Demand – or gift?

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One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 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.’

Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’

There’s something quite radical about what Jesus says here. The disciples are not apparently in desperate need – but even so they break the commandment not to work on the sabbath, in the eyes of the Pharisees. Jesus then justifies their action with the story about David breaking another of the commandments.

And then he says the words which I think have a lot to teach us. ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.’

The Sabbath principal runs right through the Old Testament – from the 7th day of creation, to the extra manna given the day before the Sabbath so the people wouldn’t need to collect it and break the law, through to the time when the Israelites who had been exiled in Babylon came back to Jerusalem, and rebuilt the temple, and attempted to re-establish the proper Jewish way to live, particularly by enforcing the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath was a central marker of being a faithful Jew.

Jesus doesn’t set aside the law completely – I’m sure that he had kept the sabbath since his childhood. But he changes the way of thinking about it. This is not a restriction imposed by God, but a gift offered by God. It isn’t a boundary marker, or a challenge to see how faithful you can be. It is more grace than law.

I went to an open Friday evening service at the synagogue recently, and one of the themes of the service was great thankfulness for this gift of the sabbath. And talking with Atique our Muslim chaplain, this is also the way that he sees fasting in the month of Ramadan – as a gift and a joy.

I’m not sure that’s how Christians have always treated the Sabbath – but I think the principal goes wider than this. Do we see our religious faith as something which places demands on us, or something which frees us? Are we trying to please God, or learning to enjoy him?

It’s not easy to let go of the ways of thinking we have sometimes learned. Occasionally now, because I don’t have to be in church on a Sunday, I decide not to go – especially if we’re seeing the family. But I don’t find it easy – there’s still a big ought there somewhere.

The difference between the underlying attitudes of Jesus and the Pharisees showed itself in the very different ways they interpret the Sabbath law. This might not be the biggest issue for us now – but the same contrast has something to say on other questions like the divisions about sexuality. Can we see sexuality as more to do with gift than restriction? Can we stop treating it as a test we need to get right, and more about the boundless generosity of God?

I think this may make a difference even to the way we get out of bed in the morning. Do we see each day as a series of challenges and tests and our job is to do our best to find the right way through? As someone said to me earlier ‘we battle on’… Or do we have a sense of each day as a gift from God – although not necessarily an easy one. There’s a poem I’ve been trying to remember which says something like: ‘why don’t you live your life as if it’s the gift you say it is.’

  • Jesus, you are not just Lord of the sabbath, but Lord of our lives. Help us to see where we have got caught up in rules and restrictions and being right. Set us free from attitudes which do not come from you…
  • Jesus, our Lord and companion, as we begin each day, give us a renewed sense of the gifts that await us. Help us not march with clenched fists, but to walk with open hands…
  • Jesus, Lord of love, we thank you for the patterns for living which you have given us. May your guidance help us to grow into life in all its fulness, and may we know always the depth of your grace…

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