “If you work with your hands, sabbath with your mind. If you work with your mind, sabbath with your hands.” “That’s why I love folding laundry on my day off,” I continued. My colleague smiled kindly at me and said, “It’s amazing what we can convince ourselves is not work, isn’t it?”

What constitutes permissible sabbath work? That is the point of conflict in these paired controversial stories in Mark. First, Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, the religious rest day. The Pharisees object, and Jesus responds that if David’s men could break the law by eating consecrated bread when they were hungry, then his disciples could bend the rules about harvesting on the Sabbath to satisfy their needs. This puts the Pharisees on high alert.

So when Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, they watch to see if he will heal a man with a withered hand, if he will work on a day when religion instructs him to rest. Jesus does, and again the Pharisees take issue, their anger increasing. Jesus reasons that he is saving the man’s life, and work that saves a life is permitted on the Sabbath. Mark does not record the Pharisees’ counterargument, but I can imagine they thought that since the man’s injury was not life-threatening, healing him could wait until the work week.

It’s easy for us to read the hard-hearted Pharisees as the villains in this story, and Jesus, Son of Man, Lord of the Sabbath, as the hero. We do well to remember that in Roman times and beyond, Sabbath-keeping was an important marker of Jewish identity; the Romans even accounted for it in their laws governing Judea. The Pharisees, who were tasked with helping everyday people interpret the law, followed in a long tradition of erecting a “hedge” around the rules for Sabbath observance, establishing restrictions to prevent people from accidentally working when they were meant to be enjoying God’s gift of rest.

Jesus challenges this proliferation of rules, arguing that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath shouldn’t produce anxiety about whether you are doing it right. Rather, it should be a time for joy and rejuvenation. Besides, Jesus says, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (v.28). That must have really set the Pharisees off. Claiming to be above the law? Blasphemy. Jesus is certainly being intentionally provocative.

We sometimes hear this passage, incorrectly, as Jesus throwing out all the rules for the Sabbath, or even abolishing it. He does no such thing. Instead, I hear him calling us to reclaim the practice of sacred rest. What would our lives look like if we took a whole day each week to revel in God’s goodness? What would our communities look like if we followed Deuteronomy’s commandment not only to rest ourselves but to let everyone who works for us or with us rest as well?

Jesus’s conflict with the Pharisees reminds us that we serve a Lord who calls us to prioritize meeting human needs, as when he allows his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. We serve a Lord who acts with compassion, even when it breaks the rules, as when he heals the man with the withered hand. Indeed, we serve the Lord of the Sabbath, a God who invites us to a grace-filled rhythm of life. Let’s put down the laundry and rest secure in the love of that Lord.

Questions for reflection

  1. Does your faith community have a sabbath practice beyond meeting for weekly worship? What creative community practices could meet your shared need for rest? What obstacles do you face?
  2. Deuteronomy commands us both to rest ourselves and extend that rest to other human beings and the whole of God’s creation. How can we offer rest to others?
  3. For those of us who work with our minds, how might we “sabbath with our hands” without resorting to chores? For those who work with our hands, how might we “sabbath with our minds” in ways that don’t feel like homework?

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