“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.”
The sabbath is an ancient concept. It goes back to the beginning. “In the beginning when God crated the heavens and the earth,” Genesis begins. And we hear that beautiful, poetic account of God creating everything: sun, moon, and stars; earth, winds, and waters, and every living creature from the sea creatures to the flying creatures to the land creatures. From the tiniest single-cell organisms to the largest beast, and even us, made in God’s very image. That’s a lot of work! And so after all of this creating, on the final day, the pinnacle of the creation story - we’re not the pinnacle, it is the seventh day, that’s the pinnacle - and on that day, God rested and God blessed this day, this rest, this sabbath and made it holy.
Later when the Israelites were out in the wilderness, God reminded them time and again to remember the sabbath and to keep it holy. God reminded them, God forced at times, to rest. When it was time to give them the Ten Commandments up on that mountain out in the wilderness, God made the sabbath one of the ten. It is number four: “remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.” The prophets talked about sabbath, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel. But the others touch on it also. And this concept of sabbath went beyond just one day every 7 days. But God also created a sabbath for the soil every seven years. No crops, just let the land rest. And after every seven of these seven-year cycles, God decreed a special sabbath - the sabbath of sabbaths - called the Jubilee year in which all the debts were forgiven, all property returned, prisoners and slaves are set free. A sabbath of sabbaths allowing all of humanity to rest, to restore, to reset, and eventually to wake again and try again.
This sabbath of sabbaths was the foundation of Jesus’ ministry When he gets up to read the scripture in that first sermon he gave in Nazareth right when he started his Galilean ministry, on the sabbath he went to the synagogue and he got to read the scripture, and it was from Isaiah. And that Scripture said, “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.” That expression - "the year of the Lord’s favor” - means the Jubilee year, the sabbath of sabbaths. After reading this scripture on the sabbath about the sabbath of sabbaths, Jesus sat down and gives what is probably one of the shortest sermons ever. He says, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing.“ But he is saying that this year now, in your sight, this is the year of the Lord’s favor, this is the sabbath of sabbaths.
Jesus’ ministry is all about the sabbath: “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” That is about the sabbath. It is about finding your rest in Jesus, in God, in the holy, in the divine. And with this emphasis on sabbath, on rest, it makes so much of the criticism of Jesus so interesting, because much of what he is criticized for is breaking the sabbath. As we heard today, in what is just one of several critiques about Jesus and his sloppy ways of handling the sabbath, the Pharisees said, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And there is good reason they would think that. God told the Israelites out in the wilderness not to collect food on the sabbath. God gave them enough on Friday, they wouldn’t need to collect on Saturday. There is a story in the Book of Numbers about a man who goes and collect sticks on the sabbath. He was caught and brought to Moses. Moses has to pick the punishment and chooses to stone him to death. Which is actually not surprising because Scripture also says, “Everyone who profanes the sabbath shall be put to death.” It is pretty clear. The sabbath is serious business and Scripture, or at least many passages of Scripture, seem - that’s an important word - seem to back them up. And yet here we find ourselves in our Gospel today, Jesus’ hungry disciples picking food on the sabbath. And in response to the criticism, Jesus picks up another story, reminding them of a story of David. Not David and the Sabbath, but a story nonetheless of David violating the the divine, God-given rules, about who can eat what, where, and when. The wrong people eat the wrong bread in the wrong place. because they need to. Because they are hungry. And Jesus compares this sabbath breaking to that other breaking of the law, making the David story something like an analogy for this issue. And then, he goes on to say the most interesting thing, something that really gets to the heart of the matter, the crux of the disagreement, he says “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath. I have a lot of sympathy for the Pharisees, because this David analogy is not about the Sabbath and so much in Scripture says “Do not work not the Sabbath.” There are specific stories about not collecting food on the Sabbath. The “plain meaning of Scripture” - to anachronistically apply a modern idea back to first century Palestine - was that this was wrong. “You may be hungry, you may be suffering, but I’m sorry, this is wrong, the Bible tells me so.” But Jesus goes back and asks the Why question: Why do we have the sabbath? Why did God create the Sabbath? Was the sabbath made for the sake of our rest? Or was our “rest” made for the sake of the sabbath? Is the sabbath holy because it affords us the opportunity to rest? Or do we do things that look like rest because that will make the sabbath holy?
The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath. His opponents had it flipped. They were thinking that we observe the sabbath for the sake of the sabbath. And that sort of thinking can get you to do all kinds of actually not restful things, things that make you suffer, because you are acting on behalf of the sabbath. But Jesus says that the sabbath was created for us. The sabbath is a gift given to us for the sake of our rest. And so, yes, it is okay to pluck some grains to eat if you need to, because hunger is not particularly restful. And later Jesus will deal with more criticism about breaking the sabbath because he will heal some folks on the sabbath. But it is the same thing: letting people remain in their suffering is not consistent with the purpose and meaning of the sabbath. It does not help them rest.
The sabbath was made for us, not us for the sabbath. The law, the torah, the teachings of God were made for us, made as a gift for our flourishing in this world, not vice versa. When our interpretations undermine the flourishing of any person or group of people, something has gone wrong in how we are interpreting Scripture. When I teach about Scripture, like in the Episcopal 101 class, I often like to teach the students that you have to hold up your interpretation to the lens of love. Why? Because that is what Jesus taught us to do. “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, and soul. And love your neighbor as yourself. On these two hang all the law and the prophets.” All the law, all the prophets, all of Scripture hang on love. If how you are interpreting the passage is not loving, if it does not square up with love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus teaches us, then you have to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out the interpretation again. The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath. That is an interpretation rooted and grounded in love.
This is already getting to be a long sermon: I know and I’m sorry, but we need to address one more thing before we wrap it up, so please bear with me for just a couple of more minutes. I just really need to say that this teaching on rest, this teaching on sabbath, is one that we generally pretty miserable at as a society. I know I am. We are miserable at both Jesus’ and the Pharisee’s interpretation. We don’t even try the Pharisee’s interpretation of sabbath, and Jesus, we just kind of give him some lip service to Jesus’ understanding, but we do not live our lives in accord with Sabbath. Modern American society is not good at rest. We’re not. Not to comment on any other place or time, just to comment on this place and time where I find myself. We do not not how to rest. I say this not as one who has it figured out, but as the worst offender, the chief of sinners. I do not know how to rest.
I am currently reading a book for my doctoral studies - I’m doing doctoral studies, I do not know how to rest, right? - on human development. It is called Teach your Children Well by the psychologist Madeline Levine. And her book is basically a huge critique of how we are raising our children. Among the many issues in the book, she argues that our children are over-scheduled and overwhelmed. We do not value rest as a society and we do not value rest in our parenting. We have a skewed understanding of success that is so narrow that we are robbing our children of the opportunity to fully flourish in life, because we do not let them rest in our pursuit of pushing them harder and harder to succeed.
We need to reclaim sabbath. It is a gift. The sabbath was made for humankind. Jesus’ ministry was all about sabbath and we need to find a way to embrace the sabbath rest for the sake of the flourishing of the children of God, for the sake of the flourishing of all of humanity. “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” Jesus taught. ”I will give you rest” We need to respond to this invitation by reclaiming sabbath. For it is a gift from God. Amen.