This is the time in the year when we move from Sunday readings going through the great themes of Christian faith (Creation at Harvest, the preparation of Advent before the birth of Jesus at Christmas, then how he was made known through Epiphany, the cost in Lent, his death and resurrection, ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit, ending with a week to think about God – phew!) to spending time on the implications. Today’s reading (Mark 2:23 – 3:6) tells us of two arguments about the Sabbath.
In twenty first century western culture, we have rather given up on a shared day of rest. Not only do we need people to keep the hospitals open and the lights on, we assume we can go shopping, or for a meal. The cost, often paid by the poor who have to take jobs which prevent them spending time with their families, is seldom considered. But lack of rest affects many, who are constantly busy, often tired, and stressed. Perhaps Christians need to reflect on the Sabbath principle.
The commandment to free the seventh day from work is found in the ten commandments. Exodus 20 (verse 8ff) relates it to the creation – saying in effect that the need to stand back and rest is part of how we are made. Deuteronomy 5 (verse 15), repeating the command, takes it to the release from slavery in Egypt. Either way, the observance of a seventh day of rest became a distinctive characteristic of Jewish people.
Unfortunately, the principle was overlaid – perhaps even strangled! – with human traditions. Jesus disciples are criticised, not for doing a day’s work, but for quenching their hunger with a handful of grain. (The “work” is rubbing the ears to release the grain). Jesus kind healing is similarly seen as breaking the tradition. It will become a key issue in the conflict which will see him killed.
That leaves us to try and understand how our lives should provide for rest, worship, and practicality – for ourselves and others. The command to keep one day free at all costs in not repeated in the New Testament, though there are instructions not to neglect gathering for worship (which requires the congregation to share free time!). I hope there will be a doctor, policeman, or other emergency service available when needed – but should I be choosing to shop on a Sunday, travel on a Sunday, or make others work that day when it isn’t necessary? Jesus was hard on unthinking tradition, but never complained about the principle of having – and allowing others – sabbath rest and worship.