by David Baer, June 3, 2018
Text: Mark 2:23-3:6
One day this week my family found itself triple-booked on one of our kid’s schedules. That seems to be an increasingly common occurrence for us, and when I mentioned it to one of the other parents at the school, he said it was the same in his family. There are too many legitimate, worthwhile activities calling for your attention simultaneously, and so you have to run a sort of triage. How important is the event, objectively speaking? Is it a championship game, or a dress rehearsal for a performance? And what is the marginal cost of your not being there? For example, on my daughter’s softball team, if they don’t have enough players, the team has to forfeit the game, and so if the team is running short of available players that day, it tips the scales heavily toward softball for us, because we don’t want to be the cause of a forfeit.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Far from it—all these conflicts arise because of the rich diversity of experiences that we parents in this area are able to provide for our kids, and if we choose something for them, it’s because they have genuine interest and enjoyment in it. For the most part, this busyness is the good kind of busyness.
There is a good kind of busyness, isn’t there? If you’re a contractor, it’s probably better to be busy, better to be working jobs, than to be beating the bushes for new work. In that case, being busy lends purpose and security to your days. On the other hand, if you’re a police detective who investigates violent crimes, there’s got to be a part of you that doesn’t want to be busy. If you’re busy, it’s because of something that means bad news for your community and the people who live in it. Saying you’re busy doesn’t give any information about the quality of activity in your life—only the quantity of activity.
Author Tim Kreider wrote an essay about busyness, where he remembers hours of unstructured time when he was a child, time he filled with reading the encyclopedia or throwing dirt clods at his friends. And he contrasts those experiences with his adult life, where busy friends can’t even find time to hang out with one another. Kreider believes that we choose to be busy because we secretly fear that our lives don’t much matter. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance,” he writes, “a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”1 His solution is to retreat to a part of the country where it is difficult to access his e-mail, a place where solitude and boredom make it possible for him to write. He believes idleness itself is nourishing.
In ancient Judaism—and still today, among observant Jews—God enforced a day of idleness, the Sabbath, or seventh day of the week. The Sabbath was a day for the sake of life. On the seventh day of creation, God rested from working on it. God took a break from molding and shaping the creation, stepped back, and gave the creation a day to be itself. On the Sabbath day, creation was not the target of God’s activity, but the target of God’s love and appreciation. This was a day for the sake of life.
And later on, after God freed the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, God gave them the commandment to observe the Sabbath day as well. And they were also instructed to let their own slaves rest on the Sabbath. Because the Sabbath was meant to be a day for the sake of life, a life of freedom, not bondage. Sabbath rest is the privilege of a free people, and a sign of hope for those still held captive, that life is aimed at peace and enjoyment, not endless servitude.
For thousands of years, Jewish teachers have argued about what it means to keep the Sabbath. In today’s gospel text, Jesus is engaged in a running battle with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance. Now, what gets Jesus in trouble is not arguing with the Pharisees. They’re teachers of the law, and because of this, they love a good argument! There’s an old Jewish saying, “Two Jews, three opinions!” The right interpretation of the Torah is always fair game for vigorous debates. No, what gets Jesus into trouble isn’t what he says about the Sabbath, but what he says about himself. Jesus isn’t here to change the meaning of Sabbath, but to claim lordship over it.
In the first episode, Jesus’ disciples are helping themselves to heads of grain as they walk through a field on the Sabbath. The Pharisees take issue with this—the disciples are harvesting, they say, and harvesting is work, and work is forbidden. Jesus responds with a story about King David and his men, who procured sacred bread from a place of worship to eat when they were hungry and on a mission. Jesus is saying that he’s like David, who was God’s anointed one. Jesus is saying that he’s the Messiah. Normally on the Sabbath people eat what they had prepared the day before, and that means eating at home. But Jesus is on a mission. He and his disciples are on the move, and so they’re not at home. Jesus’ mission of sharing the good news about God’s kingdom has created this situation where his disciples needed to pluck the heads of grain, to take what food was available in order to accomplish their task.
The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life, but sometimes respecting life means jumping into action when there is an urgent need. “The sabbath was made for humankind,” says Jesus, “and not humankind for the sabbath.” But it’s unlikely he invented that saying. This was the kind of thing that Pharisees would say in an argument about Sabbath observance. When there is an emergency, when somebody’s fallen down a ditch, say, and their leg is broken, and they can’t get out, you help that person up, even if it’s the Sabbath, even if it means exerting yourself. The Sabbath rules against doing work are intended to preserve life. They’re for the sake of humanity, and if following those rules means doing harm, then you have to break them. Nobody, not even the Pharisees, would have disagreed with this general principle.
But what Jesus is saying is this—the nearness of the Kingdom of God is an emergency. The fact that now, today, God has come close enough to touch, that God’s rule is about to break in and transform this world, that all people are meant to hear this truth and reshape their lives in response—this is reason enough, for Jesus, to get up and move and eat whatever you can grab, even on the Sabbath. It’s that important.
Do you carry that urgency in your life? What would it be to live with a sense that God is working a transformation in you, that you are carrying a piece of the new creation that is struggling to be born right now? Wouldn’t the task of bringing that new creation into the world take precedence over everything else? But this is exactly the claim Jesus is making.
“The Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath,” Jesus says. The sabbath is a day for the sake of life. But Jesus is the one who sees the new life, the new creation taking shape. He’s the midwife who gets to call the shots in the delivery room. In the man with the withered hand he sees God at work. There is restoration and healing that only need to be recognized and called forth, and that’s what Jesus does. Now here it’s not even clear that anyone can nail him for doing work. All he did was say, “Stretch out your hand.” But what Jesus did do was to demonstrate his lordship of the sabbath—his ability to bring forth the new creation and the deeper rest that hurting people are longing for. It’s not Jesus’ opinions about sabbath observance that send the Pharisees scurrying off to plot his demise. It’s the claim he makes about being lord of the sabbath, something that could only be said about God.
What does sabbath look like for followers of Jesus? What does it look like for a busy people like us to observe a day for the sake of life? It starts with what Jesus says, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.” Today, the first day of the week, is our day for the sake of life. It’s the day Jesus rose from the dead. It’s day one of the new creation that his resurrection brings. And so traditionally, while every culture and language has its own names for the days of the week, for Christians this day is called “the Lord’s Day.” It’s not Sunday—it doesn’t belong to the sun, or any of the pagan sun gods. It belongs to Jesus. It’s a day to check and recalibrate our compasses, so that they point toward him.
Sometimes that looks like rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). When we rest, we remember that the world and the task of remaking it doesn’t fall on our shoulders, but on Jesus. Enjoying a meal with friends and family, or a walk in the woods, can be a way of appreciating and giving thanks for God’s gifts. What activities, what ways of spending your time, call forth thankfulness and appreciation in you? Make them part of your practice of Sabbath, but take a moment to remember the source of all good gifts. Sometimes, though, Sabbath looks like urgency, because of who Jesus is. So it’s also a perfectly good day for feeding hungry people or comforting those who are lonely or sick. The kingdom of God means hope for those who are hurting, and when God brings an opportunity to do good, there is no reason to wait.
This is a day for the sake of life, the life of the new creation in Jesus. When we set aside our weekday routines, we discover that the God who is in charge loves us, centers us, and restores us to being the people we need to be. The Sabbath is made for us. It’s a day for giving life, not denying it, for seeing and bearing witness to God’s intention for us and for our world. It looks forward to the endless Sabbath, the promise of God’s creation, old and new—to God at home with us, toil and tears banished, and light and goodness suffusing all things. The chance to live in that place once every week, if only in anticipation and hope, is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.
May you enjoy Sabbath rest today. May this and every Sabbath be a day for resetting your compass, for living with the knowledge that Jesus is Lord. And may the rhythm of your life with God, sabbath and weekday, draw you forward with hope into God’s new creation. Amen.
Tim Kreider, “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” New York Times Opinionator, Jun 30 2012. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/?smid=pl-share