Lord of the Sabbath – Part 2

Keep Calm and Keep the Sabbath

On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. – Luke 6:6-11 (NIV)

This is the second of a series on Luke 6:1-11. In Lord of the Sabbath – Part I, we considered why Sabbath-keeping was so important for first century Jews.   While we often label it as rule-making, I believe it was really more about identity-keeping and community-forming. In Luke 6:5, Jesus said he was Lord of the Sabbath - but why does that matter to us today?

Sabbath isn’t just a day.

We often think of the Sabbath as a day of the week, but the law and the prophets reveal much more. Sabbath comes from the verb “to cease.” The Sabbath DAY is found in Genesis 2, when God blessed Creation and called it holy. In Exodus 20,[1] Israel receives the Ten Commandments.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. – Exodus 20:9-11

They are to cease from all work, in the same way God’s acts of Creation ceased on the seventh day.

The Sabbath YEAR is found in Leviticus. In addition to the weekly Sabbath, every 7th year was set aside as Sabbath. This Sabbath wasn’t a Sabbath from work, but a Sabbath for the land to lay fallow and for debts to be forgiven.

But in the seventh year the land will have a special sabbath rest, a Sabbath to the LORD: You must not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. – Leviticus 25:4

This Sabbath year was part of the 50 year Jubilee.

Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. – Leviticus 25:10-13

After seven Sabbath year cycles, not only was land preservation and debt forgiveness to be observed – but any land sales that had moved people from their allotted inheritance in the Promised Land was to be returned. Once every generation, everything reset back to how God intended when Israel entered the Promised Land – creating an economy and a community that was characterized by well-being, justice, and equality.

Sabbath isn’t just a day. It’s a way of life – for the individual and the community.

We can look to the prophets for some help in understanding this. Let’s look at fasting as an example. Fasting isn’t required by the Law, but Israel believed fasting was a spiritual discipline, just as we do. But fasting isn’t simply about a legalistic abstention from food and drink. The prophet Isaiah reports this reply from God when the people ask why God is not honoring their fasting:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? – Isaiah 58:5-7 (NIV)

Almost 600 years before the incarnation, God defined fasting as not simply abstinence from food but abstinence from injustice. Fasting is not just an individual act of contrition but an act honoring God through the well-being of the community. Fasting is to be about doing good rather than evil and saving life rather than destroying it. Both the law and the prophets tie the actions we do physically to a spiritual discipline that extends to the every-day living of our lives. Fasting was about more than a day of contrition – as is the Sabbath.

 

So how is Jesus Lord of the Sabbath 2,000 years ago and today?

Jesus wasn’t making himself king for a day. Jesus himself said he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets, so it seems that he is still Lord of the Sabbath. Consider Jesus’ words as he quotes the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19 (NRSV)

The “year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee year. Jesus is proclaiming a period of Sabbath. As I read this, I am reminded of the purpose of the Sabbath: to honor God, to provide relief, to restore well-being – and to define the community.  Jesus’ ministry and presence was about Sabbath.  This did not end on Easter because we have been sent out to continue Jesus’ ministry and presence in our homes, schools, places of work and communities.

 

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” – Luke 6:9

If Sabbath is more than just a day but rather a way of living our communal life…

If Sabbath is about honoring God through the well-being of the community…

If Jesus is still Lord of the Sabbath…

Then the question this passage asks of us – whether we choose to do good or evil, to save life or to destroy it – is just as relevant as it was when Jesus posed it 2,000 years ago.

As we consider the implication of Jesus’ question on our lives, I leave you with this final thought from the text. In the final verse, the religious leaders are filled with fury. This is not the word for anger. Instead, the original Greek word suggests a “lack of understanding.” In response, they began to plan what they could do to Jesus rather than accept his invitation to join him in proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. They didn’t understand what Jesus was saying about the Sabbath.

Do we?

[1] Exodus 20:9-11

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