Lord of the Sabbath
Lord of the Sabbath
We’ll be returning to St. Luke’s Gospel this morning with a look at Chapter 6 and a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Sabbath. We’ve had a bit of a break, so remember that this morning’s passage brings to a close a section that began in Chapter 4. In these chapers Luke gives us a series of vignettes showing Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Jesus preached that he had come to bring sight to the blind, release to the captives, and good news to the poor and in each of these episodes we see him doing just that in some way or another. And in each of these episodes, Luke puts emphasis on showing us who Jesus is, the nature of his ministry, and he especially shows us who precisely these “poor” are. They aren’t necessarily the “poor” that most people expected the Messiah to minister to. For the most part they were outsiders. People had heard that a man who just might be the Messiah had come, but Jesus doesn’t act the way most of them expected the Messiah to act. They expected him to save God’s faithful people from their pagan oppressors. But what we’re starting to see is that Jesus is identifying a bigger problem. Jews didn’t need to be saved from the oppression of pagans. No. What was really needed was for Jew and pagan alike to be saved from the oppression of sin and death. And so each of these episodes also points to Jesus as lord over sin and death.
And this got the attention of the Pharisees. Word got around and in Chapter 5 the Pharisees started checking up on Jesus. In today’s lesson we see just how concerned they had become. Remember that the Pharisees had no legal authoritative status in Judaea. They were a protest group opposed to the conservative and compromising ruling party, the Sadducees. Their concern was that Israel had compromised too much and for too long and that when she finally returned to faithful torah observance, God would finally come and end her long exile, that God would finally return and re-establish his presence with his people. Jesus was undermining their agenda. They were all about purity and excluding impure outsiders, but Jesus was welcoming in the outsiders. And as we see now, they’re concerned enough to be following him around and spying on him. They’re digging for dirt: for grounds to make some kind of formal charge against him with the authorities. Look at verses 1-2:
On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?”
That this incident took place on the Sabbath is the key. Jesus’ disciples weren’t stealing. According to Deuteronomy 23:25 you could eat your fill from someone else’s vineyard so long as you didn’t take grapes away in a bag. You could pluck wheat from someone else’s field, so long as you didn’t start harvesting the grain with a sickle. According to the law, a hungry traveller could eat from someone’s field or vineyard; that wasn’t stealing. Again, the problem for the Pharisees was that the disciples did this on the Sabbath. It’s very unlikely they would have made a fuss over this sort of thing ordinarily, but they make an exception for Jesus. Again, they’re looking for dirt and hoping to put together a formal charge against him.
As far as Sabbath regulations went, the law itself didn’t forbid “plucking” grain this way. It did forbid “harvesting” on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21), but over time the scribes—the lawyers—interpreted “plucking” as a form of “harvesting”. That’s the basis for the Pharisees’ charge. From that later tradition they could also have accused the disciples of “threshing”, “winnowing”, and “grinding” on the Sabbath because of the way they rubbed out the grain before they ate it.
To us it seems like quibbling over minor technicalities, but most Jews wouldn’t have seen it that way. Notice that even though the Pharisees’ accusation isn’t based strictly on the law, but on a later interpretation of the law, they didn’t have to explain themselves. Everybody more or less accepted this interpretation. And they accepted it because the Sabbath was at the core of their identity as God’s people. And being surrounded by gentiles and essentially living in exile reinforced the importance of their separate and distinct identity. At the core of their identity and their separateness were three things: circumcision, food, and Sabbath. Jews were circumcised; they bore the visible sign of God’s covenant. They ate only clean food and they didn’t eat with gentiles. And while the gentiles were labouring away every Saturday, the Jews kept the Sabbath, as we would say, “religiously”. Even the pagans understood how important these markers were to the Jewish identity. Greeks and Romans occasionally wrote about the oddness of the Jews’ practise of observing the Sabbath and periodically the pagan rulers would try to demoralise the Jews by arresting rebels or leaders and forcing them to eat pork. Circumcision, food and Sabbath: these were the things that Jews of Jesus’ day saw the main markers of their special identity and the things that set them apart.
And so in accusing Jesus’ disciples of violating the Sabbath, what they’re doing is accusing them of abandoning God and his covenant. If they can make the charge stick, they can undermine Jesus’ credibility—people might start looking at him as an “outsider”.
What’s really interesting is Jesus’ response. We might expect him to defend himself: “No, my friends. We’re not violating the Sabbath. Go back and look at what Moses wrote. Stop being so legalistic!” But that’s not the direction Jesus goes at all.
And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:3-5)
Instead of arguing with the Pharisees about the legal niceties of Sabbath observance, Jesus tells them a story. The story comes from 1 Samuel. David had been anointed king, but Saul was still on the throne. For years David was forced to travel the countryside as something of an outlaw with his band of men. On this particular occasion, David and his men were in trouble and sought help at the tabernacle from a priest named Ahimelech. Specifically, David asked him for some loaves of bread to feed himself and his men. But the only bread Ahimelech had on hand was the “bread of the presence”. This was specially consecrated bread set aside in the tabernacle each Sabbath. It was an offering brought by the people and the law said that it was only legal for the priests to eat it. But Ahimelech saw David’s need and decided to give mercy priority over strict adherence to the law. He made sure that David and his men were pure—ritually “clean”—and gave the bread of the presence to them to eat.
Jesus reminds the Pharisees of this story by asking them, “Have you not read?” Of course they knew the story, but Jesus’ point is that they haven’t understood it. Jesus confrontations with the Pharisees have repeatedly done two things: First, he rebukes the Pharisees for their lack of understanding; and, second, he uses each confrontation to assert his own identity. Here Jesus claims his right as the long-promised and long-awaited Davidic King. You see, the issue isn’t the specifics of Sabbath observance or whether or not the Pharisees were being overly legalistic or adding man-made rules to it. The issue is the person of Jesus and his mission. If David, by right of his being the anointed king, could override the law when it came to the bread of the presence, surely Jesus, who has himself been anointed King and who is himself the true King of whom David was only a type and a shadow, surely he has the right to override rules regarding the Sabbath.
David, we’re told by Scripture, was a man after God’s own heart. Despite all his flaws, David’s great desire was to do the will of the Lord. And Jesus makes the point here that he’s like David in the same way. He too is seeking to do the will of the Lord—even if it looks to them like he’s breaking the law, he’s actually being obedient to God. There’s something bigger going on here that the Pharisees don’t yet understand.
And that lack of understanding put’s the Pharisees on the wrong side of things. That’s the other part of Jesus’ rebuke. There was more to the story then Ahimelech allowing David to eat the bread of the presence. There’s a villain in the story too. The big villain is Saul. He wasn’t willing to give up the throne to David. David was on the run and needing Ahimelech’s help because Saul was out to kill him—to kill God’s anointed. But more specifically, in the story from 1 Samuel we’re also told that one of Saul’s men, a man named Doeg, was spying on David. He went back and reported to Saul what Ahimelech and David had done and as a result Saul ordered the execution of eighty-five priests, including Ahimelech. Doeg himself carried out the order. Now the Pharisees knew that David was the hero of the story and that Saul and Doeg were the villains, but in bringing up the story in this context, putting himself in the role of David, means that Jesus is putting the Pharisees in the role of Doeg. Like Doeg, they’re spying on him and they’d better watch out or they’ll go down in history like Doeg, who would always be known as the man who murdered Ahimelech and his priests.
And then Jesus strikes while the iron is hot. In verse 5 he says something that had to leave them gasping: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath”. This is the first time that Luke tells us of Jesus using this title “Son of Man”. This is a title that Jesus used quite often to describe himself and it comes from Daniel 7. What does “Son of Man” mean? A lot of people assume that “Son of Man” refers to Jesus’ humanity, over against the title “Son of God”, which stresses his divinity. That, actually, has nothing to do with it. The Son of Man appears in Daniel’s vision as a heavenly being, but Daniel describes him as “Son of Man” as if he’s struggling and grasping for words to describe his appearance and finally has to settle on simply telling us that “he looked like someone born of the human species”. The Pharisees understood this better than we might. They knew Daniel’s vision well. It was what they were waiting for. This “Son of Man” in the vision is the representative of God’s people and God’s kingdom and he comes in opposition to the four frightening beasts that Daniel also describes. The Son of Man is seen as a royal figure, presented before the throne of of the Ancient of Days and given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14).
If David, as king, could make a one time exception when it came to the bread of the presence, surely the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath—surely, as the eternal King, he has the right to redraw the lines for his people. And that’s exactly what Jesus has been doing. The main identifiers of the Jews were circumcision, food, and Sabbath. Insiders observed these distinctions and that’s what separated them from outsiders. The Pharisees were even more concerned about these distinctions than the average Jew. But we’ve seen Jesus repeatedly showing that his kingdom is about inclusion, not exclusion. Jesus hasn’t given up on purity, it’s just that he’s reorienting the standards of inclusion and exclusion around himself and his identity.
The second half of our passage shows all of this put to the test. Look at verses 6-7:
On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.
Notice that the Pharisees are still spying on Jesus—still following him around and still looking for evidence so that they can make a case against him. And this time they think they’ve got it. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and sitting there in the front row is a man with a withered hand. It says something about Jesus that they already knew what he was going to do. They knew Jesus routinely healed people and they knew he broke the rules. Here was the perfect setup. Luke tells us that it was the man’s right hand that was withered. That made his problem all the worse. But this wasn’t a life or death matter, which means that according to the way the scribes applied the law, this man’s healing should wait until the next day. The scribes said that you could only heal someone on the Sabbath if it was a matter of extreme urgency. Luke doesn’t say, so it’s only speculation, but you almost wonder if the man with the withered hand was a plant. It’s just too perfect. But Jesus knew. Simeon had said that he would be one who would reveal the hearts of many. Look at verses 8-11:
But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
This time Jesus avoids doing anything that violates the technicalities of the law. He asked the man to stand, to stretch out his hand, and he himself spoke. The man was healed, but nothing that had been done violated the law. Jesus hadn’t even touched the man. And that may be why the Pharisees were so angry. Yes, Jesus had healed the man, but there was nothing to make a case of. But in side-stepping the legal issue, Jesus brought everyone’s attention to the real issue. Knowing what they were after, Jesus asked them: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”
This is important. Think about the difference between how the scribes and Pharisees approached this question and how Jesus approached it. For the scribes, the Sabbath was the highest priority. Even doing good took a backseat to the Sabbath. The scribes assumed that Sabbath observance was the highest priority and then asked how necessary something “good” had to be in order to supersede the importance of the Sabbath. For Jesus, on the other hand, doing good and giving life was the highest priority and everything else—even the Sabbath—took a backseat to that. Do you see how they’re coming at the issue from very different directions and with very different priorities? Yes, the Sabbath was one of the essential markers that set apart God’s people. They were called to be a light to the gentiles and the observance of the Sabbath was part of their testimony of faith in the Lord. But even more important than the Sabbath as a part of their testimony was doing good and giving life.
This Sabbath problem highlights the much bigger problem we’ve been seeing all along. The bigger problem may have been exemplified by the Pharisees, but it was a problem endemic in Israel. It was their failure to be the light that God had called them to be. The law was intended to be a means for a holy people to reach out to a sinful world with the light and grace of God. But that’s not what the Jews had done. Yes, the law was the charter of the covenant community; it was what distinguished “insiders” from “outsiders”, but it had been given as a means to reach out to the outsiders and to bring them in. But instead of reaching out, the Jews had simply used the law to draw a protective boundary around themselves, keeping everyone else on the outside and then waiting for the day when the Lord would send his Messiah to rescue the “in” people and to vindicate their faithfulness to the law while smiting and destroying all of the “out” people.
Jesus is showing that he’s now come to take up that failed mission himself. He’s revealing the light to the outsiders and inviting them to come to the inside. Jesus knew that, yes in fact, the Lord will one day come and justice will be done. The faithful will be vindicated and the faithless destroyed and punished, but because the Lord is merciful and gracious, he’s provided a means for salvation—a way to go from being on the outside to being on the inside. That’s Jesus’ mission. That’s the “good” and that’s the “giving of life” at the heart of Jesus’ priorities. And that’s why we see Jesus, stepping in as Lord and as sovereign king, redrawing the boundaries.
Jesus is working to reshape the people of God. He’s creating God’s New Israel. Here at the beginning, as we see in the early part of Luke’s Gospel, he’s drawing Jews back to what should have been their first priorities: doing good, healing, giving life. But in the process, he’s also redrawing the lines of the kingdom so that he can invite the outsiders in to take part in it. Jesus reorients the identity of the kingdom and of God’s kingdom people around himself as he fulfils himself the promises given to Adam, to Abraham, and to Israel and as Jesus himself fulfils the failed missions of Adam, of Abraham, and of Israel. Consider how, in telling the story of David eating the bread of the presence, Jesus reoriented David’s story around himself. Jesus is now the great Davidic King. Consider what we saw during Holy Week and our Easter celebration, as Jesus reoriented the Passover around himself, showing that all along the people had been celebrating the Passover in anticipation of his coming, his death, and his resurrection. This is why, for Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus—a “New Passover” have replaced the old Passover as the central focus of our year. It’s also why we celebrate Jesus reoriented Passover—the Lord’s Supper—every Sunday. But the fact that we gather on Sundays also points to Jesus’ reorienting of the Old Covenant around himself. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus has himself become our Sabbath rest. Everything the old Sabbath represented has been fulfilled in Jesus. When he rose from death on that first Easter Sunday, Jesus ushered in a new age and a New Covenant. For the early Christians the old “week” was done. In fact, they often referred to Sunday as the “Eighth Day”—the day on which Jesus began a new week and a new age and a new way of life.
Brothers and sisters, our calling now as Jesus’ people is to live out the life of the new kingdom and the new age. Our calling is to be light in the darkness. It’s easy to fall back into old way—to be like the Pharisees: drawing the boundaries of the kingdom around ourselves, hunkering down and living out our piety personally, but praying and waiting for the day when God comes to destroy all the sinners on the outside. It’s easy to fall into that way of thinking—thinking that everyone on the outside is the enemy. But as we celebrate Easter, remember, brothers and sisters, that the people on the “outside” aren’t the enemy. Sin and death are the true enemies and Jesus conquered them when he died and rose again. Our calling is to carry the Good News that Jesus is Lord—even over sin and death—to the world and to all those on the outside and in the darkness. Let us never use the boundaries of the kingdom as an excuse to avoid doing good or to excuse not carrying our life-giving message to the world.
Let us pray: Almighty God and Father, you sent your Son to die and rise again that we might have life and that our old enemies, sin and death, would be conquered. Give us courage to live out the new life and the new mission we’ve been given. Keep us faithful in carrying the light and life of the Risen Jesus to the world. We ask this in his name. Amen.