Summary: What is a Christian to do with the Sabbath? What to do with Sunday... should we work on Sunday? Should we treat it like the Sabbath of the First Testament? Jesus gives us some guidance...
Lord of the Sabbath
What is a Christian to do with the Sabbath? What to do with Sunday. Should we work on Sunday? Should we treat it like the Sabbath of the First Testament? This question has given rise to whole denominations. It has made some feel very guilty about doing rather minor things. Jesus gives us some guidance:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, "Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath." He answered, "Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread--which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple desecrate the day and yet are innocent? I tell you that one greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ’I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." (Matthew 12:1-8 NIV)
What is going on?
To our ears, what the Apostles were doing sounds almost like theft, but Moses’ law provides for it. Deuteronomy does not specify who may do it, but it probably provides for the workers in the field or the poor. To be walking through a field and pick some of the crop and eat it as you were walking was generally ok. Nobody would have thought a thing of it. The only exception would have been if the person began filling a bowl and taking it home. That was a no-no.
However, the Talmud indicates that it is one of many specific types of work that were expressly forbidden on the Sabbath. Generally speaking a person should not be walking out in the fields anyway, unless they were going someplace appropriately close on the other side. Presumably, there would be permissible food there too.
This of course, raises a secondary question. What were the Pharisees doing out in the field on the Sabbath?
Most of the Pharisees were not even in Galilee, because they would have mostly stayed closer to the Temple. But, Jesus is out in the field and they seem to be following Him around. The Gospel writers paint a picture for us of a group practically stalking Jesus to catch Him and His disciples in a mistake.
So they confront Him: This is Sabbath breaking!
Sabbath breaking is serious business. When Jews governed themselves, it was a death penalty offense. However, we are told in the gospels that Roman governance forbade the Jews from enforcing the death penalty except in the Temple. This restriction made space for more debate about what constituted Sabbath breaking. And there was debate.
So, in the indirect way Jesus had of dealing with questions, He reminds them of a story.
David and his men ate the Tabernacle Show Bread.
This is an unusual provision for the Temple. In the holy place was a golden table. On that table there were always 12 loaves of bread on display. Each loaf represented a tribe of Israel. This bread was baked by a specific recipe and replaced every Sabbath by the High Priest. Last week’s bread was then eaten by the other priests in a holy place, because the bread was considered sacred.
When David and his men first ran from Saul, He stopped at the Tabernacle to ask for some food. The Priest didn’t have anything to give them, so he gave them the show bread. This was a breech of protocol. But David was obviously in need.
The infraction is both about the Sabbath and about food. It was a violation of the last Sabbath, because the table would not be refreshed until the coming Sabbath. It was also sacred food, meant to be eaten by priests in a holy place. But David and his men had nothing to eat.
So, Jesus reminds them that laws, even laws about the Sabbath are to be tempered by mercy.
The second idea Jesus mentions is an inevitable paradox. If there is a time when everybody else has off and is supposed to be participating in your work, your job is just beginning. If you work retail, you know this best. People shop when they are off, which means you are at work.
All people were to rest and sacrifice on the Sabbath. But according to Numbers, the priests had to raise the sacrifices to God on the day when everyone else was resting. Hence, the people who conducted the sacrifices could not rest. And yet, they were not guilty of breaking the Sabbath.