Jesus said to them (the Pharisees), “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Luke 6
We often hear the Pharisees (Jewish teachers of the Law) cast in a bad light. They are legalistic and contrary to the will of God, we say. Jesus has come to overturn their bad ways and replace them with grace and the freedom that only Jesus can bring.
While in some ways that is true, it is also true that the Pharisees were the more liberal and egalitarian wing of Jewish leadership. While many segments of Judaism focused on the temple and the role of clerics, Pharisees were more focused on empowering synagogues and people to function, especially after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. This means that Pharisees were closer to Jesus’ teaching than most other wings of Judaism. It also meant that the followers of Jesus (also a Jew) saw more competition from the Pharisees as Christianity emerged than from other sects within the Jewish religion.
Luke tells us these stories to mark a line in the sand for followers of Jesus. There is a purpose for the Sabbath – Jesus is not eradicating Jewish practice and Law. But there is a higher authority now – Jesus. Jesus is not here to destroy what came before him. But he is here to deepen our understanding of what it means to be faithful in a complex and often difficult world.
The bottom line is that if a person has a need that can only be met by not complying with Sabbath practices, that need trumps the Sabbath practice. This is not to be taken lightly. If someone is truly hungry and needs to eat, go ahead and do the work to feed them. If someone is in need of healing on the Sabbath, heal him or her in spite of the Sabbath practices. Note that human need is a deeper calling than the practice of Sabbath. This is not a call to slothful ignoring of God’s desires. But it is a clear focus that if love is called for, the Sabbath is no reason to withhold that love.
Of course, in our world today we have gone the other direction. We have somehow internalized that Sabbath is a flexible principle and we can do what we want. The verse above reminds us that if we think that, we are wrong. The Sabbath belongs to the same God who has come to us in Christ. Honoring Sabbath has always been about making God first and setting aside a time to honor that reality. That doesn’t mean Sabbath doesn’t matter. On the contrary. It elevates how much it does matter and reminds us that it is not our desire for flexible free time that are to guide our actions. Rather, we are to discern the call of Christ and make Sabbath a time for focusing and doing only what Jesus asks. Often that will call us together for worship and Christian community. Sometimes, Jesus may direct us to do something else, not always because we want to but because love demands it.
While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy.