Lenten Reflection - Mark 2:23-3:6 by Tony Baker
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” 3 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there.2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand,“Stand up in front of everyone.” 4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. 5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Mark 2:23-3:6
Sabbath: God’s day of rest, and the day that God shares with us, so that we can rest in and with God. It’s one of the great themes of the Old Testament, and evidence of God’s graciousness. In one version of the Ten Commandments God says in essence, “There was something terribly wrong with the world when my people were slaves, since I made them to rest with me. So honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.”
The New Testament celebrates Sabbath as well. But it does so with a new emphasis: there is an ultimate rest coming, when we and God and all creation will Sabbath together; until then, the work is not yet done. John’s gospel has Jesus going around telling everyone, “It’s not Sabbath yet. The Father is still working, so I am too. And so should you!” Mark’s way of saying something similar is to show Jesus and his disciples remaining active on the day of rest. They gather grain in the fields, he heals the lame.
This does not mean that Jesus is anti-Sabbath. In fact, this is just what the Pharisees accuse him of, and he answers that they’ve misunderstood something about the Jewish scriptures if they think this. The Sabbath never meant work was “over:” if it did, then David wouldn’t have found himself so hungry that he raided the temple bread basket. The Jewish ritual of a seventh day rest is itself a kind of leaning in to a promise of the rest that will be, when hunger and thirst and lame hands are no more.
Jesus is suggesting here that God’s promise to rest with us is still good, still our great horizon, even while there is work yet to be done. Hunger and bodily suffering do not mean the defeat of Sabbath. And “rest” is not permission to stop working, as if the unfinished character of the world were something we just have to accept. It’s not: we work now as a way of sharing in God’s great six day act of creation; we rest now as a way of sharing in the still-to-come seventh day.
This why Jesus tells us that the Sabbath, God’s great and ultimate and unending rest, was made for us, not we for the Sabbath.