Jesus and the Sabbath Rest

MANY OF THE GOSPEL PASSAGES chosen for Saturday Liturgies recount the Lord Jesus’ activity on the Sabbath. Often these narratives describe the conflict Jesus had, particularly with the Pharisees, over His behavior which they felt desecrated the Sabbath.

Observant Jews in every age have revered the Sabbath as one of most important signs of their relationship with God. Its observance is documented from the time of the exodus from Egypt, although the Torah describes it as instituted in Paradise: “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:2, 3).

For Jews the Sabbath is the most important of the Jewish feasts; a foretaste of the world to come. The Sabbath is a day of rest “holy to the Lord” (Exodus 31:15), on which even slaves were released from their labors. The weekly day of rest has no parallel in any other ancient civilization. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes only, never for the serving or laboring classes. In addition, the very idea of rest each week was unimaginable. The Greeks thought Jews were lazy because they insisted on having a “holiday” every seventh day.

The Sabbath is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment in remembrance of the Lord’s rest at the end of creation. For observant Jews, the Sabbath is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when people can set aside their everyday concerns and devote themselves to higher pursuits.
Observing the Sabbath has insured the identity of the Jewish people over the ages. In the words of the popular Jewish saying, “more than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” 

Defiling the Sabbath

From the beginning violating the Sabbath was considered a great offence against God. According to the Torah, “Everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.  Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 31:14, 15). When a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath contrary to the Lord’s command, he was stoned to death by the community (cf., Numbers 15:32-36).  Thus it was clear from the very beginning that this day of rest was not to be taken lightly.

By Jesus’ time the death penalty for violating the Sabbath was no longer in force. The moral authority of the Sabbath had increased, however. The Pharisees and others observant Jews elaborated new precepts to insure a “pure” observance of the Sabbath. Thus some taught that on the Sabbath Jews were supposed to remain distant from their Gentile neighbors: “Do not remain near to the Gentiles on the Sabbath” – they would be defiled and thus defile the Sabbath.

Some Rabbis taught that, if even one Sabbath were rightly kept the Messiah would appear; if all Israel were to observe two successive Sabbaths as they should be observed, redemption would immediately occur. It should not surprise us, then, that, when Jesus “violated the Sabbath” by working (healing the sick), “the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him” (Mark 3:6).  

Lord of the Sabbath

On the First Saturday in the Cycle of St Luke the Gospel passage read described how Jesus cured a man with an unclean spirit. In Luke 6:1-10 we read what happened on the “second Sabbath after the first,” (v. 1), i.e. two weeks later.

The Lord is criticized for plucking ears of grain on the Sabbath. They considered this to be work, a violation of the day of rest. The Lord replies, not saying that plucking grain is allowed on the Sabbath, but with an example from the history of the Israelites: “Have you not even read this, what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he went into the house of God, took and ate the showbread, and also gave some to those with him, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat?” (vv.3, 4). 

The showbread, called in Hebrew the bread of presence, consisted of twelve loaves placed on a table in the temple near the altar of incense, representing the constant self-offering of Israel before God. Each Sabbath the bread was to be replaced with newly baked loaves. The older loaves were to be consumed by the priests.

The incident to which Jesus referred took place when the young David was on a secret mission for King Saul. He asked the priest for some food for himself and his escort: “‘Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever can be found.’  And the priest answered David and said, ‘There is no common bread on hand; but there is holy bread, if the young men have at least kept themselves from women.’  Then David answered the priest, and said to him, ‘Truly, women have been kept from us about three days since I came out. And the vessels of the young men are holy, and the bread is in effect common, even though it was consecrated in the vessel this day.’ So the priest gave him holy bread; for there was no bread there but the showbread which had been taken from before the Lord, in order to put hot bread in its place on the day when it was taken away” (1 Samuel 21:3-6).

In contrast to the rigidity of the Pharisees, the priest in David’s time felt free to share the leftover showbread with the king’s servants. Also in Matthew’s longer narrative of the incident Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Have you not read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless?” (v. 5) Matthew’s audience of Jewish believers would have understood the reference; Luke’s community of Gentile believers probably would not, hence Luke omits it.

In his Commentary on Matthew St Jerome explains the passage this way: “You yourselves violate the Sabbath when sacrificing victims in the Temple: slaughtering bulls, and… circumcising little children on the Sabbath.” Every rule has its exceptions.

But the deeper significance of the incident is this: Jesus dispenses with the Sabbath rule as the priest Ahimelech had done. He is the priest with authority over the temple and the Sabbath; as He tells the Pharisees, “ Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple …the Son of man is also Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:5; Luke 6:5). The Pharisees’ aim of perfect Sabbath observance in order to bring in the Messiah is futile: the Messiah has already come.