January 29, 2017
Did Jesus Break the Sabbath?
In his commentary for Working Preacher this week, Wesley Allen said we’ve got a tough row to hoe preaching on Jesus’ relationship with the Sabbath. The main reason is because most folks who are going to hear sermons on this subject today do not care about the Sabbath.
Most Christians have not observed the traditional Jewish Sabbath—Friday evening through Saturday evening—for centuries. And a great many of us don’t even observe a “Christian Sabbath” on Sundays anymore. We go to church, sometimes, but then we spend the rest of the day in recreation that is hardly restful, or catching up on the housework that didn’t get done during the week because we were busy working or running from one activity to another. People who are in professions that must operate seven days a week, like first responders and nurses, have always had to work at least some Sundays; but if stores are open Sunday, that means more people have to work.
I would argue that we would do well to recover the practice of Sabbath-keeping. I’m not the only one; even Prevention magazine published an article several years ago saying we are healthier physically, mentally, and emotionally—not to mention spiritually—when we take one day a week completely off.
I would not, however, argue that we need to be all legalistic about it. Oftentimes it seems, and this is a problem for Christians as well as Jews, that we want to take the gift of Sabbath—for it is a gift from a loving God—and turn it into a burden. At various times in our history, we have been so concerned about keeping the Sabbath properly that we’ve made tons of rules governing what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. It comes from an admirable impulse: we want to make sure put this gift from God to its proper use, not take it for granted or forget it altogether. But legalism about the Sabbath brings forth a backlash, which often looks like refusing to have anything to do with Sabbath at all. And so the stores are open on Sunday—the Christian equivalent of Sabbath—and, apart from going to church, if we do that, it’s just another day.
So we don’t, as a general rule, care about Sabbath anymore. But our Scripture for today is about Jesus and the Sabbath. What are we going to do about that?
There are more stories in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus gets into some kind of trouble on the Sabbath. But I think the first story in this week’s reading governs them all with its final statement.
“The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
It’s a statement about the Son of Man’s—Jesus’—relationship to this most important practice of Jesus’ own people. The other stories, in a way, are commentary, examples of what it means for Jesus to be lord of the Sabbath; this is especially true in our second episode this morning. It means a great deal more than simply that Jesus is the final authority about what he and his disciples may do on the Sabbath.
Son of Man is an eschatological title. It is a title used for a figure with a prominent role in the ushering in of the age to come—the kingdom of God, as Jesus called it.
What are some of the things we expect in the age to come? Isaiah predicted an end to war—they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks—and even that in the animal world, predators and prey would live together in harmony. Revelation tells us sickness and sin, mourning and crying and pain, will all come to an end when God’s kingdom is fully in charge in this world, and God’s faithful will be saved and occupied in endless worship. In that day, the Son of Man will sit on the throne with God and rule over heaven and earth.
We know the Son of Man as Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
As I mentioned, the other stories about Sabbath that we find in the Gospels could well be commentary on Jesus’ statement that he is lord of the Sabbath. If that’s the case, then our second episode today is an example of Jesus’ lordship over the Sabbath, as well as how the Sabbath relates to the age to come.
What we know about the age to come, where the Son of Man will sit on the throne with God, is that it will be an age of peace, justice, and wholeness. Poverty, persecution, sickness, and despair will all be things of the past. In the present age, we still have to contend with all those things; but I wonder if we could see the Sabbath as a foretaste of the age to come.
Think about this: The command to keep the Sabbath appears twice in the Hebrew Bible, once in Exodus 20 and then again in Deuteronomy 5. The language is a bit different in the two places, and those differences have some significance. In Exodus we’re commanded to remember the Sabbath, and the reason for this is that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and hallowed that seventh day for all generations. But in Deuteronomy, we’re told to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest, and to let servants, foreigners, and even livestock do the same; because we were slaves in Egypt and know what it means never to get a day off. Taken together, these two commandments mean that Sabbath is not just important because God rested on the seventh day after creating the world; it’s also important as part of our responsibility to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
So, in Luke 6, verse 5, Jesus claims for himself the title of Lord of the Sabbath; then in the rest of today’s reading, we have an example of what that means.
With Jesus at the synagogue that day was a man who had a physical disability, described as a “withered right hand.” Whether he was born that way or whether it was the result of an injury or some other misfortune later in life is not explained, and probably isn’t important.
Jesus calls the man to stand before him, and makes him an object lesson in the continuing argument he’s having with the Pharisees and scribes. “Okay, you’re so concerned about what is lawful on the Sabbath, so how about this: Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath? And is it possible that, if the chance presents itself to do somebody some good, then not doing it is the same thing as doing actual harm?”
Then he heals the man’s hand, simply by having him stretch it out.
The age to come will be a time of wholeness, when illnesses and disabilities will be healed. For now, on the Sabbath, the Son of Man, who is Lord of the Sabbath, brings wholeness and healing to one man, and shows us what will be available to us all one day. The Sabbath, when we observe it, gives us a taste of what is to come.
 Read his commentary at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3001.
 See Wayne Muller’s book Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam Books, 1999). Muller actually asserts that a society that does not make space for a Sabbath of some kind is a violent society.
 Isaiah 2:4
 Isaiah 11:6-9
 See Revelation 7:15-17; 21:3-4.
 I learned this week that the rabbis derive great importance from the fact that, in Genesis 1, humanity is created on the sixth day, and thus their first full day of existence is a Sabbath day.
 Micah 6:8