Best of Daily Reflections: The Purpose of the Sabbath, Part 2
Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him.
This story from Mark 3 begins with Jesus in the synagogue on the Sabbath. When a man with a deformed hand approached Jesus for healing, his opponents watched to see if Jesus would heal on the Sabbath, a clear instance of working, according to their interpretation of Sabbath law. Before healing the man, Jesus confronted his adversaries with two questions: “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” (3:4). Yet the opponents of Jesus didn’t answer.
The Pharisees could have answered Jesus’ questions in a way that expressed their convictions: “The law does permit good deeds on the Sabbath,” they might have said, “but only certain kinds. We’re not permitted to do good deeds if they are work. We can save a life on the Sabbath, even if this requires work. Of course, we’re not supposed to kill.” The Pharisees might have continued, “Jesus, this man is not in a life-or-death situation. You can wait until tomorrow to do the work of healing.” Yet Jesus would not have agreed because he saw the purpose of the Sabbath more broadly. It was a day not just for saving life in the most literal sense, but also for doing that which enriched and enhanced life. It was a day for wholeness.
I wonder if the Pharisees chose not to answer Jesus, not because they didn’t have what they believed to be a theologically compelling response, but because they knew very well what was coming. One can debate the theology of the Sabbath all day, but when one of the debaters heals a deformed hand by the power of God, that rather ends the debate and crowns the winner.
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. However we understand Sabbath-keeping, surely we would all do well to set aside a regular time each week for doing that which contributes to wholeness, both of ourselves and of others. Yes, yes, we should be doing this sort of thing all week. But the demands of work, broadly defined, sometimes keep us from doing that which contributes to wholeness in ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our friends, our churches, and our communities. One purpose of the Sabbath, according to Jesus, is to save life in a broad, wholistic sense.
FOR REFLECTION: Do you set aside regular time each week for doing things that contribute to wholeness? Why or why not? How might you do this in your life? What would help you to fulfill this purpose of the Sabbath?
PRAYER: Gracious Lord, thank you for being a God who values life, who saves life. Thank you for all you have done to help me to be whole. Thank you for doing this same work in countless millions of people, from those in my family to those across the world.
You have set apart a day each week for doing that which “saves life.” Help me to know what this means for me and my life. Give me the courage, Lord, to look at my life from your perspective. Teach me how I should think about the Sabbath as a day for saving life. Help me to know how I might faithfully honor this purpose of the Sabbath, without falling into legalism that extinguishes the very life of the Sabbath.
Finally, dear Lord, may I be someone who “saves life,” not just in special times, but in all times. Help me to be a channel of your healing power in every aspect of my life. To you be the glory. Amen.