The Good and the Best
I believe in spiritual disciplines. I believe that it is vital to the Christian’s life that she read her Bible daily and that she pray without ceasing as well as at set times and that she gather with other believers to worship God on Sunday. I believe that such disciplines should be observed because God’s love for us and our love for God so overcome us that we can’t help ourselves; the real desire of our hearts should impel us to observe the disciplines. I also believe, though, that the disciplines should be observed even when we don’t feel like it or when we aren’t quite so sure of the presence of God or when we aren’t quite so sure of the genuineness of our commitment to him. Maybe we need the disciplines more at such times than we do at those times when we really want to do them. And so sometimes we drag ourselves to church when we really don’t want to go because we think it’s what we ought to do and besides there may be some good to come out of it.
Going to church has become the primary component of Sabbath observance in the minds of most of us. The OT emphasis was on the Sabbath as a day of rest. The Sabbath was defined as sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and during that 24-hour period work was not to be done. Many laws of the OT further defined the ways in which rest was to be observed and the rabbinic tradition went into even greater detail. Frankly, we in the church need to reclaim a real sense of the practice of Sabbath for the sake of our own well-being, for the sake of our devotion to God, and for the sake of a witness to a lost and harried world. In Jesus’ day, though, the keeping of the rules and the observance of the rituals had become more important to many folks than anything else. Jesus had a different take. Thus erupted the controversies.
So it happened that Jesus and his disciples were walking through some grain fields on a Sabbath day. Needing to eat they picked some of the heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. They were not stealing according to the law: “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25). The law did however prohibit harvesting on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21). The Pharisees called the disciples on it and Jesus spoke up. He cited the example of David who, as he began his flight from Saul, took the twelve loaves of the bread that was placed in the tabernacle and that was to be eaten only by the priests. In that case, Jesus pointed out, human need took precedent over a rule of ritual that otherwise was a good rule. Then he said, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (v. 5). Jesus is the criterion by which Sabbath observance, like everything else in the Christian life, is to be interpreted and carried out. In Jesus’ eyes human need could supersede the rules of Sabbath observance. Interestingly, the parallel passage in Mark has Jesus also say, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).
Is there danger in stressing the fact that in Jesus’ eyes human need comes first? Certainly. Human beings are not terribly gifted, I’ve observed, at distinguishing genuine need from mere want or convenience. We are plagued by selfishness and greed and fear and anxiety and we conclude too easily that what we want is ok. But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes the good thing of resting on the Sabbath must be superseded by the best thing of taking care of a legitimate human need.
In the second story Jesus, now under the careful gaze of the guardians of all things righteous, on another Sabbath went into the synagogue to teach and encountered a man with a withered hand. Knowing full well that the scribes and Pharisees would be further agitated he healed the man. Before he accomplished the work of healing, though, he said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (v. 9). That kind of raises the stakes, doesn’t it? The implication of Jesus’ words is that not to do good is to do harm and not to save life is to destroy life. I suppose that the Pharisees would have rather seen the man go through life with a withered hand than to have the anti-working Sabbath laws be violated. We can’t be like that.
I’d like to see a healthier respect for the Sabbath. We should rest and reflect and recreate and worship. That’s a good thing. But the best thing, and it is the best thing because it is what all genuine devotion leads to, is to love God and to demonstrate that love for God by loving others. In Jesus’ eyes, nothing was more important than that. Can anything be more important in our eyes?