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Lord of the Sabbath

Luke 6:1 -- 16

No drama is complete without the villain; so we have the Pharisees ever at Jesus’ side, waiting to accuse him. A man is often measured not by his words or deeds, but by what he has overcome. It is fitting, then, that the enemies of Christ are armed with the Law, given by God to Moses.

Lord of the Sabbath

Now it happened that He was passing through some grainfields on a Sabbath; and His disciples were picking the heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating the grain. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" And Jesus answering them said, "Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions?" And He was saying to them, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

(Luke 6:1-5 NASB)

The Law of Moses

We need to be particularly clear here, as times have changed. It is now the law in California that picking fruit, grain or vegetables out of the farmers field as you pass by is considered a crime. It was not always so; this law originated in the Great Depression, when the growers complained of so many Okies coming through that whole orchards were picked clean. Before then, most of America followed the laws given in the Old Testament:

  • First, any traveler was entitled to help himself[1] – by hand, not with a blade. The intent was that the hungry traveler should be shown hospitality, a virtue even in our day.
  • Next, the fields and orchards were to be harvested once, and even then not all the produce was to be gathered.[2] This was so that the poor might be able to feed themselves without the humiliation of begging.

Hospitality and charity were required. In this instance, scholars hold that the grain in question would probably be barley (judging by the time of the year). What the disciples did was in accordance with Mosaic Law – barring this question of the Sabbath.

Concerning the Sabbath

We must understand the purpose of the Sabbath if we are to understand the argument made.

  • The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week (Saturday), was a day of rest. Genesis tells us that God, in creation, rested on the seventh day. The point may be considered important; the Sabbath is mentioned over 60 times in the Old Testament.
  • To the Jew of this time, the Sabbath would be spent in the synagogue, listening to the teaching from the Law.

In short, this is a law of God, given for the benefit of men. The benefit is both the rest and the instruction.

To see the importance of this, we must remember that the Jews held that the Law was greater than life. It was assumed that a devout Jew would die any death rather than violate the Law of Moses, and history gives us several examples of this. The point has not much changed in our time; for example, husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church – giving his life for it.[3]

Indeed, the point is applicable to one and all. Martin Luther King once remarked that if a man had nothing worth dying for, he had nothing worth living for. To the Jews, the Law was worth dying for. The matter in their eyes is extremely serious.

The claim of Christ

If the Law is greater than life, we must also consider that God is greater than the Law. So even the legalist would concede that God may sanction exceptions to the Sabbath. Indeed, such exceptions are recorded; the priests find their busiest work on the Sabbath, for example.[4] As such, these regulations may be set aside for the purposes of God.

We used to understand this well in America. Before the great spiritual decline it was common to have “blue laws” – ordinances which prohibited most businesses from opening on Sunday. Exceptions were made for certain activities such as hospitals. The practical point is the one Christ gives here: the blue laws encouraged a day of rest and a day of devotion to God. The example Christ gives – of David and the bread of the presence – is a similar situation. You see the point: the blue laws were designed for the benefit of the citizenry; exceptions were made for those things with higher purposes.

So we may ask, then, what higher purposes are present to allow such activity? The answer is startling and simple: the Son of Man is present. The Law may be greater than life, but God is greater than the Law. And God the Son is present.

He proclaims his lordship over the Sabbath. We may see this in three tests which have not lost their usefulness today:

  • He is Lord over regulations – even those we impose on ourselves. Does his Lordship transcend the boundaries of our “comfort zone?”
  • He is Lord over the good gifts given to man – for he is their giver.[5] Do we use those good gifts – our talents, for example – for him?
  • He is Lord over the teachings of men, even pious and holy men.[6]

Here is a man whose very presence - the I Am – overrides the rules given in the Law. It is no wonder his opponents feared and hated him; he challenges their right to rule. His challenge is not by force – but by the power they claim, the power of God.

Mandatory Goodness

We may see the next round in the argument here:

On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching; and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees were watching Him closely to see if He healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse Him. But He knew what they were thinking, and He said to the man with the withered hand, "Get up and come forward!" And he got up and came forward. And Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?" After looking around at them all, He said to him, "Stretch out your hand!" And he did so; and his hand was restored. But they themselves were filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.

(Luke 6:6-11 NASB)

Asking the Right Questions

For those of you who consider yourself a professional of some sort, I submit to you that your mastery of that profession came in three steps:

  • First, you did everything by the rules, at someone’s direction. Everything was black and white; you followed the steps.
  • After that came a time when you understood the principles of your craft, and you applied them consistently. The rules were still there, but mostly as an example. You did not bother being consistent with the rules, but were consistent with the principles.
  • Finally – if you truly master a craft – you come to the point where you are so capable that others begin to see that you are actually building up the craft by your creative power. You still work within the principles, but you develop new ways of doing so.

May I submit to you that this is a good picture of what should have happened to the Jews of this time? Moses taught them the rules. In their rebellious experience against God, he sent them prophets to bring them to an understanding of who He is. Finally, the time of mastery arrives – the time of Christ.

The Pharisees should, by this time, have mastered at least the second step, and should have longed for the third. It is important to see why they did not:

  • First, because the legalism engendered in the rules provides a comfort to those who will not desire to grow.
  • Second, if practiced long enough, it engenders a pride that is very fierce.

So the question comes to us: are we growing in God? Or are we stuck with the rules? Are we ready to be inconsistent to everything and everyone but God?

Doing good

One of America’s early Puritan theologians, Cotton Mather, put it this way: “The ability to do good imposes an obligation to do it.” The principle is found throughout the Bible. For example[7], if you see your enemy’s ox wandering about, you are to return it to him. From this (in the parallel passages) Christ argues that you would do this for your own ox on a Sabbath – and therefore you are not relieved of this obligation even if it’s the Sabbath.

It is a distinct point of Christian theology that it is positive in nature. The command is not “don’t do what you don’t want done to you” but rather do unto others… The Good Samaritan evidences this teaching as well. We condemn those who walked on by and praise the one who stopped to help. By this judgment we judge ourselves.

There is a simple reason for this: faith without works is dead.[8] This was certainly modeled by Jesus. It is interesting to consider the difference it would have made if Jesus had refused to heal on the Sabbath. But this could not be, for mercy triumphs over judgment, love never fails.

The Great Divide

One thing is clear: the presence of Jesus divides the sheep and the goats. There is no middle ground. Indeed, he told us that he came not to bring peace, but a sword.[9] It is not easy, sometimes, to tell which side is which. But there is a pair of clues given here which may help us discern the righteous from the imitation:

  • First, the Pharisees go away in a rage – not the behavior of one who loves his enemies.
  • Second, they begin to plot with the Herodians. These are the secular humanists of their day; for the righteous, this is an alliance with evil. There can be no alliance between evil and the kingdom of God.

Reaction to hatred: prayer

It may strike you as curious: Jesus, who needed prayer the least, is the most frequent in it.

It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. And when day came, He called His disciples to Him and chose twelve of them, whom He also named as apostles: Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew; and Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

(Luke 6:12-16 NASB)

This is not just to set an example for us, though it is that. Jesus is fully man, and man benefits from prayer. But in this particular instance we can gain a great deal by watching Jesus pray:

  • Note that he prays through the night – the time of silence in the land without modern lighting.
  • See, too, that he prays alone – away from the distractions of other people, no matter how needy. It sounds pious to say that one is so busy in good works that there is no time to pray. It is also quite false.
  • Note that he prays all night. This is not the “sweet minute-and-a-half of prayer” but the long, solid conversation with the living God.
  • This is a prayer which befits the occasion. His enemies are in a rage about him – so at this time he selects his apostles. Great decisions need great prayer.

It strikes us a curious that he calls his apostles in a time of trial, but that is the way of God. When the forces of the world are at their most furious, the power of God calls forth his saints. I cannot forbear two questions:

  • Are we in such a time?
  • Is he calling you?

[1] Deuteronomy 23:25

[2] Leviticus 19:9-10

[3] Ephesians 5:25

[4] Christ uses this example in the parallel accounts.

[5] James 1:17

[6] One is reminded of the (apocryphal, I hope) church bylaws which read that “the will of God cannot be overturned except by a two thirds vote of the board of elders.”

[7] Deuteronomy 23:4

[8] James 2:17

[9] Matthew 10:34

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