This is the first of two posts on Luke 6:1-11.
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” – Luke 6:1-5 (NIV)
This passage is centered on questions regarding what is lawful on the Sabbath. As we might remember, Jesus and the religious leaders often argued about proper observation of the Sabbath. As Christian readers, we might chalk this up to rule-bound Jews who are more worried about the letter of the law than the Spirit of it. But I think this is the easy way out.
Years ago, I put together a chore list for my boys. On it were things like, clean the upstairs bathroom, put books away, clean the litter box. If you have kids, you know that this seemingly straight-forward list will result in confusion and unmet expectations. To avoid this, I did two things. First, I had them observe me as I did the chores. Second, I created a chore list that looked like this:
Clean litter box
- scoop clumps
- pour new litter in
- sweep up extra litter and food
Put books away
- walk through house and pick up books
- put books on shelves
Clean upstairs bathroom
- clean inside toilet
- wipe down outside toilet
- clean counter
- clean sink
- hang up towels
- put rags in dirty clothes
- put away cleaning supplies
If you read through Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, there are a lot of laws about keeping the Sabbath. Some of them are general: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). And some made it more specific, like the prohibition not to work (Exodus 20:10). Seems straight-forward.
But not long after, a man found out that collecting sticks for your fire on the Sabbath is work. And he was stoned for doing it (Numbers 15:32-35). The community learned that collecting sticks is work. But what about carrying the sticks you collected the day before into your house… or starting a fire with them?
Our dilemma today looks a little different. To honor the Sabbath, we might decide we can’t go into the office on Sunday but working from home is OK. Or maybe it’s not – but checking email on your phone is. Who’s to know?
Not wanting people to be stoned, the religious leaders developed more specific rules to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. By doing so, they were simply honoring and obeying God.
Like my chore list for my kids, they were trying to avoid confusion and unmet expectations.
Fast forward a thousand years or so, to the beginning of the first century. The Temple has been built twice and destroyed once. Less than 200 years earlier, Antiochus Epiphanes, one of the rulers Rome installed, desecrated the current Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus in it and slaughtering a pig. Although Israel was experienced in being ruled by foreign powers, Rome wasn’t leaving Israel alone.
By the beginning of the first century, although Herod had refurbished and expanded many Jewish holy sites – including the Temple – he had also infused Roman, empirical paganism into their land. The city of Tiberias, only a stone’s throw from Capernaum, was a thoroughly Hellenistic city. Caesarea Maritime was not only named for Caesar but also included a huge statue and temple to him as the focal point of the port.
The Jews were no longer able to keep their heads down and go about their life. Politics and culture had seeped in and could not be ignored. So it shouldn’t really surprise us that keeping the Law was especially important to these first century Jews. The Law defined their worship and community life, much of which was centered around the rhythm of Sabbath.
Therefore, keeping the Sabbath was about more than what you should or shouldn’t do. It was really about their identity as the people of God. While the sacrifices at the Temple remained important to their identity, the Jews recent history proved the limitations of the Temple. Foreign armies could desecrate it and destroy it – but Sabbath-keeping could not be taken away. As long as they kept the Sabbath, worship and community life continued. The concern of the religious leaders in this passage is more than just rule-keeping: it was identity-keeping.
The other reason, I think we relegate this passage as the Jews loving rules over everything else is because as Christians, we generally do not observe the Sabbath, other than (maybe) going to church. There are some exceptions, but our Sabbath is often reserved to an hour or so in the morning. Most people don’t struggle with the questions I posed earlier about work and email. So even if we give the Pharisees and the teachers of the law the benefit of the doubt as we read this passage, why do we even care in 2015?
We’ll consider that next time.