The Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-3:6)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

The Purpose of the Sabbath (click here to read)

In this daily reflection from The High CallingMark Roberts considers how the teaching of Jesus about the purpose of the Sabbath speaks to us today: "In a world so filled with busyness, where electronic communication invades every moment, where people are running ragged and neglecting their most important relationships, we need the gift of rest."

We have noticed already, in our discussion of Mark 1:21-34, that the Sabbath is integrated into the weekly rhythms of Jesus. The clash that takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is not over whether to observe the Sabbath but over how to observe it. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath was primarily defined in negative terms. What, they would ask, is prohibited by the commandment to do no work (Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15)?[1] To them, even the casual action of the disciples in picking ears of grain constitutes a kind of work and thus ignores the prohibition. It is interesting that they describe this action as “not lawful” (Mark 2:24), even though such a specific application of the fourth commandment is lacking in the Torah. They regard their own interpretation of the law as authoritative and binding, and do not consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Even more objectionable for them is Jesus’ act of healing (Mark 3:1-6), which is depicted as the key event leading the Pharisees to plot against Jesus.

Making time off predictable and required (click here to read)

Read more here about a new study regarding rhythms of rest and work done at the Boston Consulting Group by two professors from Harvard Business School. It showed that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited. (Harvard Business Review may show an ad and require registration in order to view the article.) Mark Roberts also discusses this topic in his Life for Leaders devotional "Won't Keeping the Sabbath Make Me Less Productive?"

By contrast with the Pharisees, Jesus regards the Sabbath positively. The day of freedom from work is a gift for humanity’s good. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Moreover, the Sabbath affords opportunities to exercise compassion and love. Such a view of the Sabbath has good prophetic antecedent. Isaiah 58 links the Sabbath with compassion and social justice in the service of God, culminating with a description of God’s blessing on those who will “call the Sabbath a delight” (Isaiah 58:13-14). The juxtaposition of compassion, justice, and Sabbath suggests that the Sabbath is most fully used as a day of worship by the demonstration of compassion and justice. After all, the Sabbath itself is a remembrance of God’s justice and compassion in delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15).

The first Sabbath account (Mark 2:23-28) is triggered by the disciples’ action of picking ears of grain.[2] While Matthew adds that the disciples were hungry, and Luke describes their action of rubbing the ears of grain between their hands before eating them, Mark simply describes them as picking the grain, which conveys the casual nature of the action. The disciples were probably absently picking at the seeds and nibbling them. The defence that Jesus offers when challenged by the Pharisees seems a little strange at first, because it is a story about the temple, not the Sabbath.

Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions. (Mark 2:25–26)

Scholars are divided over how — or even whether — Jesus’ argument works according to principles of Jewish exegesis and argumentation.[3] The key is to recognize the concept of “holiness.” Both the Sabbath and the temple (with its contents) are described as “holy” in Scripture.[4] Sabbath is sacred time, the temple is sacred space, but lessons that may be derived from the holiness of one may be transferred to the other.

Jesus’ point is that the holiness of the temple does not preclude its participation in acts of compassion and justice. The sacred spaces of earth are not refuges of holiness against the world, but places of God’s presence for the world, for his sustenance and restoration of the world. A place set apart for God fundamentally is a place of justice and compassion. “The sabbath  [and by implication, the temple] was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Matthew’s version of this account includes the detail, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” from Hosea 6:6 (Matthew 12:7). This makes explicit the point that we see with more reserve in Mark.

The Purpose of the Sabbath (click here to read)

In this daily reflection from The High CallingMark Roberts considers how the question and the action of Jesus make it clear that the Sabbath is a day for saving life, not just in the particular sense of rescuing someone from a life-threatening situation, but also in the larger sense of bringing people to wholeness. 

The same point emerges in the second Sabbath controversy, when Jesus heals a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). The key question that Jesus asks is, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The silence of the Pharisees in the face of this question serves as a confirmation that the Sabbath is honoured by doing good, by saving life.

How does this apply to our work today? The Sabbath principle is that we must consecrate a portion of our time and keep it free from the demands of work, allowing it to take on a distinctive character of worship. This is not to say that the Sabbath is the only time of worship, nor that work cannot be a form of worship itself. But the Sabbath principle allows us time to focus on God in a different way than the working week allows, and to enjoy his blessing in a distinctive way. Crucially, too, it gives us space to allow our worship of God to manifest itself in social compassion, care, and love. Our worship on the Sabbath flavors our work during the week.

The topic of Sabbath is discussed in depth in the article, Rest and Work at www.theologyofwork.org. Recognizing that there is no single Christian perspective about the Sabbath, the Theology of Work Project explores a somewhat different point of view in the section on "Sabbath and Work" in the article Luke and Work.

Rabbinic traditions on this point are widespread. Most obviously, see m. Sabb 7:2 and m. Besa 5:2.

Lutz Doering, “Sabbath Laws in the New Testament Gospels,” in F. García Martínez and P.J. Tomson, The New Testament and Rabbinic Literature (Leiden/New York: Brill, 2009), 208-220.

Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas: Word, 1989), 121-130.

The Sabbath is referred to as holy in Exodus 31:14-15, picking up on the command in the Decalogue to “keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), recognizing that God himself has “consecrated” it (Exodus 20:11). This notion of holiness links the Sabbath to the temple, which is characteristically understood as “holy” (see, for example, Psalm 5:7 or Psalm 11:4) and, of course, has at its heart the “Holy of Holies.”