“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”

Keeping the sabbath has created controversy over the centuries. In Mark 2:23-28, we read what Jesus had to say about it.

As Jesus was passing through a field of grain on the sabbath,
his disciples began to make a path while picking the heads of grain.
At this the Pharisees said to him,
“Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”
He said to them,
“Have you never read what David did
when he was in need and he and his companions were hungry?
How he went into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest
and ate the bread of offering that only the priests could lawfully eat,
and shared it with his companions?”
Then he said to them,
The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.
That is why the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Much was made of the sabbath in the past to suggest that the world was to shut down on that day. The commandment says to keep the sabbath day holy. But what does that really mean? Today it means a myriad of things to different people. To businesses, it often means slightly shorter hours, but someone has to work, although some more conservative businesses do shut down. To most Jews it means you cannot do any kind of labor, including turning on or off light switches. To Catholics it means attending Mass regularly, at least weekly. To Protestants it means attending services every Sunday, sometimes multiple times a day, and sometimes it means doing nothing ungodly, including watching television, or going to a movie, or partying.

In this Gospel according to Mark, Jesus has an interesting take on the sabbath. He says the sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. God set aside the seventh day – the sabbath – for rest. But to what purpose? Surely not just to lay around. Surely He didn’t intend to deprive. Perhaps the key is in the wording of the commandment, which is in the keeping of the sabbath day as holy. And how can we do that? Surely the sabbath was set aside as a day to appreciate God’s works, His creation, and most important, His love. We can do that while we’re doing other things, as long as our focus is on His love. That includes while serving others or having communion or community with them.

When Jesus was traveling with His disciples through the field of grain on the sabbath, likely they were communing, being community. Picking grains to feed themselves would not have interrupted that. And so it can be with your activities on the sabbath. You can be doing things in the spirit of the Lord’s Day, mindful of God and His love, serving others in community. Should you actually work on the sabbath? If it is in the service of others, honoring God’s creation, and done with love.

There has always been controversy over how to observe the sabbath. Everyone needs a time of rest and worship, but Jesus shows us it doesn’t have to be done just one way — Jesus himself regularly took time out to pray away on his own. And He frequently admonished the Pharisees for being sticklers for rules. In this reading from Mark, He tells them that the sabbath is for man. We decide how to observe the sabbath, not the Pharisees.

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