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The Son of Man is Lord, Even of the Sabbath

By the Rev. David Brinton

“The Lord of the Sabbath”

Many years ago, for a period of time, I met regularly with Mary to talk about her life, what she was reading, what and how she was praying.  A recurring theme was her great love for Psalm 119, “I just love Psalm 119 – all 176 verses of it.” She would say with a big smile.  Whenever parts of Psalm 119 come up in the lectionary I think of Mary, and verse 97:  “O Lord how I love your law!”   – which seemed to sum up her whole sense of her life in Christ.  The sheer joy she felt in reciting the psalm which for her was a paradigm of God’s love for her and hers for him, the abiding trust she felt through and despite all of the vicissitudes of her often very difficult life. 

Ps 119 is not an obvious text to associate with such a spirituality.  It is a great hymn of devotion to the Torah, the backbone of all jewish law at the heart of which are the 10 commandments, the third of which is the one we hear of today in the Deuternomy reading and in the gospel, the one about keeping the sabbath day holy.   Psalm 119, like the law itself, is very long, almost tediously so on some views;  again, like the Law itself, it is often moralistic, legalistic, and therefore (some would say) not very Christian; many of its verses seem to be uttered by a self righteous religious prig:  someone who delights in his own moral perfection and condemns those who fall short.   Jesus told a parable or two about such people.

But my friend was onto something – about Psalm 119, about the psalms generally, about the jewish law and its interpretation by Jesus and finally about the law’s fulfilment in him.

For Jews the Law was and is the very presence of God among his people, and so when Jesus says in today’s gospel: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and humankind for the sabbath; so the son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath” his seemingly permissive attitude towards sabbath rules lead the religious authorities to have him arrested and executed by the Roman authorities. By allowing work of any kind such as the casual harvest of some corn and the healing of the man with a withered hand mentioned in today’s gospel,  and by calling himself the final authority on the matter, Jesus puts himself in the place of God as the source and focus of the sabbath. The worst blasphemy imaginable.

But the sabbath commandment to rest is not merely a negative prescription , about refraining from work.  It is about a holy act of thanksgiving, a positive, active, intentional religious practice:  to gather once a week to celebrate God’s creation and, in imitation of God, to rest with one’s family and community in thanksgiving, an act that is central to the social order –  it is what makes Israel, Israel.

In St. Matthew’s version of today’s gospel, Jesus’ claim to be lord of the sabbath follows immediately after these words: “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly at heart and you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  One jewish theologian active in Christian Jewish dialogue, Jacob Neusner, (according to Joseph Ratzinger in “Jesus of Nazareth”) interprets this passage to mean that Jesus – The son of man –  is now claiming to be Israel’s sabbath:  claiming that he himself is how we act like God.  Jesus’s claim to be Lord of the sabbath,  is therefore a claim to be God. 

In his book “A Rabbi talks with Jesus” (according to Ratzinger)  Neusner struggled to understand the relationship of Jesus to the Law which lies at the heart of the divine human relationship.  He rehearses the long history of rabbinic struggling with the implications of the law, all the attempts to whittle it down to its essence and concludes that ultimately what takes Jesus outside the rabbinic tradition is not in fact the exceptions he makes to sabbath observance, which were not new or unique to him, but his claim to be, in himself, the source of Sabbath, of divine rest.

Neusner decided that it was not possible for him as a faithful Jew to follow Jesus in the way he demands.  He did so with great respect for the person of Jesus and for Christian belief, always conscious of the reconciling power of love between those who disagree. But he could not as a faithful Jew accept that Jesus places faithfulness to himself at the heart of faithfulness to the Law.  “I am Lord of the Sabbath.  Follow me.  I will bring you Shabbat, rest.  I am the way, the truth and life.”

And so, for you and me:  how do we keep Sabbath?  How do we demonstrate our faithfulness to Jesus who is our Sabbath?  Yes, let us be faithful to the Christian Sabbath day – Sunday – and let us love God and our neighbour as ourselves, in the words of that rather vague rabbinic distillation of the Law that used to open every celebration of the Anglican Eucharist.  But is there more being asked of us? 

My friend Mary’s love for the law as extolled in the psalms was in fact her love for Jesus, for in it she found him.  In every stanza in every verse –in the case of Ps 119, all 176 of them – she encountered Jesus, the one who walked with her through all the valleys and shadows, as she strove to walk in his ways, the One whose uniquely undivided and sacred heart could forgive and heal her broken one.

It is in this context that we must hear those difficult passages about Jesus and the Law in which he sometimes seems to make it harsher.  Jesus intent at these moments in scripture  is to always ask us to go deeper, to our motivations, to the state of our hearts, not just our ability to keep rules, as he asks the Pharisess to do today

And so such texts cannot be used to support in any absolute way any particular position we feel is the right one in regard to controversies in our day, liberal or conservative, about capital punishment or marriage or Sunday shopping or anything else. 

Jesus does not only teach what fulfills the law, but brings that fulfillment in his own person, by love, by emptying himself, by dying and rising for all, for all whom God seeks to draw to himself, all people.  It is that Sabbath, that rest that we receive in every Eucharist and which we seek to bring to others.

And so Christian morality is not legalism, adherence to religious rules, it is not about impossible ideals no one can ever live up to, it is about the reconciling power of love. The Law, which is Christ, is Love. He died and rose so that we can walk with him, not so that we can keep rules without fault.