One of my favourite chocolate bars is the Mars Bar. When I was growing up their slogan was “A Mars a day helps you work rest and play”. I found that more enticing to having an apple that had the slogan “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Regardless of the health differences, the Mars slogan seemed to understand the life balance: work, rest and play. God also understands the importance of life balance – work, rest and play. If it were not that important to have a life balance then God himself would not have rested: On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation. But God also knew that our human nature would forget about God’s blessings and seek to create our own blessings in much the same way Adam and Eve forgot about God’s blessings and sought to be like God rather than living under God’s blessings. So God enshrined our Sabbath rest into the Commandments: Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. But still, because of human nature, we did not trust God to bless us. When God was leading Israel to the Promised Land he provided for them manna from heaven to feed them along the journey. God would provide it – they just had to go out in the morning and collect it. But in keeping with the Sabbath Moses told Israel: On the sixth day you are to prepare what you bring in, and that is to be twice as much as you gather on the other days (so they could keep the Sabbath free from work). On other days they were to collect only what they needed so they could learn that God would give them “their daily bread”. But sure enough: some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. God promised that on the 6th day when they collected double that what they kept for tomorrow, the Sabbath, would not spoil as it would on other days. But, sure enough, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none. What we learn from all of this is that despite our disobedience, God still desires to bless us.
The Sabbath rest is God’s blessing to us – the Lord blessed the Sabbath and made it holy. But we also learn that the Commandments are also God’s blessing to us and not a way that God restricts or modifies our behaviour. Since we are created in God’s image, just as it was important for God to rest in the blessing of Sabbath so too our source of blessing comes through the Sabbath rest. This has been a source of controversy as there are some groups that insist that to receive the Sabbath blessing we must strictly adhere to the Sabbath commandment. In particular that it can only be on the original day of Sabbath – the 7th Day – that is Saturday. It is this sort of approach that caused the Pharisees in our Gospel reading to lose the understanding of God’s blessings and again turned things around and got the life balance out of kilter. What the Pharisees and teachers of the law introduced into the Commandments is what we call “legalism”. Instead of seeing the commandments as God’s gift of blessing to us they saw them as a strict code of conduct that prevented God’s punishment. Legalism is where the letter of the law is applied without any other considerations. God was not being legalistic when dealing with the Israelites but teaching them to trust that he was going to provide for them. That’s not what we see here with the Pharisees and legalism. Legalism places the law above the good of people and instead of it being a source of blessing it becomes a source of punishment for when it is broken. That’s not the intention of the commandments or the Sabbath. In fact I find it interesting that the 4th and 5th commandments are structured differently. The other commandments all have “you shall” or “you shall not”. The Sabbath commandment is “Remember the Sabbath”. The 5th Commandment “Honour your father and mother”. So these are not so much a behaviour directive or prohibition but an invitation to enter a special blessing through relationship. As Jesus said: The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; for the Pharisees, the Sabbath had simply become another part of the work cycle rather than the work and rest cycle. It meant that the Sabbath ignored the needs of the people as we see in our Gospel.
Firstly, Jesus and his disciples were hungry so they picked some grain to eat which was deemed as working on the Sabbath. That is different to what Israel did on their journey. Their picking of manna on the Sabbath was a lack of trust in God providing for them. And then Jesus is faced with the moral dilemma. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? A man living in suffering is seen by Jesus. To this Jesus asked – Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill? And that’s where the balance comes in and the wisdom of Solomon is needed. The wisdom to discern between right and wrong. When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment he said: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. But then he said: the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the law and prophets hang on these TWO commandments. We might call Jesus’ decision to heal on the Sabbaths the lesser of 2 evils – the seemingly disobedience of the commandment or to do harm by keeping the commandment. The commandments are still valid but Jesus has reminded us that they are properly defined by the Love of God and Neighbour. For example, Jesus said – You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, If I love God with all my heart then I won’t have any other gods or use his name in vain. If I love God then I will love my neighbour who has been created in God’s image. So I won’t murder or hurt them in any way. I won’t commit adultery or steal or lie or desire what my neighbour has that I haven’t. In his Catechism Luther always saw 2 sides to the commandments. The need to refrain from certain behaviours to show my love for God but also to act in certain way so I wasn’t hurting my neighbour. If we become legalistic then we’ll be like the priest and Levite who ignored their hurt neighbour because they didn’t want to defile themselves and become ineligible to serve in the temple. But the Good Samaritan stopped and helped his enemy and Jesus said “go and do likewise”.
Jesus is putting the Law back where God intended it. As a blessing to guide us and to be a way that we show our love to God and neighbour. It was never intended as an electric fence to zap us if we touched it ever so slightly. That’s why King David was able to say in Psalm 119: ‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.’ What Jesus corrects here is a misunderstanding of the commandments and uses the Sabbath as an example when he says – the Sabbath was made for humankind – not humankind for the Sabbath. In the same way we teach our children about the right ways to live not so we can punish them when they mess up but so they can get the best out of life.
God loves humanity but he knows that because of sin we can easily fall into the wrong ways. And the Sabbath was a gift from God as a way of resetting our lives each week. As we come before God we take time out from the world and its ways and hear again the ways of God. God’s ways are in our interests to protect us from spiralling out of control. And just like we need our physical rest to rejuvenate our bodies so too we need our spiritual rest to rejuvenate our souls. As human beings we don’t always like rules but the commandments aren’t rules they are the path on which God leads us to a fuller life.